GA-Governor: Nathan Deal and the Politics of Empathy

The Republican candidate for governor in Georgia has serious financial problems. He's trying to turn that into a political advantage.
by | September 17, 2010

“In fact, I believe the fact that I understand the pain of Georgians is all the more important as I enter the governor’s office." That's Nathan Deal, the Republican nominee for governor of Georgia, quoted by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jim Galloway in response to the recent revelations of Deal's serious financial problems.

If you haven't been following this topic, here's the reporting from the AJC that broke the story on Wednesday:

In the midst of his campaign for governor, Nathan Deal faces such dire financial troubles that he must sell his home to avert foreclosure or bankruptcy.

Even if Deal liquidates all his assets, however, he still might be unable to repay a nearly $2.3 million business loan, documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicate. The loan comes due in full Feb. 1 — less than one month after Deal hopes to take office.

Deal’s troubles center on a failed business venture by his daughter and son-in-law. Deal and his wife, Sandra, invested about $2 million, but lost their entire stake when the business failed. The Deals also guaranteed a series of bank loans to the business as its debt doubled and then quadruple.

In responding, Deal's message is clearly one of empathy. He feels Georgians' economic pain because he's experiencing it too. Is it possible that in a moment of economic tumult, voters would prefer a candidate who is a financial failure over one who is a financial success?

Maybe -- it's not an entirely far-fetched notion. Consider the case of Charles Pugh, who last November won the most votes for City Council in Detroit, making him the Council president. Here's what the New York Times reported afterward:

Among the newcomers is Charles Pugh, the Council’s president-elect, who in his first bid for public office received more votes than any other Council candidate. Some attributed his success to his celebrity as a news anchor, while others cited his life story, which includes a series of setbacks all too familiar in a chronically distressed city.


Mr. Pugh’s mother was murdered when he was 3 years old. His father committed suicide four years later. Raised by his grandmother, Mr. Pugh, earned a scholarship to the University of Missouri, where he studied journalism. But more recently, his financial troubles have played out in public: He almost lost his downtown condominium to foreclosure earlier this year after leaving his news position to run for office. The mortgage is being modified, and Mr. Pugh remains in his home.

“I want Detroiters to know that you don’t have to come from a rich family, you don’t have to have degrees from Harvard, you don’t have to be somebody who had two parents, and you don’t have to be straight,” said Mr. Pugh, who is gay, in a recent interview. “I want people to know that you can go through difficulty, but that difficulty can’t define you.”

Will this work for Deal? There are differences between the two. Pugh, as the Times notes, had a compelling personal story in addition to recent financial problems. Deal is a long-time congressman.

What's more, Georgia Democrats will emphasize that the issue isn't Deal's shaky finances, but rather how he has responded to the misfortune. That includes failing to report his debts to the state's Ethics Commission. One poll has Deal falling back into a tie with Democrat Roy Barnes, although, of course, the poll doesn't take into account Deal's effort to reframe the issue this morning.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

More from Politics