Georgia’s iconic election stickers are considered a badge of honor for many voters. (File Photo: AJC)

Cobb Commission race a mix of local issues, partisan politics

The incumbent northeast Cobb commissioner, a Republican, faces a Democratic challenger for the first time this November in a sign the district is becoming more competitive for liberal candidates.

Meanwhile, an independent write-in candidate is seeking to offer a third way to voters turned off by the partisan divide on a national and local level.

Democrat Caroline Holko, Republican JoAnn Birrell and Independent Joseph Pond are competing to represent District 3, which includes downtown Marietta, on the Cobb County Commission.

Each of the candidates have sought to distinguish themselves on local issues such as land use, taxes and spending. But they also see the potential impact of broader political allegiances and trends on the outcome of the race. Experts have said high turnout for Democrats in the midterms could shift down-ticket races, especially in places like Cobb that have historically voted for conservatives but went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Carol Brown of Canton Road Neighbors said voters who are paying attention to the commission race will likely be motivated by concerns over development and taxes.

“The average voter on both sides are either going to vote ‘R’ and like Donald Trump or are going to vote ‘D’ because they’re angry at Donald Trump,” said Brown, who leans Democratic but has endorsed Birrell. “I hate to say that, but … that’s clearly true.”

Birrell, a former lobbyist, said she’s not taking any voters for granted and has been campaigning hard. She has amassed the largest war chest, about $64,000, with the largest contributions coming from local law firms and real estate interests, some of whom often have business before the county.

Birrell characterized herself as a “consensus builder” who strives to find middle ground between residents and developers. She pointed to her record of ushering in redevelopment of distressed properties.

“People know me,” Birrell said. “They know I’m honest and I’m fair.”

Birrell is also proposing the creation of a special tax district to fund the police, and reducing transfers from the water fund to the general fund.

Democrat Holko, who homeschools her children and previously worked in the nonprofit sector, is running on a platform of support for public services like transit and libraries, which have been targeted for cuts over the years by fiscal conservatives. She has also promised to bring greater transparency to the county budget process and decision making.

By way of example, Holko pointed to recent disputes with the Atlanta Braves over costs associated with the publicly-financed stadium. Birrell voted in favor of the Braves deal and the most recent settlement ending that dispute.

“How many other surprises are waiting in that contract and how is it five years later and things are still cropping up to surprise the taxpayers?” Holko said, calling for a comprehensive public review of the Braves documents.

Holko has also called for Cobb to take a more active role in regional transit initiatives, expressing concern that the county would be left behind.

The Democrat was undaunted by the idea of running for office in a traditionally conservative district. She was inspired to run after volunteering for liberal candidates like Jon Ossoff, an experience that connected her to other progressives in her community.

“Cobb County, it may skew conservative but it’s not the guaranteed deep red stronghold that it once was,” she said. “Times change.”

Holko has raised less than $2,000 so far, almost all in small donations from private citizens.

Pond, the write-in independent candidate, said he’s not soliciting donations at all and has filed paperwork to that effect.

“I don’t like people asking me for money so therefore I’m not going to ask them for money,” Pond said.

The plumber first got involved in local politics when he was denied permission to keep backyard chickens. He is running as an outsider whose political views don’t fit neatly into either party orthodoxy: he’s opposed to government infringing on private property rights, but as a union member he’s in favor of collective bargaining.

He has expressed dissatisfaction with both the major political parties and wants to change the legislation to make the Cobb Commission nonpartisan.

“When people are putting party over principle, they’re doing it on a local level and a national level,” Pond said.

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