This is the grim fairy tale of a one-cent sales tax, approved by 86 percent of voters in the city of Atlanta last week — in the midst of a Republican presidential contest that has made taxation less popular than grandmother-chomping wolves.
The moral of the story is one that, with luck, might be applied to the statewide referendums for a transportation sales tax that are now only five months away.
Fortunately for you, this is a brief tale. Because the strategy that set the campaign in motion was conceived only last month, fewer than 30 days before the vote.
The issue was the renewal of a four-year, one-cent sales tax to continue improvements to the Atlanta sewer system that have been mandated by federal courts. Core opposition of 25 percent to 30 percent was assured.
“Our challenges are that the ballot language doesn’t work in our favor, the composition of the electorate is difficult to predict, and the intensity of support…is not as high as we’d like to see,” opened the poll memo from John Anzalone, who specialized in swing-state surveys for Barack Obama in 2008. This is the first time the memo –- the size of a small book — has come to light.
Anzalone spoke of “a volatile political environment and the complication of a GOP primary.” On March 6, Obama’s lone appearance on the Democratic primary ballot would provide little incentive for the city’s traditional voters to turn out -– while Republicans might be stirred to a fever by Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
“It’s certainly not a sure thing,” Anzalone wrote.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was even more succinct. GOP voters would end up casting nearly twice as many ballots as Democrats that Tuesday. “When you adjusted for an electorate that was going to be majority Republican, it dropped [sewer tax support] below 50 percent,” Reed said this week.
The two parts to this narrative concern the message, and the messenger.
If you know anything about fairy tales, you know that they are really horror stories –- which only occasionally have a little happiness grafted to the ending. Fear is the essential ingredient.
“What the data said is that if we had anything other than a direct conversation, that the [sewer sales tax] could lose,” the mayor said.
Instead of “direct,” try “brutal.” Voters had to be persuaded that, come hell and high water, the courts would dictate that improvements to Atlanta’s sewer system would continue. The only question was whether those improvements would be paid with a sales tax helpfully shouldered by non-residents, or by beanstalk–like increases to water and sewer bills.
The sense of urgency, and the lack of any alternative, is a message that transportation advocates might pay attention to.
But just who could deliver such harsh news about the sewer tax was another matter altogether. The messenger had to be someone whom Republican voters trusted, because -– and here’s another twist to the tale -– polling showed that Atlanta’s white voters were more initially inclined to support the sewer tax.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis would attract Democratic voters, but not Republicans. Contrariwise, “Governor [Nathan] Deal’s support would only benefit us if we can communicate it in a finely targeted fashion to Republican voters,” according to the Anzalone memo. (Deal was never approached.)
Polling identified two figures whose opinions could shift Atlanta’s awkward stew of whites, blacks, Democrats, Republicans and independents. Reed ranked first, followed by former Mayor Andrew Young. Shirley Franklin, another former mayor, polled well with Democrats -– less so with Republicans and independents.
Polling showed that 73 percent of Republicans rated Reed’s job performance as good or excellent.
“The data said folks trusted me and had a good feeling about me,” Reed said. Which brings us to the fairy tale part of the story -– the image of Atlanta’s African-American mayor used on direct mail pieces to sell continued taxation to white Buckhead Republicans.
This only three years after Republican Atlanta had gathered to the side of Councilwoman Mary Norwood in a brutal, knockdown race for mayor. Not everyone thought it was the best idea, but there was no time for dithering.
“By voting yes, you can keep water bills from rising and make sure visitors and commuters keep paying their fair share,” Reed announced in one GOP flyer -– drawn up by Robert Highsmith, Reed’s former law firm colleague and one-time counsel to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Reed credited other GOP “validators” – those who could reassure their Republican brethren that the mayor of Atlanta was indeed speaking the truth. Among them were Charlie Loudermilk, founder and chairman of rent-to-own company Aaron’s, state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, and Jim Hannan, Georgia-Pacific president and CEO.
That appearance by the mayor on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on the Sunday before the vote? He was there as an Obama surrogate, but Reed said he agreed to the air time –- at least in part — as a means of boosting his status with Atlanta viewers as a straight-shooting messenger.
But you also have to consider that Reed’s good standing with Republicans in Atlanta is yet another byproduct of his early decision to form partnerships with a Republican governor and state House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, on issues such as transportation and the dredging of the Port of Savannah.
“I think a lot of this has to do with relationship-building,” Reed said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider