In politics, you have to pick your fights thoughtfully. Those who attempt to fight every battle usually end up looking nuts, or they burn out from fatigue.

So it's curious that Gov. Brian Kemp has picked a legal fight against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the wearing of face masks.

That doesn't seem like a fight any public official would want to wrestle with, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

Bottoms, like several other mayors across the state, has issued a mandate that people wear face masks in the city when they're in public. The move isn't backed up with any enforcement provisions or fines, but it is a step further than Kemp's call for voluntary mask-wearing across the state.


Since the pandemic began, Kemp has argued that no local government can enact any rule or regulation that is more or less strict than what the state mandates. Local control of the health crisis has been, at least for now, abolished under Kemp's executive order.

Despite that, Bottoms and some other mayors have enacted their own rules in defiance of Kemp's stand.

Two weeks ago, Kemp went to court seeking to block Atlanta's mask-wearing mandate.

Last week, Kemp went back to court in one of the most unusual legal actions in state politics I've ever seen.

In addition to trying to stop Atlanta from having a mask mandate, Kemp filed a motion seeking to prevent Mayor Bottoms from "making statements to the press that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures than are ordered by Governor Kemp."

In other words, Kemp is seeking to gag Bottoms from talking about the mask order to the media.

It is rare — unheard of, really — for a public official to go to court seeking to silence another elected public official, especially about a public health emergency.

Gag a politician from talking? How the hell can you ever do that?


One of the questions about this move is why did Kemp single out Atlanta to sue and not other cities in the state that have similar mask mandates?

According to Emory legal expert Fred Smith, Atlanta is really the weakest legal case for Kemp to target. Some other cities in the state have enforcement rules and fines while Atlanta's rule has no enforcement.

All of which begs this question: Is Kemp's lawsuit rooted more in politics than policy?

Bottoms is rumored to be one of the leading candidates for vice president on the ticket with Democrat Joe Biden. She has been a rising star in the media, especially during the George Floyd protests where she called for calm and decried the looting and violence associated with some of the protests.

Since early June, Bottoms has been a regular on national news shows. She's everywhere. This past Sunday, she appeared on "Face the Nation," one of the more respected news shows.

Kemp has been in the national spotlight, too, but much of it has put him on the defensive. He's not the media darling that Bottoms has suddenly become.


So Bottoms is becoming a media star and a rising voice for Democrats in a state run by a Republican governor and a Republican legislature.

It's also a state that looks to be in transition from Republican to Democratic control — purple, not red.

One factor in Kemp's decision to challenge Bottoms could be rooted in that political dynamic.

In dragging Bottoms to court, Kemp might be wagering that a victory would undermine Bottoms and kneecap her political standing, along with the standing of other Democrats in the state. Make her an example — don't cross the governor.

A court victory would also cement Kemp's view that state rules trump local control during the health crisis, something that would strengthen his hand politically.

In addition, taking on "Atlanta" is popular within the GOP. The GOP in rural areas uses the state's capital city as a political foil. The phrase "socialist Atlanta values" gets said a lot by politicians in rural areas of the state. Slapping Atlanta has long been a rural sport in Georgia.

But if political consideration is driving Kemp's lawsuit, it's a gamble with a lot of downside.

For one thing, simply filing the suit — and especially the gag order — makes Bottoms a sympathetic figure. Few people of any political stripe believe in gagging political opponents by using the courts. And many local officials don't like the state usurping local control.

The suit also expands Bottoms' talking points and brings more positive media attention to her by giving something new for media talking heads to gab about. That probably isn't Kemp's goal.

And if Kemp loses the suit, Bottoms would come out of the fight even stronger.

Going to court is always a crap shoot — you never know what a judge will do.


But why fight about wearing a mask anyway? Even if Kemp doesn't like having his order challenged by local officials, is that worth the time, energy and political capital needed for a court fight?

The number of COVID cases is exploding across the state. Who really cares if Atlanta or Macon or any other city or county mandates wearing a mask in public?

A number of businesses are already mandating mask-wearing — Walmart, Home Depot, Target, CVS, Kroger and others. Is the state going to challenge those businesses' right to mandate mask-wearing?

The issue isn't about "personal freedom" as some argue. Mask mandates don't violate anyone's Constitutional rights.

It's about public safety. You don't have the right to infect me with your germs just because you want to be a jerk and not wear a mask in public.

If Atlanta, or any other local government wants to mandate wearing a mask, so be it. Why should Kemp care?

Ain't no skin off his knees that I can see.

And by the way, the AJC notes that when Kemp's case is heard in Fulton Superior Court, all those involved will be required by the court to wear a mask.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers and editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at

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