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Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Where do Gwinnett’s political leaders land on MARTA? It’s complicated

There are many Democrats representing Gwinnett these days and, if there’s one who doesn’t support the county’s upcoming MARTA referendum, they haven’t made themselves known.

The view from where local Republicans sit is different. Or at least more complicated.

A few conservative Gwinnett leaders have come out as vehemently opposed to or openly supportive of the vote that, one way or another, will alter the fate of transit not just in their county but across metro Atlanta.

Passage of the measure — which would ratify a service contract between Gwinnett and MARTA and commit residents to paying a new 1 percent sales tax to fund projects — would keep transit’s region-wide momentum rolling. Failure would stop it in its tracks.

But most Gwinnett Republicans, from state legislators to county commissioners and mayors, either ignored inquiries from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution or have avoided directly answering questions about their position on the referendum — a likely symptom of the delicate political dance they’re left to perform when it comes to transit.

IN-DEPTH: A comprehensive voter’s guide to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum

Resistance to public transportation is a deep-seated Republican tradition in Gwinnett, but the county’s changing political landscape means every decision is a balance between appeasing the remaining conservative base and trying not to alienate constituencies that are leaning further and further to the left: Democrat Stacey Abrams took Gwinnett by more than 14 points in November’s governor’s race; the county’s delegation to the state Capitol suddenly has twice as many Democrats as Republicans; and the county commission has its first Democrats in three decades.

There is also inter-party toe-stepping to consider. The Gwinnett Chamber and its business leaders, which are still largely made up of Republicans, have formally supported the effort  and touted its potential impact on economic development. Gwinnett’s Republican Commission Chairman, Charlotte Nash, helped lead the push for legislation that enabled March 19’s election to take place — with support from House Speaker David Ralston and others.

Transit has always been a divisive topic in suburbs like Gwinnett. But now the considerations for conservatieves are even more complex.

And it shows.

3/1/2018 - Atlanta - Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, presents the bill. The house passed HB 918 this afternoon after the Georgia Senate passed legislation to lower the state income tax rate now that the bill no longer includes a tax break for Delta. The House gave it final approval and is sending it to Gov. Nathan Deal, who has promised to sign it. Deal cleared the way for it Wednesday, agreeing to sign the measure without the Delta break he wanted. The governor said he will seek the Delta tax break in separate legislation. Legislative photos from today, the 29th day of the 2018 General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The AJC sent inquiries to all 25 legislators whose district includes parts of Gwinnett County. Ten of the 17 Democratic members of the delegation responded and all who did were in favor of the referendum. Others have publicly expressed their support.

The Republican response was more sparse — and largely non-committal.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, the Gwinnett House delegation chair until Democrats became a majority following November’s elections, said his policy is not to weigh in on public votes.

But he wrote the following in an email: “As I have said previously, I consider this issue with the following: (1) Will it reduce Gwinnett traffic congestion? (2) Does it provide financial accountability? and (3) Is it adaptable to future technological advancements in mobility?”

IN-DEPTH: Is Gwinnett traffic bad enough to push voters toward MARTA?

Sen. Renee Unterman, Gwinnett’s longest-tenured legislator, said she was “reserving judgement” on her personal vote until she’s “heard the arguments for and against transit expansion from the citizens and any groups that wish to weigh in.”

But “I applaud the open and transparent way Chairwoman Nash has conducted her work to bring this to the ballot, and I appreciate the Board of Commissioners putting the time and effort into placing a well-thought out plan before the voters,” Unterman wrote.

Rep. Brett Harrell, a former mayor of Snellville who’s been in the House since 2011, has been perhaps the most vocal critic of Gwinnett’s transit plans. He has regularly criticized them on his Facebook page in recent weeks, criticizing the cost of heavy rail and touting other potential transit options.

“Classic!” he wrote last week while posting a story about MARTA shutting down the Atlanta Streetcar during Super Bowl weekend.

‘Big decision for Gwinnett’

All five members of Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners declined to comment specifically on their stance on the referendum, citing advice from legal counsel. The county has been conservative in its legal interpretation of rules prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to advocate for or against a public referendum, leaving leaders reluctant to talk.

Both new Democratic members of the commission, Marlene Fosque and Ben Ku, campaigned to some degree last fall on the need for more transit.

Republican Jace Brooks — who represents the Sugar Hill, Suwanee and Duluth areas — voted to both approve the county’s pending contract with MARTA and to call the referendum. Republican Tommy Hunter — who represents a swath of south and east Gwinnett that includes Snelville, Grayson and Dacula — voted to call the referendum but is against the MARTA contract.

Nash, meanwhile, played an instrumental role in crafting the legislation that enabled Gwinnett to hold a referendum and in negotiating the MARTA contract. She has been extremely cautious about when and where she directly expresses her feelings about the matter.

But she wants the referendum to pass.

“As noted last year, I see transit expansion as the next big decision for Gwinnett,” Nash wrote in an email.

At the same time, Nash is also partly responsible for the referendum being called for a special election in March, rather than being added to last November’s mid-term ballots — a move that Democrats and transit advocates have criticized as an effort to squelch turnout.

Nash has previously called it a compromise to get the votes of as many fellow commissioners as possible. More recently, she has declined to address it directly.

During a town hall meeting near Norcross last week, she answered a resident’s question about the delayed referendum with a response similar to one she had previously sent to the AJC.

“The majority of the board chose to put it on the ballot for March 19,” she said. “Right now I’m focused on moving forward as opposed to looking backwards on that.”

2/13/18 - Atlanta - Charlotte Nash, Chairman, Gwinnett Co. Board of Commissioners and a member of House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding, speaks to the bill. State legislation unveiled Tuesday could pave the way for transit expansions in Fulton and Gwinnett counties, part of Cobb County and in much of the rest of the Atlanta region in the future. House Speaker David Ralston and others unveiled the House’s transit legislation at a press conference at 1 p.m. The bill would consolidate transit planning for 13 counites in the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘The right information’

Not everyone on the conservative side of things is afraid to share their feelings about the referendum — or to criticize the way it’s been handled.

Debbie Dooley, the Lawrenceville woman who has deep roots with the Tea Party and still holds some sway, actually has progressive leanings on things like green energy and mass transit. But she’s agitated by the wording of Gwinnett’s ballot question, which does not specifically mention MARTA or the new 1 percent sales tax that residents would be opting to pay until 2057.

She also questioned how much protection for Gwinnett is really in its would-be contract with MARTA. She predicted the referendum would fail.

“Deploying the wrong solution makes things worse,” Dooley said.

Nash and others have argued that, despite the ballot wording, they have been transparent about MARTA’s involvement and what it would take to pay for more transit options. The county is hosting more than a dozen information sessions across the county and officials are also attending gatherings organized by other groups.

Chuck Warbington, the conservative city manager of Lawrenceville and a longtime transit advocate, has lately found himself defending the referendum on Facebook.

Warbington, a board member of the new regional transit authority known as the ATL, said he feels positive about the referendum’s chances.

“I think the right information is gonna get out there,” he said. “I think we have a smart electorate in Gwinnett County and they’re going to see through the misinformation and it will be a positive vote.”

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