Pass or fail, an orphaned MARTA vote has become a gift for Gwinnett Democrats

A sign indicating the MARTA and Gwinnett County transit referendum voting calendar is displayed at the Doraville MARTA Transit Station in DeKalb County. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
A sign indicating the MARTA and Gwinnett County transit referendum voting calendar is displayed at the Doraville MARTA Transit Station in DeKalb County. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Even the smartest moves have unintended consequences.

Last August, the Gwinnett County Commission committed an act that may have been self-defense or an attempt at sabotage, or both.

The all-GOP board approved a referendum to let voters decide whether to allow MARTA to expand into Gwinnett – the first such plebiscite in nearly 30 years, and a very big deal, indeed.

The logical thing would have been to schedule the referendum for the November general election only three months away, when more than 300,000 Gwinnett residents would cast their votes. Instead, the commission turned one of the most important economic development votes in metro Atlanta history into a political orphan, shifting the date to March 19, 2019.

Early voting began Monday.

As an act of self-preservation, intended to dampen the enthusiasm of transit-friendly Democrats and reduce the height of a blue tsunami fueled by antipathy toward President Donald Trump, the postponement had mixed results. U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, survived, but has conceded that his time in Congress is nearly over. The two GOP county commissioners who voted to make the MARTA vote a low-turnout affair were replaced by Democrats.

As an act of sabotage, putting off the MARTA vote was undoubtedly a short-term success. In the November race for governor, Democrat Stacey Abrams carried Gwinnett by 14 percentage points. MARTA would likely have cruised into Gwinnett on Abrams’ coattails.

The March 19 contest is now an iffy proposition, according to the little public polling that has been done. It could become a turnout contest of apartment dwellers versus older homeowners, surging Democrats against last-stand Republicans.

But whether the MARTA referendum in Gwinnett passes or fails, two things are certain: The standalone March vote has paralyzed a Republican machine in Gwinnett that is already under great stress. And it has handed Democrats a weapon they can use to win solid political control of the county in 2020.

One of the odder aspects of the pro-MARTA effort in Gwinnett is that it has produced only a single elected Republican to champion what is necessarily a bipartisan campaign.

Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, a 40-year veteran of Gwinnett’s government, has been an indefatigable advocate. She averages two public meetings an evening, plus one for breakfast. On Monday afternoon, she added a stop on GPB’s “Political Rewind,” with host Bill Nigut and yours truly.

She’s got her argument down. Nash emphasizes the 50 miles in dedicated bus rapid transit in the plan, and de-emphasizes the four miles of hard rail that would connect Chamblee with Norcross.

There was a line in her state-of-Gwinnett-County speech from last week that interested me. “We are in a battle with hundreds of other communities for the best and the brightest,” she said. “In my opinion, transit can give this great county the final competitive edge we need, especially among younger age groups, to keep your businesses successful and Gwinnett vibrant.”

Before we went on air, I asked Nash if it were true that Gwinnett’s median income has actually gone down in recent years. She acknowledged that this is the case. Gwinnett has plenty of small and medium-sized businesses, but the big ones are slipping through its grasp.

“We want those good jobs that come with big corporation headquarters,” Nash would later tell the microphone. And those big corporations want their workers to have access to modes of travel other than automobiles.

Race was a large factor in Gwinnett’s 1990 vote against MARTA. Three decades later, Nash’s approach to the topic might be called statistical rather than cultural. Twenty-five percent of Gwinnett County residents were born in a country other than this one, she noted Monday. Opposing transit because it may import people of different languages and skin hue doesn’t make sense. They’re already here.

Nash acknowledges that other Republican officials have decided to duck this fight, and understands why. Her party is split. The Gwinnett business community is fully onboard with the transit initiative. But the GOP core activists of Gwinnett are slightly more conservative than their colleagues in Cobb County or north Fulton County.

“The conservative nature of some branches of our party means anything with a tax associated with it, they’re skeptical about,” she said.

What this means is that a pro-MARTA stance could still pose problems for a GOP candidate in a Gwinnett County primary. It’s something that must be worked into the calculations of Republicans seeking re-election or higher office.

On Monday, nine Democratic state lawmakers representing portions of Gwinnett endorsed MARTA’s expansion into the county. One Republican, state Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville, has been an active opponent of the transit vote. Other Republican state lawmakers in Gwinnett have declared themselves neutral.

“There’s a lot more support for transit in Gwinnett than there has been in a long time. If you’re up in my area, where people sit on I-85 every day, I imagine they’re much more in favor of it,” said Buzz Brockway, who until recently was a Republican state House member from Lawrenceville. He lost a 2018 primary contest for secretary of state. So for the moment, he’s something like a disengaged spectator.

“Why aren’t more Republicans speaking out? They’re hearing from their voters that they’re torn on it,” Brockway said.

In politics, every election is a dry run for the next. Because Republicans in Gwinnett are split on transit, their party can make no investment one way or another. The lack of consensus means the Georgia GOP cannot build voter or email lists in the run-up to the March 19 vote.

Georgia Democrats, however, are unified on transit. The state party is going all in, and says it will dispatch field operatives, communications staffers and voter protection resources to support the referendum. (No doubt while trying to keep a low profile that doesn’t spark a GOP backlash.)

Without meaning to, Republicans in Gwinnett have given Democrats the gift of a dress rehearsal for 2020. Theirs is a win-win scenario. Should MARTA win voter approval in Gwinnett next month, they’ll be able to claim a piece of the victory. If the referendum fails, they’ll have an issue that will only be stronger 18 months from now — with fresh voter data ready to be wielded like a cudgel.

Like Democrats, some Republicans are already sensing the inevitability of the situation. I was about to hang up on Brockway, the former GOP state lawmaker, when — despite his neutrality on the MARTA vote — he added this important thought.

“One thing I have heard,” he began, then started again. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Look we’ve got a county that is turning Democrat. Charlotte Nash may not run again. She’s up for election in 2020. MARTA’s going to come to Gwinnett sometime.

“Would we rather have a deal that’s negotiated by Charlotte Nash, or some future unknown, Democratic county commission? If you’re a Republican, this might be about as good as we can get. So take the deal,” he said.

Again, Brockway is neutral. That’s just what a few of his Republican friends are thinking.

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