(Note: This is the second of a two-part look at the GOP primary runoff for Cobb County commission chairman. A column based on a sit-down with challenger Mike Boyce appeared on Thursday.)
You’ll have to pardon Tim Lee if he’s seemed somewhat puzzled the past few weeks.
For six years, he has served as chairman of the Cobb County Commission. He led his county through the difficult days of the Great Recession. He preserved Cobb’s sacred AAA bond rating. The county’s tax digest is now as valuable as it’s ever been, and county tax rates are among the lowest in the region.
He led Operation Intrepid, the top-secret 2013 effort to lure the Atlanta Braves into a new stadium on the Cobb side of the Chattahoochee River. Construction cranes that had been absent for a decade now dot the acreage where I-75 sneaks under I-285.
And yet in May, six of every 10 Republican primary voters said they preferred to see Tim Lee gone. The GOP incumbent is now halfway through a two-month runoff with Mike Boyce, a retired Marine colonel who has never held elected office — yet received 49 percent of the primary vote.
“I don’t think I’ve lost. In fact, I know I haven’t lost,” Lee said this week. We were at a shaded picnic table on the work site of a new bank, within sight of the rising SunTrust Park, as the hardhats next to us indulged in a lunch break.
Lee, 59, will quickly and forcefully blame his troubles on this newspaper, which has sought out the public costs associated with the new Braves ballpark — expenses beyond the $376 million in public monies allotted for the stadium itself.
But the Republican incumbent acknowledges other factors as well. The lack of happy, contented voters in last month’s primary, for instance.
That requires some explanation. First, the numbers.
In a July 2012 GOP primary, as Lee sought his first full term as commission chairman, Boyce received 17,042 votes — and finished third. (Lee came in first, with 39 percent of the vote, and would go on to win his runoff against former chairman Bill Byrne.)
In May, Boyce again finished with 17,000 votes and change. But this time, he finished first. The difference: In 2012, turnout was 31 percent. In May, it was 13 percent.
“I just suffered from low turnout. My voters thought it was going to happen and took care of other priorities in their life,” Lee said. The end of the school year and graduations and a looming Memorial Day weekend all drove down turnout.
Angry voters, or at least those most intent on change, are usually more apt to cast their ballots than satisfied voters. “The folks that are saying, ‘My life is good, my job is good, my family’s good’ — they didn’t show up,” Lee said.
His job between now and July 26 is to find those happy voters. “We’ve reorganized priorities on our campaign team to be more aggressive on voter contact,” Lee said.
But that is the mere mechanics of politics. We have gone too far without acknowledging the elephant in the room.
Of all the solidly GOP counties in metro Atlanta, Cobb may have the deepest, long-standing division between ideological conservatives and more business-oriented Republicans. In each of his two previous races for commission chairman, Lee’s connections to business interests within the county have sparked criticism and opposition from GOP purists.
“Economic development is key. A growing economy is key to the success of every single town in the country. If you’re not moving forward, you’re sliding backward,” Lee said.
It is this ideological-economic split that helps explain why both Cobb County candidates have made the new Atlanta Braves stadium the centerpiece of their campaigns.
Boyce has focused on the “backroom” secrecy that surrounded the Braves’ negotiations with Cobb and the quick county commission vote that cemented the deal within weeks of it becoming public. Lee’s challenger says Cobb voters were owed a referendum before $376 million in public money was committed.
Nonsense, Lee said. “Every economic deal of this magnitude across the state of Georgia, probably across the country, is done the same way,” the commission chairman said.
“We explored it and then negotiated over the next few weeks the most comprehensive public-private partnership deal that has now become the model for deals going forward,” Lee said, pointing to the fact that the public stadium contribution is capped.
Nor was a referendum ever in the cards, Lee said. Mike Plant, now the president of development for the Braves, made it clear that anything that delayed construction of a new stadium would send the team walking, the incumbent chairman said. “So we had to come up with a plan that worked with that,” Lee said. “A spring referendum would have been the same as saying, ‘No, thank you.’ ”
The result, Lee says, will be a renaissance in south Cobb that will generate enough new taxes to keep residential property levies low throughout the county while fueling such essentials as schools and public safety.
By Lee’s logic, someone who has led such a vast, game-changing project shouldn’t be losing to someone like Boyce. Even before he was commission chairman, Lee was a district commissioner, first elected in 2002. So the inexperience of the man who is now the front-runner chafes. (Boyce has noted that his experience includes the operation of a major military base in Hawaii.)
“Mike’s a nice guy,” Lee said. “But he talks about his budget experience. He was given a grant. I’ve got to take your money and then tell you how I’m going to use it to benefit you. I have to have that conversation.”
We were close to the end of our interview when Lee raised the topic of the new Braves stadium one more time. “When the story’s finally done and written, I think folks will say, ‘That was a good decision,’ ” he said.
But voters are fickle creatures. One can’t compare the construction of a ballpark with fending off a Nazi horde, but I was in search of the most extreme example possible. I asked Lee whether he recalled that, even after he saved Britain, Winston Churchill was kicked to the curb. If voters can dump him, they can dump anyone.
“That’s good company to be in if that happens,” Lee said. “I’ll take that moniker. I did what I knew what was right for Cobb County. I could easily have won re-election if I’d told Mike Plant to take a walk. So if I was in it for me, I wouldn’t have done that.”