Atlanta’s training center referendum becomes new political battleground

Sharp new political battle lines are being drawn over Atlanta’s proposed police training center, this time over a complicated petition process seeking to force a referendum to block the $90 million complex.

After largely keeping silent on the project, two of Georgia’s most prominent Democrats have expressed concerns about the city’s handling of tens of thousands of signatures submitted to get a training center question on the ballot — underscoring the growing Democratic rift over the project.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans have only intensified their support for the center, dubbing it as crucial for public safety and the morale of officers — and challenging their political rivals to take a firmer stand on the debate.

The dynamic only ratchets up the pressure on Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, the first-term Democrat and chief champion of the project, who faces a new round of withering criticism from both activists and a federal judge over the city’s legal strategy.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens gives a statement on recent vandalism to Atlanta police and contractors' property. The vandalism is targeted towards the Atlanta police training facility and the contractors hired in its construction. Wednesday, July 5th, 2023 (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Dickens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he “is looking forward to seeing what’s in the boxes” and unequivocally opposed an effort in City Council to short-circuit the referendum process — something legal experts say would likely be unconstitutional.

And on Monday, members of the Atlanta City Council unanimously passed a resolution directing the municipal clerk’s office to post the trove of petitions online in an attempt to counter criticism about the city’s handling of the referendum process.

The developments have cast a brighter spotlight on the brutal intraparty battle over the proposed 85-acre facility, which has pitted mainstream Democrats against a coalition of environmentalists and social justice activists who have accused party leaders of a betrayal for not forcefully condemning the center.

“As voters, we are not going to forget,” said Mary Hooks of the Movement for Black Lives, one of the key opponents of the complex. “I think it’s going to be hard-pressed for us to continue to show up for Democrats in this state when they continue to turn their back on us.”

‘Honesty is the best policy’

The new divide centers on the city’s handling the more than 116,000 signatures delivered to City Hall on Sept. 11.

Georgia law requires signatures of 15% of registered voters, or roughly 58,000 signatures, to force a referendum. But first, each of the signatures must be verified to ensure they are valid Atlanta residents. Activists opposing the project say they delivered more than enough signatures to get the question on the ballot.

Dickens said in an interview with the Politically Georgia podcast that he consulted with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, and other party leaders to shape what happened next.

The city didn’t immediately begin the work to verify the petitions, instead citing an ongoing legal battle over whether non-Atlanta voters can help collect signatures and whether the overall issue can be put on the ballot.

That led to a rebuke from the U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen, who accused city officials of moving the goalposts about whether they would accept the referendum in the first place.

“A proverb dating back over four centuries ago once again applies here,” he wrote. “Honesty is the Best Policy.”

As the scrutiny intensifies, key party leaders are taking steps to distance themselves from the city’s legal strategy.

Warnock on Friday issued a three-page letter demanding that the mayor answer more than a dozen questions about the process, while urging him and other city officials to “err on the side of giving people the ability to express their views.”

And Abrams, who honed a reputation as one of the nation’s leading voting rights advocates, explicitly endorsed putting the training center referendum on the ballot.

“The rarely used citizen referendum is designed for precisely this type of fraught issue,” she told the AJC. “Regardless of one’s position on the subject matter, the leadership of the city should make every effort to allow direct citizen engagement by vote.”

Democratic U.S. Sen Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams listen to former President Barack Obama speak Oct. 28 at a rally for the party's candidates. Warnock and Abrams took different approaches to President Joe Biden's administration during their campaigns, with Warnock keeping the president at arm's length while Abrams maintained strong support for him. Now that she has lost the race for governor, a position in Biden's Cabinet could be a next step. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Dickens hasn’t directly responded to either of the Democratic leaders. But in the Politically Georgia podcast, he said the project’s opponents should shoulder the legal burden of proving why the referendum should move forward. He cast it as a battle over public safety.

“We still are in a place of trying to bring down violent crime through policing and non-policing activities,” Dickens said. “But if police officers don’t feel like we have their backs, if firefighters feel like we don’t have their backs, that will affect them.”

A ‘betrayal?’

The rift has opened a door for Republicans, who have long supported the plan, to eagerly rejoin the fray. Kemp on Monday fired off a social media post that reinforced his support for the complex — and challenged other politicians to join him.

“Instead of hiding behind ballot processes or legal questions for a referendum, I hope elected leaders of both parties from across our state will voice their unequivocal support for the training center to enhance public safety in our capital city and our state for every Georgian we serve.”

Some Democrats see the governor’s remarks as an excuse to exploit a divide among his rivals — and change the subject from the ongoing tumult surrounding former President Donald Trump, a Kemp adversary who faces unprecedented charges in Fulton County.

As the Council prepares to grant final approval to legislation funding the training center, State Rep Ruwa Romman voices her opposition to the planned Police Training Center at the Atlanta City Hall on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

State Rep. Ruwa Romman, one of the few Democratic elected officials who publicly oppose the project, said the governor “will do anything to shift the conversation away from Trump and his crimes.” (Trump has pleaded not guilty.)

But others warn that the clash could have a lasting impact on Democrats as the 2024 presidential election approaches. President Joe Biden is facing a potential rematch against Trump in a state he carried by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020.

Hillary Holley, a veteran activist and former Abrams deputy who currently serves as executive director for Care in Action, warned that Atlanta leaders are “betraying basically every single organization” that helped elect them.

“Instead of Atlanta Democrats allowing voters to decide, they are using voter suppression tactics to silence over 110,000 constituents ahead of a very hard 2024 presidential cycle,” she said.

“This is a slap in the face to voters and those who worked hard to get Democrats elected and politically dumb.”

Meanwhile, organizations are continuing to ramp up the pressure on Atlanta’s elected leaders to bypass the courts and put the referendum directly on the ballot.

Dozens of national, state and local organizations — from civil rights groups to voting advocates — sent a letter to Atlanta City Council last week backing legislation to put the training center question on the ballot. It’s not immediately clear whether city legislators have that power.

“A referendum will provide the residents of our city an opportunity to directly decide how millions of taxpayer dollars are spent and how–– not whether–– our city invests in public safety,” they wrote. “A referendum will also give leaders affirmation and some closure on where residents stand on this decision.”