The movement to stave off Buckhead cityhood burst into the forefront with a high-dollar fundraiser that brought business, civic and political leaders together to prevent a divorce that could leave Atlanta without its wealthiest neighborhood.
The Committee for a United Atlanta’s fundraiser drew hundreds of attendees, including many of the city’s most storied names, to rally against the Republican-led legislation that would allow Buckhead residents to vote in 2022 to split from the city.
“The cavalry has arrived,” said real estate titan David Stockert, as he surveyed a crowd at Flourish Atlanta that ponied up $1,000 a pop. As he spoke, another business leader sidled over to whisper of the powerful benefactors in the audience: “This is a room that can make things happen.”
They have their work cut out for them. The forces behind the split, led by the Buckhead City Committee, have picked up powerful Republican allies from outside Atlanta’s city limits who are egging on the rift.
The most prominent is former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hours before the fundraiser that he backed proposed legislation that would pave the way to Buckhead cityhood. That instantly made the issue a key divide in his primary challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp.
Perdue released a cutting statement Thursday that reinforced his position and called on Kemp, who has not taken a stance, to pick a side.
“I fully support giving the people of Buckhead a vote on cityhood and trust the voters to make the right decision,” Perdue said. “It’s time for Brian Kemp to stop running from this issue and tell Georgians where he stands.”
Perdue’s stand unnerved opponents of cityhood, who lamented that he hadn’t fully considered their viewpoint before weighing in. But they took solace that another influential Republican, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, raised alarms about the idea.
Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, told an interviewer he feared pro-Buckhead forces would “make the situation dramatically worse, almost immediately” when it comes to government services, public finances and schools.
The Atlanta unity fundraiser brought together disparate powerbrokers. Political adversaries put aside their rivalries to vouch for keeping Atlanta whole, while business leaders who compete for lucrative projects found common cause.
Near the venue’s entrance, Republican strategist Eric Tanenblatt rubbed elbows with former U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler. Neither seemed to mind that Tanenblatt, who was Republican Paul Coverdell’s campaign manager, helped orchestrate Fowler’s upset defeat in 1992.
“This is Atlanta. It’s not Buckhead. It’s not Midtown. It’s Atlanta,” said Egbert Perry, the chief executive of the Integral Group development firm. “And Atlanta is a city that comes together to solve problems, not splinters and divides when met with challenges.”
The pro-Atlanta committee has plans to launch a media campaign and highlight bold-faced names that include Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Hawks head Steve Koonin and UPS chief executive Carol Tomé.
The biggest draw at Wednesday’s fundraiser, however, was Atlanta Mayor-elect Andre Dickens, who vowed to fight for “one city with one future” with the help of allies in the room like incoming City Council President Doug Shipman, several Democratic legislators on hand and enough city council members to make a quorum.
He told the crowd there were three ways to defeat the legislative push for a referendum: A potent, well-funded public campaign; an efficient and responsive start to his mayoral term in January; and an effective political counteroffensive.
Dickens said he’s already at work trying to reset city-state relations. That includes a breakfast Thursday with Kemp, his third conversation with the governor in weeks. He’s also met recently with House Speaker David Ralston, whom he called “a good key for our future in this effort.”
With a flourish, Dickens announced he was personally investing in the pro-Atlanta coalition. Stockert, too, encouraged the crowd to dig deeper into their wallets -- and not to lose heart at the trials to come.
“We’ve been slower than the Buckhead City folks to this party. But we are here now,” he said. “There’s plenty of time. And we’ve got momentum and passion on our side.”