The impact of the failed transportation tax spread regionwide Tuesday, forcing some of the area's county leaders into runoffs and fighting for their political lives.
Commission chairmen who were part of the 21-member roundtable of local elected officials that devised the tax plan's project list seemed guilty by association as the anti-tax fervor swept the Atlanta area.
In Henry County, Chairwoman B.J. Mathis came in second in her race and faces a runoff after a concerted anti-tax effort to boot her from office. Like Mathis, Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell trailed in the primary and faces a runoff against former county Police Chief Jeff Turner. But Bell doesn't feel voters' rejection of the referendum was an indictment of him.
"This is a season for anti-incumbents," he said. "The ones who are trying to do right are getting caught up with the ones who are potentially not doing the right thing." Bell plans to stress his record to win the Aug. 21 runoff.
Nowhere was the impact of the tax plan more evident than in Cobb County, where incumbent Chairman Tim Lee failed to garner enough votes in a four-person race to win outright. He now faces former Cobb Chairman Bill Byrne in what has already been a hard-fought battle to lead Georgia's fourth-largest county.
"Lee was saddled with the Cumberland rail line [initially proposed from Cumberland in Cobb to the Arts Center MARTA station], and he was a staunch supporter of that. And the citizens of Cobb didn't like that project, and it spilled over into his race," said Steve Brown, a Fayette County commissioner and member of the Transportation Leadership Coalition that opposed the tax plan.
From the beginning Byrne, who did not return calls Tuesday or Wednesday, made Lee's roundtable work a point of the campaign. His opposition to the T-SPLOST, along with a millage rate hike and local sales tax approved last year, earned him endorsements from the county's police organization and the Cobb Taxpayers Association.
"I think any incumbent that supported the T-SPLOST hurt themselves because the opposition was so overwhelming they lost support because of it," said Lance Lamberton, president of the CTA. In his opinion, no T-SPLOST on the runoff ballot helps Byrne more than Lee.
"It will be less motivation for Lee supporters, especially those who also supported the T-SPLSOT, to turn out and vote," he said. "If you voted for [one of the other three candidates], you're not going to now vote for Lee."
Despite the anti-tax sentiment, Lee plans to focus on his differences from Byrne.
"A lot of voters don't remember Byrne as chairman," former Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway said, "but those of us who do, remember the Byrne that was not a good thing for Cobb and remember that he didn't look on the cities as partners." Byrne's tenure as Cobb chairman saw the County Commission pass an anti-gay resolution that led to the county losing out on Olympic volleyball events in 1996. He also backed a $23 million county-owned composting plant that never functioned correctly and resulted in more than $60 million in costs for the county.
Of all the political bruising from Tuesday's elections, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis escaped the T-SPLOST fray unscathed, defeating two rivals while simultaneously advocating for the transportation tax.
DeKalb voters apparently are reasonably pleased with their chief executive despite complaints that infighting between him and the County Commission is undermining effective government. Ellis campaigned on his record of cutting spending by $130 million in four years, but he didn't highlight a 26 percent jump in the tax rate last year to replace lost revenue from the housing crisis.
"Apparently," said Brown, the Fayette commissioner, "what has happened is that there is enough of an establishment in DeKalb where Ellis has enough roots in there that he managed to hold his own."
Staff writers Steve Visser and Tammy Joyner contributed to this article.