You may not know it yet, but if you work for a large company in metro Atlanta, you’re about to become part of one of the most unusual political campaigns this state has ever seen.
Most battles for votes are conducted through flyers that arrive in your mailbox, robocalls to your phone, or TV ads that wheedle or bully their way into your living room. And supporters of a new sales tax for transportation intend to use each of these standard-issue weapons.
But over the next few weeks, backers of the July 31 tax referendum will add a campaign instrument never before seen in Georgia, at least not on this scale: A boss who puts an arm around your shoulder and urges you to do the “right” thing.
More than 400 businesses, including most of metro Atlanta’s largest, have committed to turning out an extra 50,000 voters well-versed in the financial impact of traffic congestion. Their employees, in other words.
“There’s never been a campaign like it in Georgia,” said Paul Bennecke, a strategist for the pro-tax effort.
“Those companies represent more than 400,000 employees. It’s a lot bigger than the tea party, let’s put it that way,” said Sam Williams, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which is coordinating the turnout effort.
“These are people with a financial stake in the consequence,” Williams said. Not ideologues, not party loyalists. “They’re looking at the bottom line.”
When it comes to hard-fought political confrontations, businesses have a well-earned reputation for timidity. They are not eager to offend customers. They write checks, they endorse causes, but they do not normally act as ward heelers or turnout machines.
That firms in Atlanta are willing to make an exception is an indication of just how dire the situation is, argues Williams. “They realize the significance of this, for their own employees, for their companies’ success.”
(Cox Media Group, the parent company of this newspaper, has made financial contributions to the transportation sales tax campaign.)
A few glimpses of this new corporate politicking:
– On Monday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed ventured north into Alpharetta, to address hundreds of Siemens employees who are assembling the motor parts for the Atlanta Streetcar project. The mayor quickly shifted conversation to the proposed Beltline project, an interior city circuit that would be funded through the Transportation Investment Act, the matter up for a vote next month.
“I hope every single person that’s working for Siemens is going to be out there voting for the T.I.A,” Reed said. With Siemens’ drive technologies division president Doug Keith close at hand, the employees burst into applause.
– Delta CEO Richard Anderson has sent a letter to thousands of metro Atlanta employees, urging them to support the transportation sales tax, Williams said.
– Karole Lloyd, vice chair and Southeast area managing partner in the accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP, has sent an electronic invitation to all her employees for a two-hour meeting on July 31, Williams said. Acceptance of the invitation is a commitment to use the time to go vote.
Think of it as a United Way campaign. With teeth.
– Doug Hertz is president and CEO of United Distributors, Inc., in Smyrna, the state’s largest wholesaler of beer and wine, and one of the largest privately held companies in metro Atlanta.
His company has about 1,000 employees. Over the next few weeks, Hertz and other members of management will hold small group meetings with employees. To accountants and customer service employees, Hertz will emphasize the time lost to commuting. “That’s something everyone can relate to,” he said in a telephone interview from New York.
To his 200-member sales force, most of whom work on commission, he’ll emphasize the cash they lose when they can make only eight in-person calls a day rather than 14. “Their offices are their cars. They’re going from one account to another,” Hertz said.
Truck drivers will require little persuasion. United Distributing has 200 vehicles on metro Atlanta roads every day, each tracked with a GPS unit. The speed of all vehicles is constantly charted. “Idle time – time spent traveling at 5 miles per hour or less – amounts to at least an hour per day per vehicle. It’s a huge loss to us,” Hertz said.
The CEO says that, though he will push his employees to the polls, he won’t tell them which way to vote. But it’s clear which way he’d like them to.
The role that corporate-driven voters will play in the referendum is small, but significant. Summer primaries are usually modest affairs that attract only the most committed Republican and Democratic voters.
Georgia currently has 5.8 million registered voters. But over the last six years, three primary elections have turned out roughly 1 million voters statewide each time. Of 2.3 million registered voters in the 10-county metro Atlanta area covered by this sales tax referendum, an estimated 350,000 voters are expected to participate.
Most of those voters will be Republican – not a deck stacked for passage of a new sales tax. But let’s say that metro Atlanta’s businesses drive not 50,000, but only 25,000 new voters to the polls – voters who are more likely to behave like the more moderate participants in general elections.
That’s a 7 percent swing. And that could make all the difference in a close contest.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider