OPINION: Buckhead City coming to legislature and to a head

Bill White, the slick carnival barker leading the Buckhead cityhood parade, has been stepping in it recently.

Last week, White deleted his retweet of a comment from a far-right website called VDARE, one that coupled higher crime rates to cities that have higher percentages of Black residents. The contention is not necessarily untrue, but there’s a whole host of social, economic, historic and cultural explanations on that subject that could fill a library. But the sarcastic tweet from VDARE came across as racist. Which it was.

A few days earlier, White called Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens a racist for a publicized comment he made that seemed like Dickens was ruing the fact that Atlanta was no longer a majority Black city. Dickens was actually talking about the effects of gentrification and how better policies are needed to keep working class Black residents in the city.

White, the public face of the effort for Buckhead to secede from Atlanta, quickly apologized for the snafu. “I’m not perfect; I hate to have unforced errors,” he told me Thursday. “I apologized and moved on.”

As to why he followed VDARE in the first place, White, who has 24,000 followers on his Twitter account, said he often blindly follows accounts that follow him.

I’m told there are cityhood supporters who want him to step down from the campaign, that he’s become a distraction, especially as the effort heads to the Legislature this week to gain state approval for the question to be put to the Buckhead’s voters.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

There’s always been an undercurrent of race running through this campaign. There just no way around it when majority white Buckhead wants to break away from a city that’s been led by African Americans for generations. Putting race out there in the open makes it harder for those supporting secession to argue, “Race? What? I don’t see color! I’m offended you’d even bring that up. You’re the racist!”

White waves off any inclination that he would resign. “Forget it,” he said. “I wouldn’t step down. It would be rudderless without the things that we are doing.”

One of those things is raising money, which he is very good at. He raised money for Hillary Clinton before becoming a bigtime fundraiser for Donald Trump. The boisterous White says he has helped raise nearly $1.5 million for the cityhood drive. The effort will have a fundraiser later this month and a host of backers are emerging, including names like Pano and Niko Karatassos, who head the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group.

White, who moved to Buckhead with his husband three years ago, also came with a past. He once headed the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York but left in 2010 after NY investigators accused him of acting as an unlicensed paid middleman for firms seeking lucrative state pension fund business. He was not charged and has said he did nothing wrong, but he later paid a $1 million settlement.

The effort for Buckhead to become a city has been divisive. Never in Georgia has a chunk of a city deannexed and then created its own fiefdom. It would be a terrible precedent that could push other well-to-do parts of Atlanta to do the same. Hello, City of Midtown. It could also happen in Macon, Savannah, Columbus, wherever. The equivalent of municipal gated communities could become de rigeur. Impoverished areas? Go get lost.

The effort has gained steam by a group of Republican legislators who have pushed Trump’s Stop-the-Steal narrative and are peddling this at the Capitol. No legislator from Atlanta has supported it. The only legislator with any territory in Fulton County backing this is Republican state Sen. Brandon Beach. And his district barely has a toe hold in the county. Why would he care to do this? He said he stays in a Buckhead apartment during the legislative session and is concerned. Also, he could become a popular guy come next election time when he needs campaign contributions from big-money, pro-Buckhead city residents. And Beach has had his eye on higher office.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The movement is cynical but is darn good politics. No conservative, especially those from rural areas, has ever gone wrong by beating up on Atlanta. And snatching away perhaps 40 percent of Atlanta’s property tax base is really sticking it to the city.

Defeated U.S. Sen David Perdue, who has decided to run against Gov. Brian Kemp, has jumped in on behalf of the secessionists. This kind of forces Governor Shotgun to think about sticking it to Atlanta, too. Perhaps the only hope to smother this effort in the nest is to get state House Speaker David Ralston to bottle it up. Ralston said he sees both sides of the argument but has concerns about the precedent. Perhaps he can be the adult in the room.

As to that, a confident White said, “They ain’t stopping it. They are not.”

Ed Lindsey, a former Republican state rep who is one of the leaders of the movement to stop cityhood, said, “This is a serious issue that requires people to look at it soberly. The heated rhetoric we have seen does not help that.”

Those pushing for Buckhead cityhood have focused on violent crime that has terrorized the city. Atlanta police Zone 2, which is largely Buckhead, has not had the same level of crime as other areas of Atlanta but that doesn’t matter when someone you know got mugged or had their car stolen.

White has posted a steady stream of horrors in Atlanta on social media to feed that fear.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Brink Dickerson, a longtime resident of the Chastain area and head of the Neighborhood Planning Unit there, said he has tried to remain neutral on the issue. But, he added, “The outside observers have been overweighting the security issues and underweighting the land-use and zoning issues.”

The city is looking at expanding affordable housing by allowing more high-density developments and multi-family units. Residents in many single-family neighborhoods, and not just Buckhead, have had a conniption concerning this.

Dickerson said that Atlanta suffers from the “10 percent problem,” meaning the city has just 500,000 residents, or less than 10 percent of the metro area’s population. At the same time, it shoulders a larger share of the region’s social woes: homelessness, crime, poverty. “If you separate Buckhead, that only exacerbates the problem,” he said.

He worries Buckhead leaving could financially devastate Atlanta, which could, in turn, hurt Buckhead. “No matter how perfect the divorce,” he said, “you’re leaving a wounded neighbor behind.”