Cobb chairman’s race a delayed stadium referendum

The glossy campaign flier shows Cobb Commission chairman Tim Lee in a hard hat and green safety vest, with the concrete and steel of SunTrust Park rising into the sky behind him.

The message is equal parts baseball metaphor, re-election pitch, and bean ball: “Conservative Tim Lee hit a home run for Cobb taxpayers.

“Despite the naysayers and the liberal Atlanta media that refuse to tell the truth, the Braves move IS A PROVEN HOME RUN FOR COBB TAXPAYERS.”

The cost-benefit of SunTrust Park is still unknown, but the political reality of Lee’s handling of the $376 million public investment in the stadium landed with a thud Tuesday.

Lee, chairman of the county commission since 2010 with a huge monetary advantage, finished a distant second in the three-man Republican primary election — nine percentage points behind challenger Mike Boyce, who consistently painted the race as a delayed referendum on Lee’s handling of stadium issues. The two will square off in a winner-take-all run-off election July 26, after Boyce finished with 49 percent of the 36,072 votes cast. Boyce was just a few hundred votes short of winning outright.

Exit polling performed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday found that the stadium was indeed the primary issue that decided four out of five ballots cast from 40 randomly selected voters — people who voted both for and against Lee.

Of those surveyed at four polling locations in different parts of the county: 25 went for Boyce; 13 supported Lee; and 2 voted for Larry Savage.

“So far, I like the job Lee has done so there’s no reason to go elsewhere,” Clem Scott, 61, said.

“I voted for Mike Boyce because he’s not Tim Lee,” said Steve Needel, 60.

Boyce has built a grass-roots campaign centered on personal contact with voters. He assembled a large team of volunteers that started canvassing the county in January, promising along the way a public vote before the county incurs substantial debt while he is in office.

In the Braves’ deal, Cobb used a legal maneuver — affirmed as Constitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court — to avoid a vote on the stadium debt.

“The people have made it very clear that … before you spend their money they want you to ask permission,” Boyce said. “Tim Lee never did that. He tried to project that it was no big deal. Clearly, this was a delayed referendum.”

Lee wouldn’t grant The Atlanta Journal-Constitution an interview, but pushed back against that idea in the Marietta newspaper.

“My campaign has been about my record of tax cuts, enhancing public safety, creating jobs and growing the economy,” Lee was quoted as saying. Boyce’s “campaign has been about looking backwards. He’s not authored one idea yet of what the county might look like under his leadership. Frankly, I disagree — it’s not about that referendum, I think it’s about who’s been able to make the hard decisions and move things forward versus someone who wants to take us backwards.”

Kerwin Swint, chair of Kennesaw State University Political Science Department, said there was a legitimate need for some secrecy around the deal because of the the huge investment in real estate the Braves had to make for the $672 million SunTrust Park and the team’s nearly $500 million mixed-use development. A referendum would have required months of waiting for an election with an uncertain outcome.

“The real estate nature of the deal, … in that case, Lee’s getting a little bit of a bad rap,” Swint said. “But he’s also brought a lot of this on himself, with the way he’s handled it.

“The thing about the Cobb Commission chair: It’s never been a picnic (because of) … the big anti-tax movement against the big push from the business community (encouraging public investment).

“There’s always been a clash there.”

Lee’s campaign has focused heavily on direct mail and billboards — all of which tout his conservatism and record of encouraging economic development, investing in new police positions and continuation of the county’s excellent credit rating. His stadium flier calls his approach to the Braves deal “conservative …negotiating a hard cap on the public investment to make certain that Cobb taxpayers would not be responsible for any cost overruns.”

“My opponent has been spreading mistruths and false choices among the electorate that there was an option for a referendum,” Lee’s campaign wrote in an email response to questions from the AJC. “I do not know of any economic development project of this magnitude in Georgia that has been put to a referendum. The Braves were going to move to a different site if there was a delay.”

Lee had a run-off election four years ago, against former Cobb chairman Bill Byrne. Lee won the popular vote in the 2012 general election by wide margins, but only beat Byrne in the runoff by 1,300 votes.

Runoffs are different because only a fraction of people who voted in the general election typically show up for the second round, Swint said.

Two well-known men outside of the respective campaigns could have an impact this year — Larry Savage, who finished with 10-percent of the vote in the chairman’s race, and commissioner Bob Ott.

Ott routed challenger Jonathan Page this year with 67-percent of the vote. But Page was heavily supported in a bitter campaign by people loyal to Lee, and a political action committee funded a negative mailing against Ott the weekend before the election: “Flip-flopper Bob Ott is on every side … but ours. Vote no Bob Ott.”

Ott also has clashed with Lee repeatedly over the last few years, and there is a large overlap between supporters of Ott and Boyce. But Ott declined to comment when asked if he would work behind the scenes to help Boyce get out the vote.

And Savage collected 3,700 votes this year running a campaign similar to Boyce’s in that it was highly critical Lee’s decision against a referendum on stadium debt. Still, he told the AJC that his endorsement is up for grabs.

“I don’t think you make important decisions when you’re stretched emotionally,” Savage said Thursday. “It’s not a slam dunk. A lot of people don’t just want Tim out of office, they want to punish him. I’m not one of those people who think Tim Lee’s body should be buried in several different graves.”

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