State GOP leaders scuttle Buckhead secession push in 2022

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced Friday that he will join Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan in opposing passage of legislation this year that could allow Buckhead to break away from the rest of Atlanta. With the heads of the General Assembly's two chambers now lined up against such legislation, it is essentially dead for this year. (Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced Friday that he will join Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan in opposing passage of legislation this year that could allow Buckhead to break away from the rest of Atlanta. With the heads of the General Assembly's two chambers now lined up against such legislation, it is essentially dead for this year. (Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The effort to pass a Buckhead cityhood referendum this year has been effectively scuttled after House Speaker David Ralston joined a growing chorus of Republicans who agreed to give new Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens time to curb violent crime before considering legislation to split the city.

The Republican took the stance Friday after Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced his opposition to the measure in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ralston said he had no other choice after Duncan, the president of the Senate, put the cityhood effort in “pause mode” until 2023.

“It takes two chambers to pass a bill. The Senate was very clear, and I respect their decision,” Ralston said. “The problem of how we got here is not solved — that being the crime problem — and I’m going to be watching to see what actions are taken by the leadership of the city of Atlanta.”

Dickens, who has worked aggressively to repair strained city-state relations since taking office last month, said he’s grateful that legislative leaders allowed him leeway to ensure Atlanta will “remain one city with one bright future.”

“They have given me and my administration the runway we need to take off,” the mayor said, “and we will continue in our work to move Atlanta forward.”

With both of the state’s most powerful legislative leaders lined up against the cityhood measure, it has no chance of passing this year. But to many in the Statehouse, the growing Republican opposition to the initiative was no surprise.

Dozens of businesses in Buckhead urged lawmakers this month to oppose the secession or remove the neighborhood’s financial center from the proposed boundaries. Duncan had assigned pro-Buckhead legislation to a Democratic-controlled committee sure to kill it.

And some Republicans have raced to distance themselves from Bill White, the head of the cityhood movement, after a spate of controversies that included a social media post amplifying a racist message and another peddling false conspiracy theories about the death of the widely respected head of MARTA.

“Anybody who would take a message in that direction, to speak against somebody whose family is grieving, is disgusting in my opinion,” Duncan told the AJC on Thursday. “We’ll continue to watch people gravitate away from people like him and gravitate toward solutions.”

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The lieutenant governor, who holds considerable power over what legislation reaches a vote in the Senate, added that he sidelined the measure because its supporters have yet to answer “some important questions.”

“What is the strategy to stem crime? What is the strategy to deal with Atlanta public schools in the city’s footprint? What are the finance ideas around the bond package?” Duncan asked. “Those questions haven’t been answered.”

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Some Republicans in the General Assembly have backed away from efforts to allow Buckhead to secede from Atlanta after the head of the cityhood effort, Bill White, got involved in a spate of controversies that included a social media post amplifying a racist message and another peddling false conspiracy theories about the death of the widely respected head of MARTA. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Some Republicans in the General Assembly have backed away from efforts to allow Buckhead to secede from Atlanta after the head of the cityhood effort, Bill White, got involved in a spate of controversies that included a social media post amplifying a racist message and another peddling false conspiracy theories about the death of the widely respected head of MARTA. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Some Republicans in the General Assembly have backed away from efforts to allow Buckhead to secede from Atlanta after the head of the cityhood effort, Bill White, got involved in a spate of controversies that included a social media post amplifying a racist message and another peddling false conspiracy theories about the death of the widely respected head of MARTA. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Supporters, who say Buckhead cityhood would help combat violent crime and meet the needs of residents, must now go back to the drawing board.

White said in a recent interview that he is playing the long game, though with statewide elections in November, the Statehouse could have a dramatically different dynamic next year.

“There are moments where you get excited and jump up and down. There are moments that you realize you have to wait. be patient,” White said, adding: “This ain’t going away at all.”

‘We’ll be back...’

The Buckhead cityhood push has faced increasing opposition since the start of the legislative session, and it has become a key factor in statewide political races. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue endorsed the idea after announcing a challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp, while Democrat Stacey Abrams staunchly opposed it.

The critics include every Democratic legislator who represents the city, along with a handful of rural Republicans who believe state-backed legislation carving out a new municipality would violate the principle of local control.

More recently, influential business leaders joined the opposition to say splitting the city would hurt Atlanta’s brand and set a worrisome precedent, as no neighborhood has ever seceded from an existing municipality in Georgia’s history.

They also predicted that a breakaway could backfire by weakening Atlanta’s crime-fighting abilities because, as a letter from the business leaders stated, “bad actors do not respect city limit signs.”

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said he’s grateful that legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, have allowed him leeway to work on fighting violent crime and ensure Atlanta will “remain one city with one bright future.” Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said he’s grateful that legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, have allowed him leeway to work on fighting violent crime and ensure Atlanta will “remain one city with one bright future.” Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said he’s grateful that legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, have allowed him leeway to work on fighting violent crime and ensure Atlanta will “remain one city with one bright future.” Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Democrats, who stood uniformly against Buckhead cityhood, celebrated the development.

“I am so grateful cooler heads are prevailing and letting Mayor Dickens get to work for every last neighborhood in our city,” said state Rep. Shea Roberts, who represents a slice of Buckhead.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said she’s rejoicing that the “Buckhead Secession Scheme” is kaput for this year.

“Thanks to all level-headed folks from both parties and all sectors of our city who have worked hard to debunk the falsehoods and stand with our mayor,” she said.

Ralston, meanwhile, said he’ll be closely watching Dickens’ efforts to combat crime in the city.

“I’m hopeful that Mayor Dickens recognizes the importance of the problem, and I’m inclined to believe that he does. But we’ll be back next year if things haven’t changed a lot,” Ralston said. “I’m looking for some forceful, vigorous action on the part of the city to tackle that problem.”

Staff writers J.D. Capelouto and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.

ExploreFull coverage of the Buckhead cityhood debate from the AJC