The Georgia Senate voted Thursday to approve a measure that would give the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson airport, a move that Atlanta’s mayor said is tantamount to declaring war on the city.

Torpy at Large: Why some suspect an airport takeover won’t fly

Yep, she went there. State Sen. Nan Orrock said there’s a real perception the state effort to take over Atlanta’s airport carries a deep, ugly racial undertone.

“Frankly, it may be uncomfortable to hear this, but in the eyes of many, an old trope is quietly bubbling below the surface, the old trope that black people can’t run things. … That they’re going to tear things up and ruin them,” said Orrock, a veteran (and white) Democratic legislator from Atlanta, to her Republican colleagues.

They’re playing for keeps in the battle for control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, with Orrock dropping the neutron bomb during a two-hour-plus Senate debate Thursday, a passion play that had a pre-ordained finale with a party-line vote.

You knew the fix was in when state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson who’s the ramrod for this bill, convened a 13-person subcommittee last year that somehow forgot to include a single legislator from Atlanta. He blamed former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who picked the committee.

At the time, Casey was beating up on Atlanta to rally his base for an unsuccessful primary fight for the governor’s shack. But if you think Jones had no say in picking the participants for his dog-and-pony show, then I have a used airport to sell you.

Jones kicked off his effort Thursday by holding up that day’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution to show the latest indictment in the long-running federal corruption probe into city contracting. It was a swell prop for him, and it goes to show the printed edition can be used for purposes other than lining bird cages.

On Thursday, March 7, 2019, state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson, made a case for legislation to give the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport by unfurling a copy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featuring a front-page article about the indictment of a contractor, Jeff Jafari. It was “crossover day” in the Georgia Legislature, the 28th day of the 2019 General Assembly. 
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Democrats wondered aloud how such a coincidence occurred — that U.S. Attorney Bjay Pak, a former Republican state legislator, would announce the long-sealed indictment right as the Senate was to hear debate on the issue.

Pak says he didn’t know there was an impending vote, which saddens me. I hate to see that old Bjay, somewhat of a political junkie, is not keeping up on current events.

Republicans contend the effort to grab control of the airport is not about race, it’s about money — and who is surreptitiously stuffing it into their pockets.

The fact is most of those ensnared in the recent Atlanta investigation are, indeed, black. But graft is not endemic to any particular demographic.

Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman from Gwinnett County stood up in the Senate and named three “jailbirds” who came from state government (two of them white) before launching into a semi-comprehensible anti-Atlanta harangue about biscuits, contracting and corruption.

A few years ago in her home county, two commissioners were indicted and another skedaddled from office to avoid legal trouble. All were white. As I recall, the state didn’t contemplate any intervention.

Unterman then scolded the city, saying, “ATL, this is not your ATM. This is not your bank account. This is not your campaign finance.”

Airport contractors — vendors of all kinds, in fact — are beloved by Atlanta politicians because they are faithful political contributors. Current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms led the pack in vendor donations in the 2017 election because she was supported heavily by then-Mayor Kasim Reed.

Similarly, when candidates for state office look for generous campaign juice, the first phone calls go to big contractors doing business with the state. Gov. Brian “Shotgun” Kemp cleaned up with campaign money from special interests who were betting he would win.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, speaking in the Georgia Capitol in 2015.
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Another subplot discussed in Sen. Orrock’s fusillade was that minority contracting, one of the sacred cows in Atlanta politics, would somehow be diminished with the takeover. The story Atlanta likes to tell about itself is that many small-time disadvantaged business owners are able to get a boost because of a system that is more, um, inclusive.

But the question of who should be included — and who shouldn’t — has been argued in courtrooms through the years. In 2012, the “disadvantaged” nature of four longtime vendors was questioned because they had shared in airport concessions contracts worth some $3 billion over a decade. Ultimately, the feds and state regulators allowed them to retain their status.

The Federal Aviation Administration will demand that a certain level of airport contracting continue to go to minorities and women no matter who runs the facility.

But critics claim Atlanta has a system that favors certain insiders, whether they’re minorities or not.

VIDEO: How much do you know about Atlanta's airport? Learn more about Hartsfield-Jackson International here.
Video: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Attorney Matt Maguire, who has taken on the city in contracting disputes, earlier testified before the Senate that Atlanta’s procurement system needs a shakeup. He said the system is slanted toward pre-existing vendors and that certain contracts, called “special procurements,” allow the city to bend the rules. And he said the city’s in-house appeals process is rigged against those who get shut out of a contract.

“The (minority contracting) program is not the problem,” Maguire said. “It’s the way it’s been administered.”

The mayor’s office sent me a detailed list of changes for the contracting process, including a more transparent “e-procurement system,” more training, a longer bidding process, additional tracking by the auditor’s office and a new procurement director. (The former director is currently in the slammer, a point Sen. Jones likes to make.)

The mayor vows to fight this “act of larceny” in court if the House OKs the bill and the governor signs it.

I spoke with former state Sen. Chuck Clay, a Republican from Marietta who pushed a takeover bill in the 1990s after another airport scandal.

Clay, who hangs out in the Capitol’s corridors lobbying during the session, said he doesn’t sense an appetite for the House and governor to complete the takeover. He thinks some sort of deal with the city can be hatched concerning contracting oversight.

“This is the kind of thing that blows up when fully engaged. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “It will bring long-term political ill will (between state and city leaders). Is this the line in the sand you want to cross?”

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