How Atlanta ducked a Buckhead divorce

220103-Atlanta-Andre Dickens waves to the crowd just after being sworn in as Mayor of Atlanta during his inauguration ceremony at Georgia Tech on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220103-Atlanta-Andre Dickens waves to the crowd just after being sworn in as Mayor of Atlanta during his inauguration ceremony at Georgia Tech on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Ahead of an election-year legislative session, the Republican-led push to carve a new city out of Buckhead had seven figures in the bank and political momentum in its favor.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose strained ties with state leaders helped fuel the cityhood movement, was on her way out. Her untested successor, Andre Dickens, hadn’t yet had time to make a dent on Atlanta’s violent crime rate, let alone prove himself to GOP leaders.

Republicans, meanwhile, were eager to capitalize on crime-fighting as a red-meat conservative issue, so even those who were far from crime in the capital city jumped on the pro-secession movement.

And Gov. Brian Kemp was under pressure from a pro-Donald Trump challenger, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who announced his support for Buckhead’s secession right out of the gate.

Instead, the Buckhead cityhood push was effectively buried, at least for this year, in back-to-back pronouncements from two powerful Republican leaders who each refused to support an unprecedented attempt to split Atlanta into two municipalities.

So what happened?

AJC Podcast: Buckhead cityhood is dead for now – but what’s next?

The reasons behind Buckhead cityhood’s failure show the unpredictable dynamics of a state where conservative Republicans control the Legislature and every constitutional office, but Democrats are threatening to build on their 2020 gains.

The initiative was in the crosshairs even before it debuted under the Gold Dome. Republicans were worried about violating the oft-cited — and oft-ignored — principle of local control, and concerned with setting a new standard by allowing a neighborhood to divorce from an existing city for the first time.

And the cause wasn’t helped by a leader who alienated influential legislators, with a Trump-like bombast and social media controversies that included amplifying a conspiracy theory about a well-respected state transit official who died by suicide last month.

A growing backlash from powerful business leaders also hampered the effort. So did a new mayor who devoted time to building bonds with Republican leaders and ensuring he was visible in Buckhead in the first weeks of his tenure.

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (left) and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens joined the Georgia Municipal Association and city leaders for the annual Cities United Summit on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (City of Atlanta)

Credit: City of Atlanta

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (left) and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens joined the Georgia Municipal Association and city leaders for the annual Cities United Summit on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (City of Atlanta)

Credit: City of Atlanta

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (left) and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens joined the Georgia Municipal Association and city leaders for the annual Cities United Summit on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (City of Atlanta)

Credit: City of Atlanta

Credit: City of Atlanta

“Mayor Dickens has been great. He immediately reached out to us,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who delivered the first stinging blow to cityhood two weeks ago by saying he would block it from passing the Senate. “We know in advance we are not going to agree on everything, but we both know that we can work on everything together.”

Allies and alliances

That the movement gained so much traction this fast astounded opponents who once dismissed the cityhood push as the longest of long shots.

The Buckhead City Committee, led by an experienced fundraiser named Bill White, had amassed almost $2 million — money that helped finance a team of lobbyists, media specialists and event organizers to give the effort legitimate political clout.

White, who moved to Buckhead from New York less than four years ago, had made a career off fundraising for political and social causes by cultivating relationships with powerbrokers.

He quickly forged alliances with several Republicans in the state Senate, though leaders of the GOP-controlled House were more skeptical. Also notably missing from his list of supporters: Any legislators who represented Buckhead in the statehouse. Each one, all Democrats, forcefully opposed the legislation.

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February 4, 2022 Atlanta - Bill White, chairman and chief executive officer of the Buckhead City Committee, shows proposed Buckhead City map at Buckhead City headquarters in Buckhead on Friday, February 4, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

February 4, 2022 Atlanta - Bill White, chairman and chief executive officer of the Buckhead City Committee, shows proposed Buckhead City map at Buckhead City headquarters in Buckhead on Friday, February 4, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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February 4, 2022 Atlanta - Bill White, chairman and chief executive officer of the Buckhead City Committee, shows proposed Buckhead City map at Buckhead City headquarters in Buckhead on Friday, February 4, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Committee for a United Atlanta was formed in opposition to the movement, made up of a number of high-powered business leaders.

Yards signs for both sides of the issue quickly sprouted in leafy Buckhead neighborhoods, an indication of how quickly the debate had mushroomed.

At around the same time, then-Councilman Dickens was in the throes of his bid to become Atlanta’s mayor, vowing to listen to Buckhead residents, aggressively combat crime and keep the city intact.

‘Plugging away’

Early in the morning of Dec. 1, just a few hours after Dickens’ jubilant election party ended at The Gathering Spot near downtown Atlanta, House Speaker David Ralston’s phone lit up.

The new mayor-elect was on the line. It was about 7:30 in the morning and Ralston was just starting his day.

“You should be heading to vacation or something,” Ralston recalled telling Dickens.

Dickens said he wanted to call “because I want you to know how much I want to work with the House of Representatives to move this state forward.’”

It was part of a plan Dickens put into motion mere hours after winning the runoff to become Atlanta’s 61st mayor. Dickens also aggressively courted Duncan, Gov. Brian Kemp and key legislative leaders — while steering clear of divisive partisan issues that would antagonize Republicans.

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens addresses the crowd during the unveiling of the new Buckhead mini-precinct on Thursday, January 13, 2022 Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens addresses the crowd  during the unveiling of the new Buckhead mini-precinct on Thursday, January 13, 2022 Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens addresses the crowd during the unveiling of the new Buckhead mini-precinct on Thursday, January 13, 2022 Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He walked over to the Capitol six times for meetings and hosted legislators at City Hall, including some of sponsors of the cityhood bill.

Dickens said he sought out events where he knew he would run into state leaders, “just to talk to them and say, ‘Hey, today we’re working on this in the city, we’re working on that.’”

“I just kept plugging away at everybody at the state House and the state Senate,” Dickens said in an interview.

As the legislative session picked up, so did lobbying efforts on both sides of the issue.

Some of the most storied corporate powers in Buckhead urged lawmakers to oppose Buckhead cityhood or leave the neighborhood’s commercial center out of the proposal. Unanswered questions on issues like bonding and education grated lawmakers, who haplessly pressed for details that never came.

“They had an impossible goal,” Neill Herring, a longtime lobbyist and observer of state politics, said of the cityhood movement. “This project was outrageous. Even by the pretty loose standards for outrageousness at the Georgia General Assembly.”

Much attention was also focused on White, who became a target for opponents. An anonymous flyer told Buckhead residents to not “let fast-talking New Yorkers destroy Atlanta.”

He caught flack at the beginning of the new year after he retweeted a post from a blog associated with white nationalists, prompting an apology.

But it was Instagram post earlier this month that promoted a conspiracy theory about the death of MARTA CEO Jeff Parker, who died by suicide last month, that sparked the most heated backlash.

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Buckhead City supporters, local residents and several state senators, including Greg Dolezal, seated, signed the bill in support of the city onsite, illustrating support in the state Senate, with the bill’s writer Senator Brandon Beach, seated right, at Loudermilk Park on Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021. The group announced that during the upcoming special legislative session the bill will be discussed. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Buckhead City supporters, local residents and several state senators, including Greg Dolezal, seated, signed the bill in support of the city onsite, illustrating support in the state Senate, with the bill’s writer Senator Brandon Beach, seated right, at Loudermilk Park on Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021. The group announced that during the upcoming special legislative session the bill will be discussed.    (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Buckhead City supporters, local residents and several state senators, including Greg Dolezal, seated, signed the bill in support of the city onsite, illustrating support in the state Senate, with the bill’s writer Senator Brandon Beach, seated right, at Loudermilk Park on Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021. The group announced that during the upcoming special legislative session the bill will be discussed. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Even devoted advocates quickly distanced themselves from White. It was no coincidence that Duncan opposed the cityhood push shortly after, citing White’s “disgusting” post about Parker in his remarks to the AJC opposing the separation movement.

Breathing room

Despite the effort’s defeat, Buckhead City supporters rewarded White with a vote of confidence. At a press conference Wednesday, he did not address the criticism over his polarizing decisions or take responsibility for the movement’s failure this year, but instead panned the “obsession of trying to blame it on maybe one person.”

“We will never give up,” White said.

Though he and his allies vowed to fight on, the movement’s future remains in limbo.

Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, is a staunch opponent of the secession effort and would veto any legislation if elected governor. If Kemp or Perdue wins, there’s no telling if Republicans will still rally behind the measure — especially if White is still the face of the movement.

And Dickens now has more time to strengthen important relationships at the Capitol and implement his crime-fighting plan.

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December 1, 2021 Atlanta - Mayor-elect Andre Dickens (right) exchanges fist-bumps before their staff meeting at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. Andre Dickens, the Atlanta native who first beat an incumbent eight years ago for a spot on the City Council, defeated Felicia Moore in Tuesday’s runoff election to become Atlanta’s 61st mayor. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

December 1, 2021 Atlanta - Mayor-elect Andre Dickens (right) exchanges fist-bumps before their staff meeting at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. Andre Dickens, the Atlanta native who first beat an incumbent eight years ago for a spot on the City Council, defeated Felicia Moore in Tuesday’s runoff election to become Atlanta’s 61st mayor. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
December 1, 2021 Atlanta - Mayor-elect Andre Dickens (right) exchanges fist-bumps before their staff meeting at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. Andre Dickens, the Atlanta native who first beat an incumbent eight years ago for a spot on the City Council, defeated Felicia Moore in Tuesday’s runoff election to become Atlanta’s 61st mayor. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Edward Lindsey, the co-chair of the anti-cityhood Committee for a United Atlanta, said in a statement that Georgians should now give Dickens a chance to do his job.

“Neighbors can disagree,” he said. “But as our history tells us, it is far better to meet our challenges in unity, rather than split apart.”