Torpy at Large: MARTA election a costly (and planned) uphill fight

A sign indicating the MARTA and Gwinnett County transit referendum voting calendar is displayed at the MARTA Transit Station in Doraville on February 26, 2019.

A sign indicating the MARTA and Gwinnett County transit referendum voting calendar is displayed at the MARTA Transit Station in Doraville on February 26, 2019.

It’s a heck of a thing for Gwinnett County government to go through all the time, trouble and cash to push an initiative that they set up to be defeated.

I'm referring to next Tuesday's referendum, in which voters will be asked if they want to hike their sales tax to bring MARTA to the county.

The special election will cost the county an extra $769,000 because there was fear that putting the MARTA question to the voters last November would have wreaked carnage upon Republican pols, who were hanging on for dear life in that demographically changing county.

You recall that a candidate named Stacey helped pull Dems out of the woodwork last fall, and some in the GOP leadership persuaded the Republican county commissioners to shove the election off to March. They figured the extra voters coming out for MARTA in the fall would be liberal types who might turn the tide.

It really didn't matter. The Democratic tide rolled in Gwinnett, whose population is now just 40 percent white. Two county commissioners who hoped to survive were defeated, as were a pile of Republican legislators. The whole effort seems to have merely bought Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall a couple of years, but he knows the score and is leaving after 2020.

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So, now we're left with a MARTA vote that seems to be a hit with the population in general but not particularly with the voters who actually come out in these odd, hidden-in-plain-sight, off-year elections — that is, older white folks.

According to the data site, more than 22,000 Gwinnettians had voted early by the end of last weekend, 62 percent of them white and 78 percent of them north of 50. The county has 530,000 registered voters.

According to polling of "likely voters" by WSB/Rosetta Stone, white folks oppose the measure 2-1 and those over age 61 oppose it 54 percent to 33 percent.

So, this means the opposition is leading 51 percent to 39 percent, according to the poll.

Brian Robinson, who was an aide to then-Gov. Nathan Deal (who supports the effort), has been hired by the folks at Go Gwinnett, a political action org created to help pass this. Lots of lawyers, real estate types and business leaders have contributed to the effort, which so far has raised $463,000.

The idea is that transit, including a $1 billion-plus heavy rail line starting at Jimmy Carter Boulevard and tying Gwinnett into MARTA’s existing rail line, would be an economic boon to the county. And it is hoped MARTA would help ease traffic. The added 1 cent of sales tax would bring in $5.5 billion over the next 39 years.

Morning commuters on I-85 between the Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Indian Trail / Lilburn Road exits in Gwinnett County on February 26, 2019. 

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Robinson agreed that “those more likely to vote no” have turned out so far. He said a similar pattern emerged in Gwinnett last year, but the general election brought out a lot of pro-transit voters. That would be Dems voting for Stacey Abrams. Unfortunately for those rooting for trains and buses, she is not on the Gwinnett ballot.

“The majority has to show up,” Robinson said. “The bigger the turnout, the better for yes. So my advice is for everyone to go stinking vote.”

So far, pro-MARTA forces are working much harder and spending lots more than the antis.

“The problem here is that it’s an uncoordinated, valiant effort,” said Gabe Okoye, an engineer who used to head the county’s Democratic Party. “There’s no one at the command post where everything is launched.”

Michelle Sanchez with the New Georgia Project Action Fund leaves information in support of the Gwinnett County MARTA referendum while canvassing on February 22, 2019 in Norcross. 

Credit: Emily Haney

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Credit: Emily Haney

Okoye has knocked on doors and said canvassers are spreading the word that older white residents have voted, hoping to spur the younger and minority voters.

“You have to use what you have to get what you want,” he said.

Fred Hicks, campaign manager of the New Georgia Projects Action Fund, an offshoot of the group that Abrams founded to sign up voters, said pro-transit volunteers have knocked on 60,000 doors and more than 150,000 text messages have been sent.

Hicks said those for and against are not simply accounted for by race and age. “If you’re retired or work at home, then you’re probably against it,” he said. “If you work outside Gwinnett, you’re probably for it.”

Back in 1990, voters in a county that was 90 percent white voted 70-30 to tell MARTA to get lost. That campaign carried a racial undertone. This one? Not so much. More so, I think it is a sense of, hey, if I'm not gonna use the thing, then why should I pay for it?

The opposition is relatively quiet and not organized. They don’t need to be. The timing of the election was set up to make the effort uphill.

MARTA opposition leader Joe Newton opens a meeting at the historic Gwinnett County courthouse on March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville.

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Local conservative rabble-rouser Joe Newton was at a county-sponsored "educational meeting" at a Gwinnett school this week handing out fliers calling the effort a boondoggle. At the time, there were only a handful of people looking at the plans.

County Chairman (yes, she calls herself that) Charlotte Nash pushed for the vote to be in March, knowing that she couldn't have gotten her four fellow GOP commissioners to place the effort on the ballot otherwise. She has campaigned relentlessly for a positive vote and thinks the MARTA side will eke one out.

Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission, answers questions about the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA into Gwinnett County if it passes, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta on March 11, 2019.

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Former Commissioner John Heard, who was defeated in November, said Jan Jones, the speaker pro tem of the state House, talked with some Gwinnett officials about the vote last summer when the commission was deciding when to hold the referendum. “She was of the understanding that it needed to be moved,” he said. Jones did not return a call.

Heard, who will vote against the measure, laughed when asked if the effort was aimed at saving his and other Republican skins.

“Obviously, it did not work in my case,” he said. “That was not my motivation (for voting to have the referendum in March). It was so it could get its own hearing.”

And so, finally on Tuesday, it does.