A quiet ground war is being waged in Cobb County.
Foot soldiers go door to door, recruiting support for their side in a power struggle over the future of the county, where a half-a-billion-dollar sports stadium is pitting neighbor against neighbor.
The final battle will take place on July 26, when incumbent Tim Lee will face off against Mike Boyce, a retired marine colonel, in a runoff for county commission chairman.
Five weeks ago, Boyce captured 49 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, just shy of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff. With no Democrat in the race, the winner of the July runoff likely will sail to victory unopposed at the Nov. 8 general election.
Lee is running on his legacy of bringing the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County, a deal he secured by committing $400 million in public money to build and maintain a new ballfield. In return, Lee says, the county will reap the benefits of $1.2 billion in investment from the park and surrounding development.
But Boyce’s candidacy is drawing on a deep well of resentment over the deal, which was struck in secret without a public vote.
He promises transparency, fiscal conservatism and martial efficiency, having run a major base in Hawaii and served in senior military positions throughout the Middle East. And — though he’s run for public office only once, unsuccessfully — he appears to have put together a crucial, well-organized army of volunteers.
“Grassroots is so important because it makes such an impact on voters in local elections,” said Kerwin Swint, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University.
Swint said Boyce has built a campaign from the ground up.
Meanwhile, Lee has run a “mass media campaign,” relying more on direct mail and advertising, Swint said.
“I think maybe they got to the grassroots part of it late in the game,” he said of Lee’s campaign. “If Tim Lee was going to have a chance at winning the runoff, they really had to crank up the grassroots part of his campaign. Sounds like they have; whether it’s enough I don’t know.”
Over the course of two days, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shadowed both campaigns as they reached out to voters in their homes.
“We first started doing door to door in January, right after New Year’s, and by the middle of February it became very clear that the issue, and the only issue, at the door was the bond deal,” Boyce said.
On a sweltering afternoon recently, he approached Frances Gosnell of East Cobb as she attended to her yard with a backpack leaf blower.
“I love the Braves. I’m kind of excited they’re here, but I think that was a little sneaky deal,” said Gosnell, a retired accountant and 30-year Cobb resident.
A few doors down, Barbara Barry told Boyce to save his fliers.
“Keep it, we’re voting for Mike,” she said, initially unaware that she was speaking to the candidate himself.
“I trust Tim Lee that much,” she said, squinting through a tiny gap between her thumb and forefinger.
Another neighbor, Judy Renault, who is retired from sales, was skeptical at first.
“So your main thing is no more secret deals. Can you really guarantee that?” she asked Boyce.
“I can,” he replied.
She came around quickly.
“I’ve always been proud of Cobb County and our people and the progress we’ve made and the benefits of living in Cobb County until these … issues came up,” she said, referring to the Braves deal and changes to water billing. “Do you have a sign I can put in my yard?”
Similar views were echoed by many of the residents Boyce found at home that day. Of course, many residents were not home. And, while no one refused Boyce’s fliers, some appeared to be accepting them out of politeness.
Boyce insisted he was buoyed, not frustrated, by failing to capture the primary decisively, falling short by a few hundred votes.
“I was confident that we had the right narrative: If we can vote on a $40 million park bond, why can’t we vote on a $350 million stadium,” Boyce said. “The message to me was that this grassroots effort, if you do it the way we did it, it will work. So we’ve continued to use the same plan because why would you change something that works?”
Boyce estimated he has about 300 volunteers working on his campaign. Each day, at least five teams of two go door to door distributing campaign materials and urging voters to come out for the July 26 runoff. He estimated that his campaign has knocked on more than 20,000 doors and reached more than 40,000 people by phone.
Lee’s campaign declined to provide details of their person-to-person outreach or to allow a reporter to shadow the candidate.
“Our numbers are strong,” said Lee’s campaign spokesperson, Brian Robinson.
At a recent meet-up for Lee, over a dozen volunteers gathered in his campaign headquarters in downtown Marietta to hear political director Joseph Cortes lay out their strategy.
“We really want to have a robust absentee and early vote program; we will win this race before Election Day,” Cortes said. “There’s more than one show in town with strong grassroots support and a strong base of volunteers.”
Cortes said hundreds of people were involved in the campaign at some level.
Lee believes low voter turnout affected his showing in the primary. His tells people to vote for him to continue the county’s trend of economic development and preserve its quality of life.
“I don’t hear as much negative as you would think, folks most of the time just want to know … what have I done,” Lee said. “I’ve only had a couple of people say ‘I know who you are; I don’t want to have anything to do with you.’”
Lee expressed confidence in his ability to win. He’s twice emerged the winner of a primary runoff, most recently in 2012.
“You see the energy and the excitement here?” he said, gesturing a roomful of volunteers. “I’m confident we’re going to get the number of people we need to win, it’s just taking a little work, that’s all.”
For Christian Reeves, a recent University of Georgia graduate, Lee’s campaign is his first experience in local politics. And while he doesn’t have a personal stake in, say, property taxes, Reeves is excited about the Braves coming to Cobb County and the hiring of new police officers during Lee’s tenure.
“I really do worry about safety for me and my girlfriend,” Reeves said.
Making his way through neighborhoods in Kennesaw, Reeves was amiable and brief as he made his pitch for Lee. At 6 feet 1 inch, he has developed strategies to avoid scaring potential voters; he stands away from the door, in profile, so as not to appear as a hulking presence peering into the house.
“I would like to stay optimistic and say that they are going to be voting because they saw our face,” Reeves said. “They’re willing to go to the polls because we’re willing to go to their houses.”
Reeves found George Ragsdale working on his truck in his driveway. Ragsdale, a general contractor who has lived in the county since 1970, is thrilled with the growth brought about by the Braves stadium.
“Obviously, taxes are a big issue for all of us, as well as the fact that I’ve been very favorably impressed with what Chairman Lee has done in getting the Atlanta Braves here,” he said. “I think it’s all about growth, and I’m all for it.”
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