The next African-American in the United States Senate may end up coming from Georgia!
Now that I have your attention, here’s how that’s possible. Georgia’s sitting Republican Senator, Johnny Isakson, recently announced his retirement, citing his escalating battle with Parkinson’s Disease. That, in turn, leaves Governor Brian Kemp with the opportunity to appoint a temporary replacement who can run as an incumbent in the 2020 election.
The governor, a Republican, has a shortlist of solid candidates to choose from. But the governor should do more than make a solid pick. He should use this moment to make history for the party and the nation, just as Nikki Haley did in 2013 when she was governor of South Carolina and appointed Tim Scott, an African American, to the United States Senate.
The choice is right there before him — a person who has spent years working on behalf of the economic interests of individuals and families across Georgia and the United States, particularly those at risk of being left behind at this moment of economic dislocation and transition. His name is Ashley Bell, an African American who has served as the Southeast Regional Administrator of the Small Business Administration in the Trump administration for the past 18 months.
His resume is impressive. A former local elected official, Bell was once named top 40 young lawyers under 40 by the American Bar Association. What’s unique about Ashley is he is a former Democrat who switched parties during the Obama years. Yet, he has endeavored to work across the political aisle, maintaining, for example, strong ties to the African American community.
What’s more, Bell is the former general counsel to Georgia Conference of Black Mayors and Georgia Association of Black County Officials, making his network among rural and urban black leadership unparalleled in the GOP.
At the moment, Senator Scott of South Carolina is the only African-American Republican in the Senate. As I mentioned, Sen. Scott was appointed to the Senate by former governor Nikki Haley when then-Senator Jim DeMint retired; Senator Scott was subsequently elected in 2014.
Bell has an opportunity to follow a similar path to the upper chamber of Congress with a Kemp appointment at a time when the Republican Party is vowing to bolster the fortunes of working-class families through economic growth and new job opportunities. His ascension to the Senate would also come at a time when the party is actively engaging in outreach beyond its traditional base.
Bell’s rise has been meteoric. After the 2016 election, Bell was tapped to run communications for the State Department Transition Team. He then served Special Assistant to Secretary of State Tillerson, a position that required a top-secret clearance.
Bell subsequently went on to the SBA. In his first year at the agency, the number of SBA-backed lending to African-Americans for the Southeast region rose 9 percent. And that coincided with a 4 percent increase in dollar value of loans.
In his role at the SBA, Bell also oversaw $5 billion in government-backed lending to support jobs and small business growth throughout the eight states in the region. Most notably, loans under $50 thousand to minorities increased by over 40% in the first year of his leadership.
Equally noteworthy was Bell’s handcrafting of the Rural Strong joint outreach program between SBA and USDA to spur job growth; and he launched a pilot of that program in Georgia’s 9th Congressional district where he has been a lifelong resident. Now the program is no longer regional but adopted nationwide to create jobs for all Americans.
All this said, a number of political insiders are placing bets on Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia’s 9th Congressional District to replace retiring Senator Isakson. Originally a lawyer from Gainesville, GA, Collins has been a House member since 2013 and is currently a ranking member of the judiciary committee. And Collins has been a staunch supporter of President Trump, something that goes a long way in Georgia.
Politically, it is far from over for Bell if Governor Kemp ends up picking Collins for the Senate seat being vacated by Isakson. That’s because a Collins appointment to the Senate would prompt a special election for his replacement in the House. And Bell would make an ideal candidate for that seat.
With the right support from the state’s Republican establishment, Bell would be in a strong position politically to capture Collins’ House seat, particularly given that the district leans Republican. Consider the fact that Collins won 80% of the vote in his 2018 re-election bid.
For his part, Bell has a strong political track record in the Congressional district, where he also happens to live. He is a former county commissioner from Gainesville, GA. And in 2014, he won the largest number of votes in the district — along with winning the largest counties in the district — in what turned out to be a campaign bid for State School Superintendent that fell slightly short.
There is another compelling reason for the Republican Party to rally behind a Bell House candidacy. The GOP has been under heavy scrutiny after Rep. William Hurd announced that he is retiring from his House seat in Texas. Hurd is the only black Republican in the House.
To put matters bluntly, his retirement means that the Republican Party will have no African Americans in the House.
At a time when President Trump has actively reached out to the African-American community to expand the party’s base, the message Georgia would send by having Bell in Congress — either in the Senate or the House — would be unmistakable.
Let’s expand our tent, GOP!
John Burnett is the Managing Director and Founder of 1 Empire Group consulting firm and a business executive with over 20 years of experience in the financial services and energy pricing industries. A veteran of politics, John is an official with the New York State Republican Party and ran for New York City Comptroller in 2013. An adjunct professor at Hampton University and New York University, John’s editorials on business, the economy, policy, and politics have appeared in HuffPost, U.S. News and World Report, and Washington Examiner. He is also a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, Fox Business News, New York 1, and PIX 11 News. John holds a B.S. with honors from New York University and an MBA from The Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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