From Big Apple to Buckhead: Fundraiser grows war chest for cityhood push

An aerial photo shows a Buckhead neighborhood and the Atlanta skyline. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
An aerial photo shows a Buckhead neighborhood and the Atlanta skyline. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Bill White, who hosted $5 million Trump fundraiser in 2018, now making case for ‘Buckhead City’

One evening in early May, dozens of Buckhead residents and business owners schmoozed with high-powered state lawmakers at a lavish home in Atlanta’s wealthiest community and listened to speeches about why Buckhead should break away from Atlanta and form its own city.

The cost of attendance was steep: $2,500 per couple, and up to $25,000 to be a “chair” of the event. The swanky fundraiser was a success: The group pushing for Buckhead cityhood ended the night over $300,000 richer.

The Buckhead City Committee now reports it has over $550,000 in the bank and in pledged donations, and is planning a feasibility study on the creation of “Buckhead City.”

Behind the scenes, a major force spearheading the effort is a politically connected fundraising whiz with a colorful political and business history who has personally known former President Donald Trump for 30 years.

Bill White — who was selected last month to be CEO and chair of the Buckhead City Committee, formerly known as the Buckhead Exploratory Committee — has a reputation as a skilled fundraiser, especially in recent years for Republican campaigns and causes.

ExploreFollow Buckhead cityhood news from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bill White is leading the Buckhead cityhood movement. (Photo courtesy of Bill White)
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Bill White is leading the Buckhead cityhood movement. (Photo courtesy of Bill White)

While the push for Buckhead cityhood could be an uphill battle and faces a number of legislative hurdles, having a large war chest helps its chances of survival in the Georgia Capitol. Buckhead City proponents are pushing for lawmakers to pass the necessary legislation next year that would let Buckhead residents vote on whether to create the new city.

White is confident his group will be able to reach its goal of raising $1.5 to $1.6 million by next April. Those funds, he said, could be spent on lobbyists and outreach to residents to promote the idea of cityhood.

“I’ve been told many times by a lot of our significant donors who are 100% behind us that no matter what, we’re gonna have all the money we need,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview.

ExploreFresh opposition to Buckhead cityhood push emerges with new group

The newly formed group opposing Buckhead cityhood, the Committee for a United Atlanta, acknowledges the fundraising power of the pro-cityhood group.

“I’m not dismissing it,” said former state Rep. Edward Lindsey, who represented a large part of Buckhead in the Legislature for almost 10 years and is now co-chairing the new committee. “I have heard (White) is a very proficient fundraiser, so I do take him seriously.”

Part of Buckhead's commercial core, where a number of luxury shops are located. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Part of Buckhead's commercial core, where a number of luxury shops are located. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘The guy can raise the money’

White moved from New York to Atlanta almost three years ago with an unconventional political past. As a 2018 New York Times profile noted, White and his husband Bryan Eure were well-known in New York’s social circles for years as big Democratic fundraisers. Now, they are among former President Trump’s biggest supporters. In 2018, the couple hosted a fundraiser for Trump that raked in $5 million.

Before that, White was president of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan, raising over a billion dollars for the museum and its charities. He left the organization suddenly in 2010. The state of New York had previously launched an investigation into whether he participated in an illegal campaign fundraising scheme. White was not charged with a crime and said he did nothing wrong, and that the matter was unrelated to his running of the Intrepid. He later agreed to pay $1 million in restitution to the state as a settlement.

ExploreWhat would ‘Buckhead City’ look like? We crunched the numbers

White now runs the Constellations Group, a strategy and consulting firm based in Atlanta, and is president of his neighborhood association in Paces.

He was brought on to help the Buckhead city committee through the group’s lobbyists, whom White knew through a family member. Volunteering his time, White helped organize the early May fundraiser that brought in $300,000, and is in the process of planning future fundraisers.

“I love fundraising when it’s fun. If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it,” he said. “You have to be appealing to all sides for support, for contributions, for help, so I think we’re putting that into play here.”

White said 10 state legislators attended the most recent event, including Sen. Brandon Beach, who sponsored the 2021 Senate bill that is the first step required for cityhood.

“I was shocked at how many people were there. Not only how many people that were there, but the people that were there,” Beach said, noting that several “major players” in the Buckhead-area business scene attended. Beach said he supports the idea because of rising violent crime in Atlanta.

Bill White and other leaders of the Buckhead cityhood movement speak at an early May fundraiser for the Buckhead City Committee.
Caption
Bill White and other leaders of the Buckhead cityhood movement speak at an early May fundraiser for the Buckhead City Committee.

Credit: Screenshot via Instagram

Credit: Screenshot via Instagram

Beach, whose district does not include Buckhead but spans part of North Fulton, said White’s fundraising acumen could be key to giving the cityhood idea political momentum. Beach said he supports cityhood for Buckhead due to rising violent crime in Atlanta.

“I do know from a fundraising standpoint, the guy can raise the money,” Beach said. “It’ll take money to get the message out.”

White, who was also appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to the state’s Board of Corrections last year, is well-known in Republican circles. On his Instagram page, White often posts photos of himself and his husband with powerful GOP figures on national and state level, including Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and members of the Trump family.

In mid-May, according to photos on his Instagram, White dined at the Capital City Club in Buckhead with several GOP heavyweights: former Gov. Sonny Perdue, former Congressman Doug Collins, Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer, prominent Republican operative Ralph Reed and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

A few weeks earlier, he was at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in support of former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ campaign for Arkansas governor.

White visited Mar-a-Lago in April where former President Trump spoke in support of Sarah Huckabee Sanders' campaign for Arkansas governor.
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White visited Mar-a-Lago in April where former President Trump spoke in support of Sarah Huckabee Sanders' campaign for Arkansas governor.

Credit: Screenshot via Instagram

Credit: Screenshot via Instagram

On his Twitter account, White often posts about crime in Atlanta and the pro-Buckhead cityhood cause, but he also promotes national pro-Trump and pro-Republican issues. In several posts, he has furthered the unsubstantiated claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump because of fraud.

White, who said he identifies as an independent, said his personal politics are separate from the Buckhead City Committee’s mission.

Our effort is non-partisan,” he said. “We can’t look like we’re political, and I do my best to stay out of that fray.”

Building a war chest

White said proponents of the cityhood cause range from residents who donate a couple hundred dollars to large-scale donors giving thousands. White said donors were promised they could remain anonymous, so the committee, which is registered as a nonprofit, is not releasing a list of its benefactors.

ExploreOPINION: Fear is the greatest motivator in Buckhead cityhood movement

When the General Assembly returns for its 2022 session, both sides are likely to flex their political connections to push for or against Buckhead cityhood.

Buckhead is known for its spacious, wooded neighborhoods and upscale shopping options. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Buckhead is known for its spacious, wooded neighborhoods and upscale shopping options. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The pro-cityhood committee recently signed a contract for a feasibility study to look into whether Buckhead City would be financially viable, White said. Its lobbyists are Cynthia Studdard Garst, a well-known lobbyist, and John Garst, a campaign consultant and pollster, according to state records. Both have represented cityhood movements under the Gold Dome before.

Lindsey, a Republican, said the Committee for a United Atlanta also plans to lobby lawmakers and educate voters, though it has not yet released a fundraising goal or budget. He said the proposal faces a number of legislative roadblocks and raises questions over schools, the boundaries of Buckhead City and how it would impact Atlanta’s bonds and property tax rolls. Lindsey also pointed out that no state lawmaker who represents Buckhead has backed the cityhood proposal.

While the bill appears to have support in the state Senate, it remains to be seen whether the bill would have enough to pass the House, including the backing of House Speaker David Ralston.

Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for Ralston, said the speaker has yet not taken a position on Buckhead cityhood, but he “looks forward to reviewing the required feasibility study once it is completed. That said, he is deeply concerned about the crime wave sweeping across the city of Atlanta and understands the desire of residents to find another way forward.”

The outcome of the upcoming mayoral race could also impact the movement’s momentum heading into the next legislative session.

“We intend to reach out and seriously push each of the candidates,” Lindsey said, to prioritize issues that matter to voters in Buckhead and the rest of the city. “There’s a lot of discussion that has to go on. Am I saying they have a chance or no chance? We’ll have to see.”

The cityhood process

Here are the steps required for a new city to be formed in Georgia:

• A local group decides it wants to incorporate.

• A bill, sponsored by a member of the state Legislature, is introduced and a feasibility study is done to see whether the new city would be viable.

• If the House and Senate pass the bill, it goes to the governor’s desk.

• If the governor signs it, a referendum is then placed on the ballot, allowing voters to choose whether they would like their community to form a new city. Approval requires a simple majority.

A closer look at ‘Buckhead City’

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed data gathered by the U.S. Census to examine what the proposed Buckhead City might look like:

Population: 89,000

Racial breakdown: 74% white, 11% Black, 8% Asian, 5% Latino, 2% others

Annual median household income: $140,500

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2019 estimates

Note: Data based on geographic boundaries in Buckhead City bill filed during 2021 legislative session