Republicans gain influence in Fulton government

A Fulton County Commission long the domain of Democrats is about to get an infusion of Republicans bent on remaking government in Georgia’s largest county.

With no Democratic opposition in the November general election, two new Republicans – Bob Ellis of Milton and Lee Morris of Atlanta – will join incumbent Republican Liz Hausmann of Johns Creek to give the party a bigger say in Fulton affairs than it’s had in years. Exactly how big a say remains to be seen.

Two other Republicans candidates face tough general election contests against veteran Democratic incumbents.

But even if Republicans don’t gain a majority on the seven-member commission, they’re confident their vision of a smaller, more effective government will resonate with their Democratic colleagues at a time when Fulton is struggling to pay for popular services like libraries and senior programs.

“I don’t think anybody wants to waste tax dollars,” Ellis said. “If there’s a way for us to become more efficient and effective, particularly in (administrative) areas, I see that as a win-win opportunity for everybody.”

Democrats have controlled the Fulton Board of Commissioners for decades. For nearly 20 years beginning in the mid-70s, Tom Lowe of Atlanta was the commission’s lone Republican. But the party picked up a second and third seat beginning in the mid-1990s. That era of growing Republican influence coincided with north Fulton residents’ rising discontent with county government — discontent manifested in tax revolts and the formation of new cities.

But Fulton remains a Democratic stronghold – President Barack Obama won 64 percent of the county vote in 2012. And many Democrats on the county commission have traditionally supported robust county services for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the elderly.

Since 2007, Hausmann and the-soon-to-retire Lowe have been the commission’s only Republicans. Lowe, 85, has been slowed by health problems. That’s sometimes left Hausmann as the lone Republican voice advocating for smaller government.

That will change next year because of a Republican redistricting plan approved by the General Assembly. The plan eliminated one of two at-large commission seats in favor of a new north Fulton district. It also pitted two veteran Democrats – Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards – against each other in this year’s primary. Darnell won a narrow victory on Tuesday and is the heavy favorite over Republican Abraham Watson in November.

In the chairman’s race, incumbent John Eaves leads fellow Democrat Robb Pitts by a few hundred votes, and Pitts has said he may request a recount after the election is certified Tuesday. The winner will face political newcomer Republican Earl Cooper in November.

Regardless of what happens with those races, Republicans will have a greater say in Fulton government. And their focus on reduced spending will get a better hearing.

“What I hope to do is really find and eliminate the inefficiencies in Fulton County spending,” Morris said. “Having been in government at the Atlanta City Council many years ago, I know they’re there.”

Morris, general counsel and chief financial officer of an architectural and engineering firm, defeated three other Republicans in the race for District 3, which includes parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs. It’s the seat Lowe, who is retiring from the commission, has held for nearly 40 years.

Ellis, an insurance company executive, prevailed over fellow Republican Eric Broadwell in District 2, the new north Fulton seat, which includes parts of Roswell, Alpharetta and Milton.

Hausmann, public policy coordinator for the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, was elected four years ago in what, under the redistricting plan, is now District 1. It includes Johns Creek and parts of Alpharetta.

The Republicans talk of privatizing government functions like payroll, cutting administrative spending and working with private groups or other governments to eliminate duplication of services. They talk of fiscal responsibility – though not necessarily of eliminating services.

“I don’t think Fulton County has a revenue problem. I think we have a spending problem,” Hausmann said. “But we still have people in our community who need our services.”

That agenda may find favor with Democrats in the current fiscal environment. In January, commissioners approved a budget that reduced library hours, raised fees for senior programs and anticipates a property tax increase this summer. Talk of government efficiency has been common as county officials continue to seek ways to balance the budget.

“We want to provide the best services to our citizens at the least expensive cost,” Eaves said.

The chairman believes there will be some common ground among Democrats and Republicans on the new commission. He plans to convene meetings early next year to try to define those shared interests.

“My goal is to figure out how we can have a common agenda, three to five things that we can agree on,” Eaves said. “Maybe (issues) six through ten, we won’t agree on. But at least on one through five, rain or shine, we’re going to agree on them.”

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