From the beginning, the Achilles’ heel of the campaign for a transportation sales tax in metro Atlanta has been its lack of a living, breathing champion. And we’ll get to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a bit.
Strategists in the $8 million Untie Atlanta camp have preferred to think of their candidate as the $6.14 billion project list that would be underwritten by the penny-on-the-dollar tax. Let roads, bridges and rail speak for themselves, the thinking goes. TV ads have largely focused on the anonymous, solo treks between home and work that tens of thousands of us make each day.
It has been a battle plan of necessity, owing to the absence of any Republican who a) appeals to the suburban region at large; and b) has been willing to hitch his career to the initiative. The political figure who most closely fits that description is Nathan Deal. But each time, his strong endorsement begins with the caveat that the July 31 referendum wasn’t his idea.
Tax-hating, consumer guru Clark Howard showed up on an Untie Atlanta mailer that arrived Wednesday, one of the few public figures to be linked to the campaign. A key hurdle for the TSPLOST campaign has been the matter of trust. People do not trust lists or citizen review panels. They trust other people. Howard fits that portion of the bill.
But another problem with the faceless campaign has been the inability to quickly answer the assaults from opponents, to question the questioners from a position of authority. That’s not a role for Howard. And while the governor is about to ramp up his participation — he’s scheduled a news conference for today — Deal may not be in a position to engage in a pitched battle.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, one of the most influential and well-spoken Republicans in the state, appeared at the state Capitol to publicly join with foes of the transportation sales tax. Rogers had been essential in the fight to put the transportation measure on this primary ballot.
The reaction from Untie Atlanta and the governor has been silence. Perhaps because Rogers and Deal – and some involved in the sales tax campaign — will be allies come Aug. 1, when the fight begins over a November ballot issue to restore the state’s authority to create public charter schools.
Enter the mayor of Atlanta.
Every now and then, a politician will offer up a speech larger than the event that houses it. This was the case in Atlanta’s City Hall on Tuesday. The occasion was a trotting out of several local groups supporting the TSPLOST. But Reed aimed his words largely at the TV cameras in front of him and the audience beyond.
Yes, the mayor attended to some housekeeping. African-American support for the sale tax in the city and south DeKalb County has slipped to threatening levels, according to several polls, and Reed chastised those who argue that the sales tax doesn’t do enough for black communities. “Y’all, that’s just flat-out not true,” the mayor said, staring at state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who was in the crowd.
But the bulk of the mayor’s address was an attempt to lift the language of the sales tax debate. So far, tea party opponents have held the upper hand in this department. Their arguments have emphasized the need to preserve the sovereignty of metro Atlanta’s many, many local governments. They have pointed to the risk that accompanies massive expenditures of public money.
But metro Atlanta has never been about minimalism, Reed said. Risk is in its DNA. “Just surviving leads to just surviving,” he said. It doesn’t build railroad lines or airports or freeways. The mayor all but made a unilateral declaration that he intends to serve as the champion of the transportation sales tax. Any time, any place. “And I believe in the Winston Churchill model. I smile when I fight. I love to fight,” he said.
Afterwards, in his office, Reed said he hadn’t intended to sound angry. “Our elected leadership has done what everybody says they want out of elected leaders. If there’s any frustration, that’s what you were hearing in me,” he said. The meetings that led to the project list “were open to the public. There was black people and white people. It was rural and urban. It was Republican-Democrat.”
Reed said the list itself should be considered “the most significant political event in modern Georgia” – a tour de force of cooperation. That hasn’t happened, of course.
The mayor began talking dollars and sense and the possibilities of a Republican-Democratic partnership. “If we pull off the four significant things that we’ve been working on right now, our competitors can forget about it,” he said. The quartet? The water wars, the dredging of the Port of Savannah, the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson, and the TSPLOST.
“All of this stuff has been ugly. We have not won it with beautiful passes. You can put the warts and all on it,” the mayor said. Reed specifically included the new airport terminal in that description.
But metro Atlanta has been at its best when it looks past the warts and cuts the deal in spite of imperfections, the mayor argued. “But nobody has given up any of their core values. None of these issues require me to be less of a Democrat, or Governor Deal to be less of a Republican,” he said.
Reed’s bottom line: A biracial, bipartisan metro Atlanta has a future. A fractured one doesn’t. That’s an argument that requires the voice of a human being, if it’s to be made properly. A list won’t do it.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider