(Note: This is the first of a two-part look at the GOP primary runoff for Cobb County commission chairman. A column based on a sit-down with incumbent Tim Lee comes Sunday.)
At some point, every insurgent is required to step back and convince the body politic that he is not an anarchist. That chaos and an unexpected shift in power aren’t necessarily the same thing, and that the world will turn tomorrow in much the same way that it did yesterday.
Donald Trump hasn’t reached that stage, and maybe never will. Mike Boyce is already there.
“I realize I’m an unknown entity. That’s the real concern of the business community,” Boyce said over breakfast Monday. “It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on in Cobb County, but I’m not part of the dynamic. I’m truly the outlier. And that’s what makes a lot of people nervous, perhaps, on the business side.”
In last month’s GOP primary, the 66-year-old retired Marine colonel hammered on local discomfort with the secrecy surrounding Cobb County’s 2013 snagging of the Atlanta Braves to come within a few hundred votes of assuming the leadership of one of the richest, most influential counties in metro Atlanta.
By the end of the night, Boyce ended up with a merely dominating 49 percent of 37,332 votes cast in the low-turnout race. Incumbent Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who led the effort to lure the ballclub across the Chattahoochee River and built his re-election campaign around the coup, survived with 40.4 percent.
The odds now favor the insurgent, who has never held public office before. Boyce isn’t counting any chickens before the July 26 runoff. He still walks neighborhoods. Volunteers still come to his well-appointed house in the Sope Creek area to work one of the five phone lines at the address. And he still has no endorsements from major political heavyweights in Cobb.
But in an hourlong conversation, over a table laid out by his wife, Judy, Boyce explained why regime change in Cobb wouldn’t be revolution — that he represents a shift in style, not substance. And that he’s no enemy of the Braves or the new SunTrust Park that will house the team. Just the manner in which a $376 million public investment was decided.
“The stadium is merely the manifestation of voters’ dissatisfaction — of how money is being spent without their being asked. It could have been anything,” Boyce said. “It was never about the Braves. It was (Lee) using our money, thinking it was his money, without our permission. This has nothing to do with the Braves.”
Nor does Boyce intend to overturn any part of the county’s agreement with the Braves, even the open-ended portions. That bridge across I-285, for instance. “The issue of how much the bridge would cost, to me, in some ways is moot because we agreed to the bridge without putting a cost on it,” he said. “We signed up for it.”
From across the table, Ian Caraway, Boyce’s campaign manager, jumps in. “Our race has loose parallels to (Gov.) Roy Barnes’ defeat in 2002. It wasn’t so much what Roy did, it was how he did it,” Caraway said. “It’s not necessarily what Tim did. It’s could he have gotten the same result and done things the right way.”
Throughout the campaign, Boyce has said that public investment in the Braves should have been put to a referendum. (Lee will offer a forceful rebuttal to this point on Sunday.) The idea of a popular vote resonated on his walk-abouts, Boyce said. “If I can vote on a $40 million park bond, why can’t I vote on a $350 million park bond? That was the question, and they never answered it. But that was the issue at the door,” Boyce said.
Yet the Braves deal that surfaced in November 2013 was the result of months of top-secret negotiations followed by a hurry-up approval by the whole commission. Asked directly when a popular vote should have been scheduled in that rushed climate, Boyce deflected the question.
But later in the interview, he made this point: “I tell you one thing I would have done. I would have brought in the commissioners. That’s the one thing that I thought was the big mistake. They excluded the commissioners from the negotiations,” Boyce said. They were brought in at the end — some earlier than others, the front-runner admitted. “But by then it was almost a done deal.”
That, too, was a message from Boyce to the four commissioners he will have to work with, should he win next month.
Cobb County is an $865 million-a-year operation with somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 employees. A county manager handles day-to-day operations, but the commission chairmanship has long been considered a full-time job.
In another message to a wary business community, Boyce says he’s up to the task and pointed to his background. A former aviator and 16-year resident of the county, Boyce has a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame University and a master’s degree in human resources management from Pepperdine University in California.
As for administration experience, Boyce points to a stint as deputy commander of Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kaneohe Bay near Honolulu. (In 2010, the U.S. census put the base population at about 9,500.)
“My position was the equivalent of being mayor of the base. The same functions you do in Cobb County, I did on the base — public safety, roads, water, all those issues,” the retired colonel said. “I have the skill set. I ran a small business — 400 employees, $50 million. Every base is a business. So what I’m telling people is, running a government is not foreign to me.”
And to be truthful, Boyce’s insurgency is limited to a single individual. Toward the end of our session, I asked him how, overall, he thought the county has been run. He didn’t give the answer expected of a revolutionary.
“Oh, it’s superb. It’s got great people,” Boyce said. “They’re public servants. They get their satisfaction out of serving the people. But they’re also a reflection of their boss, and the boss needs to reflect that, also.”