How tea party and its unlikely allies nixed Atlanta's transit tax

The tea party partnered with local Sierra Club and NAACP officials to defeat a $7.2 billion referendum aimed at unsnarling Atlanta’s traffic. Voters voted no on the referendum by a margin of 63 percent.

John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
People wait on a long line to vote on July 31, at Ashford Park Elementary school in Atlanta. Voters across Georgia decided not to levy a penny sales tax to fund transportation projects in their communities.

It was the Davids versus the Goliaths. On one side of a $7.2 billion referendum aimed at unsnarling Atlanta’s traffic stood the two most powerful men in Georgia, and an unlikely pair to boot: Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat.

On the other side stood the little guys: Debbie Dooley of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots and Colleen Kiernan from the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. Despite seemingly dueling ideologies, they found common cause to lobby against a 1-cent-on-the-dollar tax to pay for 157 traffic-friendly projects in the metro area over 10 years.

Also on that side was local NAACP president John Evans – another unlikely partner, especially for the tea party, which some critics have seen as anti-minority and anti-immigrant.

The establishment bipartisans had a reported $8 million on hand to sell the transit package. The tea party alliance has been quoted as having $15,000, but tea party member Julianne Thompson, reached by the Monitor Wednesday, laughed that off. “We had maybe a few hundred dollars,” she says.

On Tuesday, the “Sierra Tea” nexus claimed giant-killer status: Voters shot the Transportation Investment Act down, yelling “no” by a margin of 63 percent – despite warnings from supporters of imminent urban decline and worsening traffic woes. About 670,000 metro Atlantans voted.

The transit-tax defeat came on the same day that Texas tea party favorite Ted Cruz handily beat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in that state’s GOP Senate primary, suggesting to some observers that reports of the tea party’s demise have been not only hasty, but also overamplified.

The defeat of the so-called antigridlock tax “means they're players,” Bob Grafstein, a University of Georgia political science professor, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). “It reminds everybody they're around and they can defeat your grand plans.”

More specifically, the transit-tax vote hints at a newfound sense of pragmatism and subtlety that, critics have long suggested, tea party Americans have failed to exhibit on issues like the debt ceiling.

Well before the vote, tea party activists, Sierra Club officials, and the NAACP agreed to not just say no to the transit tax, but start building a “Plan B.” They even held joint press conferences ahead of Tuesday. The proponents of the plan reportedly were caught flat-footed when urban blacks and environmentalists, which should have been their natural partners, coalesced against the project.

One Plan B option the new coalition came up with would push the legislature to remove restrictions on how the city can spend current sales-tax revenues on MARTA, the existing bus and rail system in Atlanta, before building new light rail in gentrifying, in-town neighborhoods. That, the coalition argues, would make more money available for improvement and expansion, would benefit both whites and blacks in the city, and wouldn’t raise taxes – accomplishing key goals of all three groups.

“It shows that the tea party is, in fact, not inflexible, but actually willing to work with people who are not philosophically aligned with us,” says Ms. Thompson, the Atlanta tea party activist. “We’re willing to find consensus with other organizations and politicians from across the aisle, and we don’t believe consensus means that anyone has to compromise their values.”

To be sure, there were many other factors to the measure’s defeat, says Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. For one thing, 68 percent of voters were Republicans, suggesting to some a miscue by the legislature, which didn’t foresee that, as in 2010, the Republican primary ballot would draw more interest than the Democratic ballot.

What’s more, “it’s always an uphill battle to get people to vote to increase taxes, especially a sales tax that hits people immediately,” Mr. Abramowitz notes. “And secondly, I think there’s a lot of skepticism right now about whether political leaders are going to keep their promises.”

Adds Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens: “Part of the problem also goes back to the 2009 stimulus package at the national level, which got a lot of [Georgia] voters thinking, ‘This [transit plan] is just another jobs bill that turns into patronage, and we’re not going to be fooled on that this time.’ ”

AJC political columnist Jim Galloway also picked up on the patronage idea, saying that concerns about it helped reinforce the coalition between civil rights, greens, and antitax folks.

“[S]uspicion of cronyism and back-room deals has served as ... non-ideological glue for both sides,” writes Mr. Galloway, meaning that “the two groups [tea party and Sierra Club] have permitted right and left wings to communicate and coordinate in a way that otherwise would have been unlikely.”

Others have suggested that proponents of the plan may have muddled the message by trying to sell the package as a traffic fix, a jobs creator, and an economic development tool. But even with so many facets, some say that the plan just wasn’t good enough.

Only half the projects would have actually gone toward relieving the Atlanta commute, the fourth-worst in the nation. And the actual returns on the investment in several projects, including a 10-mile streetcar loop, were far from clear.

Moreover, several projects on the list will go ahead anyway, but with Governor Deal, not voters, having the final say on priorities.

“If you want to solve transit problems in Atlanta, spend 52 percent of the [transit tax] on a super-deluxe bus service that goes everywhere,” says Baruch Feigenbaum, an Atlanta-based transportation analyst for the libertarian Reason Foundation. “Instead, what they did is put in some bus things, but also three light-rail lines that are largely going to be useless. It was a sexy project, but not a real effective project.”

Meanwhile, many Georgia politicos are skeptical about the real clout and longevity of the NAACP-Sierra Club-tea party coalition. In the state, which recently scored an “F” on political accountability in a survey by the Center for Public Integrity, raising money for lobbying is the name of the game, and so far, the coalition has not proved successful at that.

But given what happened in Atlanta on Tuesday, at least one tea party activist sees the awakening of a broader citizen movement aimed primarily at reforming entrenched political cronyism.

“We might not have all the answers yet,” says Thompson. “But the fact that we’re sitting down at a table together, getting input and working on solutions – I think that’s a really positive step in the right direction.”

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