A poster explaining the ballot question for Gwinnett County’s upcoming MARTA referendum. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

The Jolt: Gwinnett’s MARTA vote and the search for a GOP champion

One of the more important referendums in the history of metro Atlanta is little more than 10 days away.

Early voting to determine whether MARTA and heavy rail should be extended into Gwinnett County begins on Feb. 25. Election day is March 19.

The original plan had been to conduct the referendum as part of last November’s general election. But it was pushed into 2019 at the last moment, perhaps out of Republican fear that it would contribute to a blue wave.

Off-cycle, low-turnout campaigns are dicey things, and that could be particularly true in Gwinnett County, where political upheaval is the watchword. Naysayers are often more motivated, regardless of the issue. Proponents will need votes from surging Democrats and besieged Republicans alike.

On Monday, during a stop in Gwinnett, former Democratic for governor Stacey Abrams endorsed the MARTA vote. Her still active network will come in handy. The same might be said for Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Seventh District candidate who came so close to beating U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, last November.

Woodall has since let it be known that he won’t seek re-election, and Bourdeaux has announced her 2020 candidacy. We haven’t heard the Georgia State professor speak out on the transit vote – but don’t doubt that she’s being pressed to bring her supporters into the fray as well.

The most important variable in the Gwinnett/MARTA campaign may be whether a strong Republican voice can be found. Let’s assume that Gov. Brian Kemp won’t be drawn in. By March 19, his first legislative session will be reaching a crescendo.

As our AJC colleague Tyler Estep has written, most local GOP officials are laying low, or declaring themselves Switzerland. Looking around for Republican leaders of influence who might be persuaded to spend their capital in Gwinnett County, two figures come to mind.

One is the aforementioned Rob Woodall, who is now – in effect – a free agent liberated from the calculus of re-election.

Then there is former Gov. Nathan Deal. He is a resident of Hall County, but any trip to or from Atlanta requires him to slog through the I-85 portion of Gwinnett. More important, Deal signed the legislation that allowed next month’s referendum.

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Circle Feb. 19 on your calendar. A U.S. House subcommittee on voting rights will hold a field hearing in Atlanta next Tuesday, looking at on allegations of voter suppression during the 2018 elections. The hearing will be held at the Carter Center. It’s not immediately clear who will be asked to testify. 

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A few of our eagle-eyed readers questioned why Elizabeth Warren would be stumping in Georgia on Saturday at a Gwinnett County high school. The school system told us it allows school facilities to be rented for non-school sponsored events and activities and that the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign followed that procedure. Under the contract, the renter pays for security, clean-up costs and other fees.

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Expect Gov. Brian Kemp to quickly sign legislation that fixes a change to state law that many fear relaxed the requirement for motorists to stop for a boarding or unloading school bus in the oncoming lane. The measure, which passed the House and Senate unanimously, would be the first piece of legislation that Kemp signs into law. 

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State Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, has introduced a bill that would allow medical marijuana in oil form to be sold to permitted patients, our AJC colleague Mark Niesse reports. The proposal calls for up to 10 medical marijuana dispensaries to serve the state’s rising number of registered patients — 8,400 so far.

So far as we can tell, the bill hasn’t yet been assigned a number. But religious conservative opponents of medicinal pot will engage on the issue next Tuesday, led by the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. They’ll have a bash at the Depot, featuring former NYT writer Alex Berenson, author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence.”

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State Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville, has introduced legislation that would bar private ambulance operators from serving on boards that select which ambulance companies will serve local health districts.

HB 264 has some hefty co-sponsors: Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, chair of the House GOP caucus; Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, chair of the House Ethics Committee; and Terry England, R-Auburn, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. From the press release:

"We don't need conflicts of interest and the potential for corruption to be allowed in one of Georgia's most critical public safety systems," Werkheiser said. "Even the hint of impropriety should be eliminated if we want to be good stewards of taxpayer resources, and this bill would do just that by ending statutory loopholes that have been abused for too long."

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The border security spending package both chambers of Congress are poised to take up later today looks like the rare piece of legislation that will divide Georgia Republicans.

In the hours before the text of the compromise was released, several GOP members of the delegation told us they were inclined to vote against the bipartisan wall compromise, which would set aside billions less for President Trump’s border barrier than initially requested by the White House.

“I think that we need the 215 miles of fencing that the president has asked for,” said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton. “I would have been prepared to accept less than the whole 215 miles, but I am not going to accept simply 55 miles.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, will likely reject the compromise — he said the provisions related to detention bed numbers seemed incongruent. House colleague Tom Graves, R-Ranger, a member of the negotiating committee, refused to sign off on the bill and slammed the short time frame he’d been given to review it.

Several offices suggested their bosses were waiting for stronger signals from the White House before making a final decision, but others said they were willing to take the deal.

“I’ll take late rather than never,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, who announced his retirement last week. “Nancy Pelosi said never one dollar for any fencing to stop drugs, weapons and human trafficking. And there’s almost $1.4 billion in this bill. The money we need for our personnel that are on the border …. it’s there.”

More pressure will likely be on Democrats to get the bill over the finish line in the House. At least one Georgian confirmed Wednesday he’ll back it.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good bill,” said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, a senior appropriator. “It opens the government, it adds a lot of enhancements to the agencies that are covered … and I think it provides adequate border security.”

The Senate will likely go first. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have not said definitively how they’ll vote, but both indicated earlier this week they could be willing to support the compromise.

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Seventh District candidate Carolyn Bourdeaux picked up a big endorsement Tuesday as she looks to establish herself as the Democratic favorite heading into next year’s congressional race. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, said Bourdeaux “has the experience necessary to recognize and help design responsible, compassionate policy that serves the best interests.” He also endorsed Bourdeaux last year.

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