ATLANTA (AP) — Republican Gov. Brian Kemp pledged Monday to work for all Georgians, striking a conciliatory tone in his inaugural address as he sought to leave behind a bitter election contest with Democrats who are pursuing a legal challenge to the state's balloting methods.
Kemp, 56, was sworn in as Georgia's 83rd chief executive at a university stadium whose audience included the GOP faithful, state lawmakers, lobbyists and members of Kemp's Cabinet and family. Kemp's wife and three teenage daughters sat behind him, wiping tears from their faces as he spoke.
The new governor avoided any mention of the conservative pitches that were hallmarks of his primary campaign, including a promise to sign tough abortion restrictions and a "religious freedom" law, which critics say would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Instead he returned to the more moderate issues he highlighted during the general election, such as expanded health care access, higher teacher pay and support for Georgia businesses. Kemp said he would help businesses large and small by cutting taxes and red tape.
"Through the prism of politics, our state appears divided," Kemp said. "Metro versus rural. Black versus white. Republican versus Democrat. But after visiting all 159 counties I can tell you this: We have so much in common and as governor I will fight for all Georgians."
But state Democrats weren't so quick to put aside the rancor of the 2018 election.
Away from the festivities, Democratic Party of Georgia chairman DuBose Porter issued a statement calling Kemp's inauguration a "dark day in Georgia's history."
Kemp, who doubled as Georgia's chief elections officer during his campaign, has vehemently denied accusations of voter suppression, pointing to record-setting voter registration numbers.
But Porter's statement called Kemp's victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams illegitimate and slammed his campaign as "built on hate."
A political group Abrams founded is challenging the way Georgia elections are run in federal court, alleging the process was "grossly mismanaged" under Kemp.
Kemp rose from underdog status as Georgia secretary of state to clinch a Republican primary runoff with tough talk on immigration and a nod from President Donald Trump.
Sylvia Turnage of Blairsville, Georgia, said she had followed Kemp's political career for years and came from northern Georgia to see him sworn in.
"He's going to be helping rural and agricultural areas," Turnage said. "We're in a pretty remote area ourselves up there in the mountains, so we're hoping he'll pay attention to our needs."
Turnage said she thought the election was fair and Democrats were "unwise" to continue their challenge of Kemp's victory.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said in an interview last week that Democratic lawmakers were ready to work with Kemp in areas where they share common ground, and "loudly push back" where they don't.
"Where we can, we are going to look for those areas to work with him," Henson said. "Where we can't, we're going to be vocal and strenuous in our opposition."