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Georgia's Rivian deal a political wedge near future plant

Drew Kann, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Business News

RUTLEDGE, Georgia --- Going into 2022, many voters in rural Walton and Morgan counties expected zoning and spending issues to dominate local government races.

Then came the December announcement of Rivian’s $5 billion electric vehicle plant that has shaken the political landscape around the farms and pine forests an hour east of Atlanta that dot the area around the future factory.

Rivian has its fans, and Gov. Brian Kemp and state leaders of both parties have hailed the project and its 7,500 promised jobs as transformational for Georgia.

But as Tuesday’s primaries loom, the factory has become a wedge issue in local and state races for many voters near the future plant. Opponents say they fear the plant threatens the area’s environment and rural character. The $1.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives state and local officials offered Rivian have also become political lightning rods.

“I don’t like the amount of money the state and the taxpayers are having to foot to bring the business here,” said Gail Wilson, a Rutledge resident who lives five miles from the nearly 2,000-acre site. “I don’t care how many jobs they’re saying they’ll bring.”

Count Madison business owner Mike Conrads in the opposite corner. Conrads said he shares traffic and environmental concerns, but thinks local leaders can manage future growth.

“I’m vested in the community, and I want it to have growth, but do it well,” he said.

‘Ramrodded’

Walton and Morgan counties, where the factory will be built, are part of Kemp’s rural conservative base. He won about three-quarters of the votes in the two counties in 2018. And big jobs deals tend to be amplified by politicians of all stripes when they seek re-election.

On Friday, Kemp and leaders of Hyundai Motor Group are expected to announce another huge EV plant in conservative Bryan County near Savannah.

But in the counties surrounding Rivian’s future Georgia home, some local politicians — and others running for statewide office — have decried Kemp’s handling of the project.

Some residents said they feel officials stepped over them when the state took over the plant site, bypassing local zoning boards.

The facility’s influence on local politics is evident in the races for the Morgan County Commission.

Blake McCormack, a Republican candidate for the District 2 seat, said he feels the project has been forced upon residents. He said officials who have called for limited government while allowing Rivian to skirt local zoning decisions and offering tax incentives are “speaking out of both sides of their mouth on this.”

His Republican primary opponent, Keith Wilson, said he’s most concerned that the local community is not equipped to support a project of this size.

“I’m not opposed to this plant, I’m not opposed to electric cars, I’m not opposed to Rivian,” he said. “Republicans are opposed to it because it is not the right location for this plant.”

Even the Democrat running in District 2, Bob Baldwin, complained the project was “ramrodded” through by state leaders.

 

R.J. Scaringe, Rivian’s founder and CEO, said in a recent interview that Rivian will protect the environment and be a good neighbor, but change triggered by the company’s campus may be inevitable.

“The plant will be very sustainable, the plant will protect groundwater, but it is going to employ a lot of people by definition,” he said.

‘Hold back the onslaught’

Kemp’s chief Republican rival, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, has tried to use Rivian to peel off disgruntled voters by staging rallies in tiny Rutledge and slamming the project as an election-year giveaway during debates.

But his efforts to make the issue resonate with voters statewide haven’t shown much success as Perdue trails Kemp by double-digits in polls.

Perdue’s tactics also are at odds with the positions taken by past Republican and Democratic governors, who have long encouraged business development in the state, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

“All of this makes the position that David Perdue has taken with Rivian very much un-Republican,” Bullock said.

Though his stance on Rivian does not appear to be resonating statewide, it may be working to attract some voters living close to the future plant, like George and Penny West.

The Wests live in a modest blue house deep in the woods on land once part of a dairy farm owned by Penny’s father.

“There was always a strong effort by this county to be different ... to try and hold back the onslaught from Atlanta,” George West said. “I mourn the loss of rural nature that this place is going to face and it irritates me that there are public officials who don’t seem to realize that, or don’t care.”

The Wests call themselves moderates. They are no fans of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and find laughable Perdue’s embrace of former President Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims. They’re also devoted environmentalists.

They say they “probably” voted for Kemp in 2018, but will vote for Perdue in the upcoming primary.

Pastor Lonnie Brown lives in Stone Mountain but preaches at two churches in Morgan County. He grew up roughly 15 miles from where Rivian will be located.

Brown said childhood friends left Morgan County for better jobs. He said he hopes the factory will give local kids a reason to stay.

“That’s very important to our community,” Brown said.

©2022 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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