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

Torpy at Large: Georgia political turbulence? Grab Atlanta’s airport

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has had his fun beating up on the People’s Republic of Decatur for political sport, calling the liberal bastion a sanctuary city for unauthorized immigrants and MS-13 desperadoes.

But that was just the appetizer. Now for the main course: Atlanta.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican who was once a University of Georgia football battering ram, sponsored a bill to take away control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from the Democratic city of 

Atlanta and put it in the hands of a GOP-controlled state authority.

The bill went nowhere, as Gov. Nathan Deal, who maintained a longstanding bromance with former Mayor Kasim Reed, let it be known that the move would mess up the state’s bond rating.

But Deal was not running for anything, while the Gov Lite is. In fact, Cagle is in a GOP gubernatorial primary runoff with our shotgun-toting secretary of state, Brian Kemp, and the race might get tight.

So, why not dust off the perennial Republican issue of wresting control of the airport from Atlanta? And if those Atlanta pols holler, all the better.

Thumping Atlanta has been a Georgia tradition since Gov. Eugene Talmadge railed against “them lyin’ Atlanta newspapers.” Probably longer.

“It’s as old as the city charter,” said former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year. “Beating up on Atlanta goes back 150 years and even more so now, as African-Americans have increased their role in the city’s leadership.”

Asked what was behind the effort, Fort laughed and said, “M-O-N-E-Y. It ain’t about good government, brother. It’s about controlling resources. When Republicans started attacking MARTA, guess who got contracts at MARTA? Friends of Republicans.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. AJC file.
Photo: Greg Bluestein/Political Insider

Sen. Jones told the AJC the move was no power grab. It simply concerned a “holistic vision for the state on transportation, aviation and transit.”

To hasten that holistic vision, Cagle last week appointed a 13-member committee — headed by “Airport Grabber” Jones — to “study” the issue. However, in his haste to name worthwhile legislators, Casey forgot to add one from the city of Atlanta.

Cagle, in a statement, said study committees are a routine and important part of governance and he picked “legislators who voiced an interest in serving to study this important issue.”

Atlanta pols must have been uncharacteristically mum.

Sen. Burt Jones confers with colleagues on the floor. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

“The airport is one of our greatest economic assets and it serves much more than the city of Atlanta,” Cagle’s statement continued. “It should not come as a surprise that our state lawmakers want to explore how to utilize this asset to its greatest potential.”

Legislators eyed the Atlanta airport for decades.

Tom Perdue, a former Republican operative, remembers the issue surfacing when he worked for Gov. George Busbee in the late 1970s, and again in the late 1980s under Gov. Joe Frank Harris. That was back when governors were Democratic but conservative, so there was often a split between the rural Dem factions and the liberal and African-American-led city.

Chuck Clay, a Marietta lawyer who once served in the state Senate and headed Georgia’s GOP, sponsored such legislation back in 1994 after a federal jury convicted former aviation commissioner and city councilman Ira Jackson and businessman Dan Paradies on corruption charges.

“You need some kind of buffer between the politicians and the operation of the airport,” he told me.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle 

Clay said he thinks the airport — the world’s busiest — is well run, although raising the question again is a “legitimate issue.” But, he added, “you can’t separate that from politics. There is no political downside here (for the GOP).”

The issue is especially ripe for Republicans because a federal investigation into corruption in Atlanta has the FBI nosing around airport contracts. The investigation has netted several indictments and convictions but none at the airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson is especially beloved by Atlanta city pols because it serves as a political piggy bank, as contractors lavish candidates with campaign donations. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Reed’s candidate, got a ton of cash from such vendors. She returned some of it because the feds were investigating one of those companies.

Also, the city officials have a hand in some hiring at the airport, another perk. But revenue generated at the airport must stay there. It can’t be pulled out into other city funds.

Back when Clay was wangling to gain state control, then-airport manager Angela Gittens pushed back, saying, “Atlanta took all the risks and responsibilities” to create Hartsfield-Jackson. “It should stay in control of its airport.”

A decade later, during the 2006 corruption trial of former mayor Bill Campbell, Gittens testified that Campbell refused to re-bid lucrative airport contracts held by his friends, meddled in the bidding process, and asked her to cut corners in bidding.

City officials still argue the airport is well-run and will fight to keep it. Delta Air Lines is siding with the city.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Atlanta is the largest, most successful airport in the world,” Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian recently told the AJC. “And anything that would harm that in terms of trying to move it for political gain between the city and state, we’re opposed.”

Todd Rehm, a Republican strategist not involved in the governor’s race, said the GOP is especially keen on rural voters ever since Donald Trump showed the way to victory.

“This is probably connected to pulling voters from rural Georgia by tapping into their pre-existing angst about the role of Atlanta,” Rehm said. “If you want to make Delta scream, you would talk about the governance of the airport.”

(Remember, Cagle won the National Rifle Association endorsement after sticking it to the airline on a tax bill when Delta messed with NRA discounts.)

“There’s a very low political cost to poking that scab,” Rehm said. “So little to lose and so much to gain.”

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