A blue Buckhead is cityhood’s overlooked challenge
By John Ruch
All the sound and fury around the Buckhead cityhood movement made it easy to overlook its core political challenge: a Republican-based campaign trying to win over what has become a reliably blue neighborhood. Cityhood likely would have failed in its desired November ballot question, and even if it pulled off the upset, may well have created another Democrat-led city of the sort it regularly defamed.
While pro- and anti-cityhood groups strategically avoided partisan talk, red’s struggle against blue on the issue is evident from their own polling and the past five years of election results. As smart pollsters were involved and paying attention, that underscores the question of what other political agendas may be served by cityhood agitation.
I bounced the basic numbers off two people who know Buckhead politics well: local state Rep. Betsy Holland and Beth Beskin, the Republican predecessor whom Holland washed out in 2018 as part of a blue wave in northern suburbia. Holland and Beskin are on opposite sides of the cityhood issue ideologically, but they’re also used to living by poll numbers and agreed the latest ones made “Buckhead City” sound like an underdog.
“I truly agree if you’re looking at that [issue] as truly Republican and Democrat, there’s no way this would pass,” Holland said.
“I don’t know if it would pass in November — I don’t,” Beskin said. “Because Democrats won all the seats in Buckhead [in recent elections].”
Likewise, Beskin says the bluing of Buckhead is convincing her to stay out of further campaigns for now. “I don’t know what I would run for,” she said, calling a Republican campaign “a real uphill pull” in today’s Buckhead.
Changing that situation is one larger angle that has emerged from cityhood advocacy. The Buckhead City Committee (BCC) recently announced the formation of a political action committee to back “pro-cityhood” candidates — already in practice meaning Republicans. The PAC couldn’t do much for a 2022 cityhood campaign; it makes sense as a long-term play following the Republican-led General Assembly redistricting that, among other things, puts Holland in a more competitive area with parts of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs.
Holland is among the cityhood combatants who say they long viewed the issue as nonpartisan. That may be calculated tactical naivete in a battle where everyone is seeking the higher ground of the common good and living peaceably alongside divided neighbors is essential. But it seems pretty wild considering such bizarre consequences as the legislation being opposed by the entire local, Democratic delegation and sponsored entirely by non-local Republicans.
However, the early rumblings of cityhood in 2020 drew widespread populist support amid terror — both well-founded and exaggerated — about crime and general dissatisfaction with an often aloof and out-of-touch mayoral administration. Georgia has no official party registration for voters and the majority identifies as an independent.
But once the movement gelled into a political campaign, parts of internal polls that didn’t make the press releases told a different story. An early BCC poll showed a massive partisan divide on the notion of a cityhood vote and a heavily red base, with 81 percent of local Republicans in favor and a plurality of Democrats opposed. That divide persisted in subsequent polls from the BCC and the anti-cityhood Committee for a United Atlanta (CUA).
That Republican base itself had some cracks due to the party’s schism over Trump’s norm-demolishing populism versus Chamber of Commerce types. Cityhood politics had some Republican opposition from the start; CUA co-chair Edward Lindsey is the former GOP state rep from the neighborhood. The BCC took a literally Trump-ian turn, however, under the leadership of Bill White, a fundraiser and family friend of the former president who shares his penchant for incendiary, offensive comments and conspiracy theories. That turned off a lot of GOP supporters, making a divide seen clearly in the Republican House speaker and lieutenant governor saying they are freezing cityhood legislation this session, and the latter calling White’s behavior “disgusting.” The BCC says it will battle on, this year and next if necessary.
But another important data point was lurking in those polls — a significant Democratic advantage in the electorate. The latest CUA poll, in January, showed a 9-point Democratic edge, and 11 points if you count Democrat-leaning independents against GOP-leaners. And that’s bad news for cityhood.
That also tracks with the results of some recent presidential and gubernatorial elections as analyzed by my colleague Maggie Lee, which showed Buckhead voting blue — especially when Trump is involved.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton outperformed Trump in the neighborhood by almost 6,000 votes out of about 43,000 cast. And in 2020, Joe Biden beat Trump by more than 13,000 votes.
Of course, Trump is extraordinarily divisive. The 2018 gubernatorial contest may be a better proxy for measuring partisanship. In the primary elections, more Buckhead voters chose Republican ballots than Democratic ones, but that may reflect better competition: a five-way GOP race compared to a two-contender Democratic contest. Buckhead’s Republican ballot voters by far preferred center-right or technocratic candidates; eventual winner Brian Kemp, who campaigned on being politically incorrect and promising to deport people in his personal truck, came fourth in a field of five.
And in the 2018 general election, Democrat Stacey Abrams won Buckhead, not Kemp — though statewide voters put him in office. That was the same year voters replaced the local Republican lawmakers with Democrats.
Buckhead is enjoying a population boom, especially in newly urbanized commercial areas like Lindbergh Center and around Lenox Square, which appears to be boosting the Democratic base. But all of the aforementioned election results held true – albeit with narrow margins – in the area of Atlanta City Council District 8, western Buckhead’s mansion-filled conservative stronghold. That’s the district now represented by Mary Norwood, whose razor-thin losses in two mayoral races helped to fuel some cityhood talk. Norwood is staying neutral on cityhood, while her longtime campaign treasurer and supporter Jamie Ensley is now a BCC board member.
The proposed Buckhead City uses an area a little bigger than the current Buckhead, including a slice of Northwest Atlanta that likely would only add to the blue margin.
Now, there are still plenty of Republicans in Buckhead, enough to make some of the numbers make sense for partisan plays. As Kennesaw State University political science professor J. Benjamin Taylor told me last year, the cityhood movement has the air of a state GOP jerking of Atlanta’s chain that went farther than expected. It’s also a trickle-down of culture-war debates about crime and suburban zoning that Trump and Biden sparred over and that local combatants sincerely differ on — or might be using to their career advantages, or both.
It’s also true that, at the city government level, Buckhead often has a more conservative approach to issues like zoning than City Hall does, as reflected in the election without opposition of Norwood and District 7 Councilmember Howard Shook. And crime fears in particular have crossed party lines — though still lean GOP as well. Frustration with City Hall clearly gave cityhood some early cross-partisan appeal.
But a Trump-style scorched-earth war of neighbors against neighbors seems unlikely to convince this electorate, and even then, the constituency would be persistently blue. A Buckhead City founded on bashing Democratic mayors might well elect one.
As Holland says, “This is not the Buckhead people think it is.”
Maps, graphs and data analysis by Maggie Lee.
The Atlanta Business Chronicle is the latest business fleeing crime-infested Buckhead. The dominoes continue to fall. Atlanta’s gonna wish it cut ties with Buckhead in 5-10 years.Report
Everything is partisan these days. Sad to say and sad to see. That can change but Republicans have to take the first step and right now they’re doubling-down, driving Trumpism down to every Middlesex village and town.
The good news is that this will, in time, activate Democrats on a local level, which will have spillover effects on state and national races.Report