For years, bureaucrats, attorneys, and lobbyists from MARTA have trudged to the state Capitol to defend their operations, their bookkeeping and their investments.
They come at the beck and call of state Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, who chairs the General Assembly’s committee that has oversight of the state’s largest transit operation.
Chambers has taken a fine-tooth comb to MARTA’s expenses, whether credit-card abuse by low-ranking drones or the leasing of its train lines and rail cars to private firms for tax benefits.
Last year, MARTA board members declared that they were forced to pay an extra $480,000 to lobbyists just to cope with Chambers’ demands. The lawmaker said she was merely attempting to help the agency avoid the embarrassment of bankruptcy.
So office-workers at MARTA are no doubt indulging in a little schadenfreude these days.
Two weeks ago, Chambers, 47, filed for personal bankruptcy. Even more unusual, a creditor has laid claim to about $60,000 in campaign funds — in the midst of a heated fight for control of her north Atlanta district.
House District 81 leans Democratic. With bare-knuckled tactics and a cafeteria-style approach to Republican orthodoxy, Chambers has fended off past challengers. She is more libertarian than conservative, and has cast votes in favor of gay rights and against the “vaginal politics” of abortion.
She can cuss with the breeziness of any sailor, should the occasion arise, and does not object to being described as cheerfully caustic.
But Elena Parent, a local 34-year-old attorney, is perhaps the strongest Democrat that Chambers has ever faced. House Republican colleagues have shipped the committee chairman some of their extra campaign funds, perhaps $30,000 or so, to help her out.
“I think I will win,” Chambers said this week. If she does, it will be in part because the Great Recession has changed us. Because economic collapse has lost its stigma as a mark of personal failure, a violation of an immutable law of social Darwinism. Hard times have become, well, hard times.
Chambers is far from the only politician attempting to balance financial disaster and access to power. At least one other House candidate, Republican Paulette Rakestraw Braddock of Hiram, has recently emerged from a bankruptcy. Several other state lawmakers — Democrat and Republican — are rumored to be perilously close to seeking that same protection.
Nathan Deal, the Republican nominee for governor, will have to sell his home after the Nov. 2 election to satisfy a $2.1 million loan from a failed family retail venture. Chambers said she’ll probably have to do the same.
How the Atlanta legislator landed in federal bankruptcy court will sound familiar to many.
In the early ’90s, Chambers and her husband Albert were owners of a small wholesale business in Atlanta that provided art supplies to interior designers. “We were all making a pretty good living. Albert and I weren’t rich. We were very nicely middle-class,” she said.
Business was going well enough to expand to a building in High Point, N.C., the furniture capital of the South. And south is where things headed after Sept. 11, 2001.
It was a slow spiral that gained speed with the economic meltdown of October 2008. The North Carolina property was lost to foreclosure. The couple split, reconciled and split for good. He got the business, its assets and debts. She got the house and the mortgage. He still lives in the basement.
But Jill Chambers’ name remained on the lease for the Atlanta property that housed the business. And the $4,500-a-month rent was long past due. Last month, as part of a court judgment, the landlord reached for Chambers’ largest stash of cash — her campaign treasury. (Note to candidates: Incorporation of her campaign might have prevented this.)
The tug-of-war over the campaign fund continues, and the money can’t be touched.
First elected in 2002, Chambers has held onto her district through relentless door-to-door campaigning. The lawmaker says she has found many soul mates recently.
“They tell me, ‘I just lost my job,’ or ‘Jill, can you help me get a loan modification?’ ‘Jill, we’re moving over to the apartment because we lost our house.’ ‘Jill we’re having our yard sale.’ ‘We’re having a divorce sale,’” Chambers said. “This is in neighborhoods with $150,000 houses. This is in neighborhoods with $800,000 or $900,000 houses. People are scared. I’ve passed out my bankruptcy attorney’s card to a couple of people.”
The obvious question is whether Chambers’ personal finances compromise her credentials as a fiscal watchdog over MARTA.
Here’s her answer: “I don’t even have TV. I know how to cut my own budget, and I’ve done it — so that way I can live within my means,” she said. “I [did] a Chapter 13 because, even though I can blame my ex-husband for being an idiot, the responsibility was mine to remove my name from the lease. If I have to pay $200 a month ’til I’m dead, I’ll do that.”
And if she wins in two weeks, one of the first things Chambers says she’ll do is form a corporation to protect her campaign cash.