ATLANTA — Nathan Deal has been building the résumé to run for governor his whole life.
Top grades. Student body president. Debate champion. Law school. Military record. A nearly three-decade-long career in the state Legislature and Congress.
“We all figured in, oh, the fifth or sixth grade that Nathan was going to be governor,” said his childhood friend Tommy Walker, of Sandersville. “He was just that way, the class leader with the good grades. It’s like it was in his DNA.”
Now, as he fights to win an Aug. 10 runoff for the Republican nomination for governor against former Secretary of State Karen Handel, Deal faces the toughest test yet of his political mettle.
The former congressman from the foothills of north Georgia finished 11 percentage points behind Handel in the July 20 GOP primary, and he is working to close the gap and push back against questions about his ethics.
Deal, 67, is the kind of cautious candidate who relies on a steady string of hits to score runs, rather than swinging for the fences. He casts himself as a proven leader and a consensus builder, a contrast to Handel’s posture as a fiery outsider attacking what she calls a corrupt culture at the Capitol.
Deal has been more inclined to reach out to state lawmakers and has seized on opportunities to portray Handel as reckless with her criticism. At a recent debate, Deal noted he would not “insult the members of the General Assembly. I won’t assume that they are all corrupt. I think when you do that, you have slapped the face of your board of directors. And I don’t know any CEO who can go around doing that and be successful.”
Deal hails from one of the more conservative districts in the country, and it shows. Last year, he called on President Barack Obama to produce his birth certificate, although he told The Associated Press recently that he was simply passing along concerns from his constituents and now believes the matter is settled.
Deal also pushed for an end to automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born in this country. And he has advocated for eliminating the federal income tax in favor of a consumption tax, or so-called fair tax.
The mantra of his campaign has been that he is the true conservative in the race, despite Handel’s backing from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Deal, the only child of two teachers, lights up when talking about policy and feels comfortable talking about FICA taxes and subcommittee markups. And while Handel has tried to cast him as “a corrupt relic of Washington D.C.,” Deal has been touting his experience and lengthy record of service.
“How many thousand votes have I cast? I don’t know,” Deal told the AP with a chuckle.
First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1992, Deal has a long record on Capitol Hill that could provide the most telling glimpse of how he would govern Georgia during one of the toughest budget climates in recent memory.
In 2005, he helped slash about $20 billion from the federal budget as part of the deficit reduction act.
It’s a figure, aides quickly note, that is larger than the current budget of Georgia. Deal was also able to include language requiring those seeking Medicaid benefits to provide identification, a move designed to halt illegal immigrants from tapping the taxpayer-funded benefits.
A review of congressional records by the AP shows Deal was the lead sponsor on 72 bills during his 18-year career. Just seven became law, and three of those involved the naming of post offices.
“Certainly, that’s not a lot,” said Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University. “Then again, that is not the only indicator of success in Congress.”
Deal has held sway as chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
During his congressional career, he scooped up $1.3 million in campaign contributions from donors connected to the health care sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Among his biggest backers was the American Medical Association.
He was named chairman of the health subcommittee in 2005 — a decade after switching parties to become a Republican.
That decision helped Republicans expand their power in Congress and earned Deal the loyalty of then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has endorsed Deal in the governor’s race as “a solid conservative with a solid record.”
At the time, Democrats said Deal was disloyal but were unable to make him pay for the betrayal. He easily won re-election seven more times.
“He read that one right,” said former Democratic state lawmaker McCracken Poston, who challenged Deal unsuccessfully in 1996.
In the governor’s race, Deal has cast himself as a fiscal conservative, but that doesn’t mean he shunned congressional earmarks. In the last two years, he helped bring a little more than $12 million for projects in Georgia, the largest for operations at Lake Lanier.
Deal has gone to bat for issues important to business in his district — or, in the view of consumer advocates, undermine government regulation.
In 2003, he persuaded fellow lawmakers to support a provision allowing farmers to market their chickens as organic even if they never ate organic meal, so long as they could prove there was a shortage of the feed. It was tucked into a giant $397 billion spending bill.
Deal sought the provision on behalf of Fieldale Farms Corp., which is in his district. That change outraged organic farmers, and the Bush administration had it overturned.
Tough proposals to crack down on illegal immigration have been the centerpiece of his tenure. Deal has said that is the direct result of concerns bubbling up from his north Georgia district, where immigrants have arrived in large numbers to work at textile mills.
In 1995, Deal proposed using soldiers to help enforce immigration and drug laws at the border. He also proposed legislation that would require all employers to use a federal database called E-Verify meant to keep illegal immigrants out of the work force.
While advocating for the system, Deal has yet to register any of his businesses to use the free service. Deal’s business partner said they haven’t hired a new employee since 2003 — before the program was available in Georgia — and believes his longtime employees are all legal.
To Deal, the federal government has failed in its duty to address the illegal immigration issue and has pledged to support an Arizona-style law in Georgia.
“You either believe that the law has meaning and should be enforced, or you don’t,” Deal said recently. “And if you don’t think the law is appropriate, we have perfectly legitimate ways of changing the law. But to simply ignore it makes the problem worse.”
It was Deal’s auto salvage business in Gainesville that put Deal on the defensive, forcing him to answer questions about his ethics.
This year, the Office of Congressional Ethics found Deal may have violated House ethics rules by using his position to lobby state officials on behalf of the auto salvage company, which at the time had a lucrative state contract.
The office recommended the House Committee on Standards investigate. Before the panel could decide whether to take up the matter, Deal resigned from Congress to run for governor.
Meanwhile, word surfaced recently that the state’s revenue commissioner received a federal grand jury subpoena last month related to his 2009 meeting with Deal over a state program affecting Deal’s company. Deal has denied any wrongdoing, saying he has not been told he is the target of the investigation.
Friends say Deal has always been a steady, straight arrow, even as the upheaval of the 1960s churned around him during his college years. At Mercer University, Deal completed his undergraduate and law degrees in just six years. He signed up for ROTC and quickly became a cadet commander.
Serious and studious, Deal won honors and was student body president.
“You would never have found Nathan down at the beer tavern on Friday afternoon,” said Carl Rollins, of Dalton, a friend at the time who was stationed with Deal at Fort Gordon.
Deal became a commissioned captain in the U.S. Army and, as a member of the JAG Corps, he taught law to military police. With the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Deal’s mission changed and he began training national guard troops who were being tapped to keep order on the home front.
Deal said he would have liked to have seen active combat in Vietnam.
“One of my biggest disappointments was that I could not get a combat arms assignment because of my eyesight,” Deal said. “I was ready.”
By the 1970s, Nathan Deal was working in a small Gainesville law office, handling real estate closings, wills, estates and criminal cases.
He married his wife, Sandra — a teacher he met on a blind date — and they went on to have three daughters and a son. He has reported his net worth at $2.1 million.
In 1980, he won a state Senate seat, rising to become speaker pro tempore.
He served in elected office until he stepped down from Congress in March — just after voting against the Democratic-backed health reform law.
Deal once pledged to serve six terms and retire in 2004 but changed his mind, arguing the district would benefit from his experience — a theme he frequently returns on the campaign trail.
“Life experiences are what people look at,” said Deal, who then quickly ticked off his resume as a prosecutor, parent, judge, deacon and lawmaker. “I think all of those coupled together, I think, reach the one conclusion — that is, I’m qualified.”