OPINION: Buckhead cityhood isn’t on the ballot, but Bill White isn’t done yet

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The first time I met Bill White to talk about the Buckhead City movement, the brash New Yorker told me he would run a campaign against any Buckhead lawmaker who opposed a referendum to split the neighborhood away from the City of Atlanta.

It seemed like a lot of hot air at the time. But a little over a year later, without a referendum about Buckhead cityhood on the 2022 ballot, White is mostly living up to his promise.

Six weeks out from Election Day, the Buckhead City Committee that White runs is now backing a trio of Republican candidates for Buckhead seats in the state Legislature, along with GOP lieutenant governor nominee Burt Jones.

He threw a fundraiser for Jones ahead of the May primary and will host an event at his home next week for John Bailey and Fred Glass, Republicans running for state House and state Senate respectively. Both have said they would support a Buckhead referendum, unlike the Democrats they’re running against.

A fourth endorsed candidate, Sam Lenaeus, is running to represent state House District 55, and has said he’d push for a referendum as well.

The road from White trying to win over lawmakers to exacting revenge on some of them started with a short and ugly trip through the state legislative session earlier this year.

That’s when a group of GOP senators, including Burt Jones, introduced a bill to put Buckhead cityhood on the 2022 ballot. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan sent it to a panel composed entirely of Democrats guaranteed never to take action, which is exactly what happened.

With every Buckhead lawmaker opposed to the effort, attempts by others from places like Chicamauga and Alpharetta never got off the ground.

White’s only path to victory is still through the General Assembly, where he’s hoping to install new Buckhead lawmakers who like the idea and a Lieutenant Governor who won’t spike the bill before it goes anywhere.

In House District 54, Bailey is challenging state Rep. Betsy Holland, a Democrat who was one of the most vocal opponents of cityhood last year. In an interview this week, she said nothing’s changed.

“No one has presented compelling evidence yet that we can solve the problems the Buckhead City legislation created,” she said, referring to the ongoing confusion over what would happen to the schools, parks, and debt in Buckhead if it left the City of Atlanta.

She said voters hardly ever mention cityhood to her anymore.

“If anyone is talking about it, they’re kind of coming to me and saying, ‘This is dead right?’”

It’s not dead if Bailey can help it. The realtor said he got into the race for the same reasons he thinks Buckhead City was being discussed in the first place, namely the crime in his neighborhood near Lenox Mall and a feeling that he and his neighbors aren’t getting back in services what they’re paying in city taxes.

“Those are issues that I think all of us as a community need to be talking about,” he said. “Because if Buckhead is experiencing these issues, then people in some of the toughest neighborhoods have it even worse.”

The people of Buckhead should be able to vote to split into their own city, he said, “And the outcome of that is what we all need to live with.”

Sam Leanaus is making a similar argument as he runs against Democrat Inga Willis, a marketing executive, in House District 55.

“The people will either vote yes or no and it is not up to me,” he said. “And I support whatever outcome the people decide.”

Lenaus and Bailey are the only two House candidates endorsed by the Buckhead City committee in the half dozen districts that cover Buckhead.

Democratic state Sen. Sonya Halpern, a vocal opponent of Buckhead City, is running unopposed, while state Sen. Jen Jordan is running for Attorney General.

Running for Jordan’s seat are Democrat Jason Esteves, who told me he’s opposed to a Buckhead City vote, and Republican Fred Glass, whose website says he’d support a referendum, but a recent mailer to Buckhead residents doesn’t mention cityhood at all.

The wildcard among the candidates White’s group is backing is also the most important —Burt Jones.

Jones sponsored the Buckhead bill last session and told Breitbart if Buckhead voters want a referendum, they “will have an opportunity to do so,” if he’s elected. But his spokesman told me this week he has made no promises or commitments about a vote to the Buckhead City Committee.

“He is focused on reducing crime overall,” he said. “There is no quid pro quo.”

Jones’ Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey is “super opposed” to a Buckhead City, his spokesman told me.

Would it really make a difference to have four more pro-cityhood votes in a Legislature of 236 members?

It would. A huge strike against the effort, above and beyond White’s penchant for offending important Republicans, was the unanimous opposition from the lawmakers elected by the voters of Buckhead.

But the rest of the obstacles that tanked the effort the last time around remain.

White has still never presented a plan, almost two years in, to explain to parents which schools their children would attend if Buckhead City exists, but the schools there like North Atlanta High School, are still owned by Atlanta Public Schools.

A similar black hole of information exists around questions about property taxes (would they go up or down?), parks (who would own those?), bonds (who’s footing that bill?), and infrastructure.

While lots of new cities have popped up around Georgia, none has ever been carved out of an existing city.

But crime in Buckhead persists, too. Mayor Andre Dickens has done his best to show Buckhead voters they’re better off today than they were a year ago. And even Republicans say he’s managed the politics of the Gold Dome better than any recent mayor in memory.

At 7 a.m. on the day after he was elected, one of Dickens’ first calls was to GOP House Speaker David Ralston to say he hoped he and the Speaker could work together in the future. Other Republicans key to the cityhood question say they continue to hear from Dickens, too.

The question, for now, is whether Buckhead voters are looking for candidates to greenlight a split from the city or keep the city together. A poll from United Atlanta, the local group opposing cityhood, showed voters in two of the Buckhead districts be would far more likely to support a candidate who opposes Buckhead City, compared to one who supports it.

In White’s familiar ALL CAPS style, he dismissed those results as a “push ‘looking for an answer poll” that does not reflect Buckhead residents’ real sentiments. He added that “Atlanta is now officially a criminals’ paradise” and “crime is THE number one issue” for voters heading into November.

And always making promises, he said, “We look forward to voting on Buckhead Cityhood next year.”

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