State Senator and 2018 gubernatorial hopeful Michael Williams (R) spoke at a Tea Party event at the Gainesville Civic Center on Thursday night. The event did not draw a large crowd, which was possibly due to the nasty weather, but Williams stuck around to deliver what will probably be his campaign stump speech at GOP events.
After an introduction by a member of the group named Hank (in which the Republican establishment was compared to the Phenix City mafia), Williams spoke for about an hour. After introducing himself and giving an overview of how and why he became involved in politics, Williams focused on three major issues: Trump, eliminating the state income tax, and cleaning up what he sees to be a toxic culture at the state Capitol.
On Trump, Williams brought up what will probably be one of his key 2018 talking points: He was the first elected official in Georgia to endorse Trump. He spoke of his admiration for Trump’s tapping into the public frustration with “politics as usual,” and said that he is extremely happy with and proud of the president. He used Trump to segue into his own ambition of cleaning up the state Capitol by sticking it to special interest groups, particularly those that lobby for tax credits.
Williams’ main policy point is that he wants to use his experience as a CPA to better manage the state budget, starting by eliminating the state income tax (as several surrounding states have done) and capping the state budget at whatever amount it is at when he becomes governor. Eventually he wants to create a budget surplus that will fill up the rainy day fund and trigger a tax rebate. He expressed frustration that the Republican-controlled legislature and governor had not pursued similar measures since coming into power in the early 2000s.
Williams also spoke at length about the underhanded deals that he says he witnessed at the state Capitol and his desire to end “crony capitalism.” His example of crony capitalism was the passage of the Agribusiness Rural Jobs Act, which Williams says is a giveaway to investors looking to see a return on state tax credits. Williams’ focus on tax credits persisted throughout the speech. He criticized Gov. Deal for pursuing tax credits as policy and said that they rarely amounted to more than a subsidy to special interest groups, pointing to credits for the music industry and public education investment funds that passed in 2017.
Other promises Williams made included abolishing the position of the governor’s floor leader to better preserve separation of powers (ironic given that he was speaking in Gainesville, which is home to current floor leader Senator Butch Miller), making the state school board elected rather than appointed, and repealing burdensome regulations such as liquor license restrictions related to the three tier system. He also expressed a desire to work with Democrats on the issue of religious freedom, saying that he believed there is a balance so that people on the right feel protected and people on the left do not feel like they are being discriminated against.
Williams also directly addressed a controversy that arose on Tuesday when Gov. Deal’s Chief of Staff Chris Riley, speaking at a Georgia Chamber of Commerce event, warned 2018 gubernatorial hopefuls to not trash Nathan Deal during their campaigns. Williams’ campaign sent out an email shortly after saying that “Governor Riley” was talking about him and that this was an example of the establishment trying to intimidate him. This gave further credence to a persistent state Capitol rumor that Riley has more influence over state policy than Deal.
Williams did not repeat his allegation from the GAGOP convention that Senate leaders offered him the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee if he abandoned his gubernatorial bid. However, a video of his convention remarks was played by the Lanier Tea Party before he spoke.
Overall, Williams seems to be aiming for a hybrid Donald Trump /2010 Tea Party candidacy in 2018. He is not shying away from attacking his Senate colleagues or his Republican rival Lieutenant Gov. Casey Cagle. He is full on anti-Establishment, claiming that he will apply his outsider business skills to fix whatever it is that is wrong with government. He also seems committed to deep cuts in government revenue and spending and also in rejecting lobbyist influence and defining new limits for the separation of powers.
Right now his major problem will be his lack of name recognition, especially considering that two of his GOP rivals (Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp) have already been on the statewide ballot multiple times. He might be able to tap into the same anti-establishment sentiment that Trump did, but that will require a lot more time spent at meetings like this one, which he will surely hope are better attended.
He has already gotten his name in the headlines with his comments at the GAGOP convention, his reference to “Governor Riley,” and his appearance at a rally opposing the establishment of Shariah law in the United States. If Williams has learned anything from Trump, his political godfather, then expect more of where that came from.