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Columns John Ruch

Alaska and Buckhead cityhood movements show similar ties to right-wing populism

A map of the proposed Buckhead City as shown on the website of the Buckhead City Committee, an advocacy group.

By John Ruch

A truism of the Buckhead cityhood debate is that it’s unique, this spectacle of a huge community trying to secede from a major U.S. city. Thing is, that’s not true.

Up in Alaska, a community called Eagle River is leading several others in a secession quest to unanchor themselves from Anchorage. The movement has instructive similarities with “Buckhead City,” from conservative politics to a mutual consultant. And it goes by “Eaglexit,” a Brexit-inspired name that situates these municipal efforts in a bigger context of secession sentiments like the “National Divorce” and right-wing populism that the establishment repeatedly ignores or misunderstands at its peril.

Majority white and concentrated with fabulous wealth as a legacy of Jim Crow segregation, and annexed in 1952 partly for racist fears of a Black-run Atlanta, Buckhead has always been different from other neighborhoods. An irony for some cityhood opponents is how their handling of modern differences has fueled the secession sentiment: the touting of local exceptionalism – including even the creation of a neighborhood flag – and aloof, back-room policy-making. Buckhead has a communal exasperation with City Hall and big business that pretty easily shifts into an identity fraught with grievance and opposition. Even if cityhood dies this year, attitudes along that spectrum aren’t changing anytime soon. As it is, the Buckhead City Committee (BCC) is hammering the goal-post-moving idea that nothing the new mayor says or does can be better than cityhood.

I heard similar sentiments when I spoke to Sean Murphy, the chair of Eaglexit.

“Anchorage elected a conservative mayor after a string of liberals,” Murphy noted as a win last year for Eaglexit’s political base. But, he added, the quest to sever any political ties with the city continues because “we are different culturally, socioeconomically.”

Another similarity with Buckhead City is the rhetorical metaphor of dissolving a marriage – the “Great Divorce,” as one prominent Eaglexit supporter calls it. The same metaphor is deployed in the “National Divorce,” a Civil War-esque notion of the U.S.’s red and blue states separating into distinct countries. That idea recently got social media promotion from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a far-right conspiracy theorist who last year supported Buckhead cityhood in a tweet that pictured her side-by-side with BCC Chairman and CEO Bill White.

Eaglexit and Buckhead City also share a consultant — Oliver Porter, the architect of the City of Sandy Springs’ initial method of outsourcing almost all government services following its 2005 incorporation in north Fulton County.

“He basically gave us the foundation that this is a political process,” Murphy said of Porter. “He wanted to really let it be known, even if you’re just trying to educate people at this time and gain support, this is a really political process and you really want to play that from the start.”

Of course, Eaglexit has many differences from the Buckhead movement, from politics to sheer scale. (The secession area covers over 1,000 square miles of the sprawling city.) But its unique story also has local lessons for how legally messy the process can get and how enduring cityhood sentiment can remain.

The Eagle River area actually won its municipalization battle briefly over 45 years ago before quickly being ruled unconstitutional by the Alaska Supreme Court. According to Eaglexit, the idea came about after requests for better policing. In 1974, voters approved the creation of a new Chugiak-Eagle River Borough – a regional government akin to a Georgia county. Lawsuits ensued and the borough was killed even though its government had formed. In 1976, backers tried to reincorporate as another form of borough but were denied by a state commission on several grounds, including constitutional issues, its status as an integral part of the city, and lack of natural boundaries or a sufficient tax base.

Nearly 30 years later, in 2004, the cityhood idea revived with calls for more local control of taxes and schools. But a feasibility study was unkind. It said that leaving Anchorage would mean higher taxes or cuts in services and schools in some areas – though some backers said the price would be worth paying. As with Buckhead City, bond debt and City contracts were concerns. Eaglexit says the movement “lost momentum” after the study’s talk of how “divorce proceedings… would be long, tedious and potentially divisive.”

Another 15 years and the idea returned in 2019 as Eaglexit. The new version overlaps with Assembly District 2, Anchorage’s version of a city council or county commission district, and has a positive feasibility study in its pocket. Similar to Buckhead City, the movement also had an initial chair who was a state Republican Party operative known for inflammatory political tweets. Somewhat controversially, Eaglexit has partnered with a Texas nonprofit called the Justice Foundation, a small-government advocacy group particularly known for anti-abortion work, as a fiscal agent.

Eaglexit is working on further study and is in an “educational” phase. Some of its motives were expressed in an online survey. One question asked whether respondents wanted “more local control of decisions regarding taxation, schools, land use and public safety.” Another asked if they agreed that “Assembly District 2 has a different identity, and different values than Anchorage does.”

“Anchorage Assembly has nine members that are totally liberal Marxists and two who are not, and those two represent us,” Murphy said. “…And the flip side of that is there are conservatives in Anchorage who don’t want to lose our vote.”

Another political challenge, Murphy said, is the demand for more details in the break-up plan. “There are people, they want all the answers before they can jump, and that’s hard to overcome,” he said.

Buckhead City is facing the same challenge, and it remains to be seen whether the legislature or governor or voters, if it comes to that, will be convinced. If not, that’s unlikely to be the end. Like its northern counterpart, Buckhead cityhood is an old idea, last seen in a big public meeting in 2008, now re-emerging from dormancy.

Previous failure is one reason the current Buckhead City momentum has caught Atlanta’s movers and shakers by surprise. But it’s striking how they’ve also simply misread its political chances, much the way the establishment in 2016 underestimated Donald Trump (whose family, it happens, is friendly with White, the BCC leader).

Early attention to the BCC’s pitch zoomed in on details of crime stats and municipal finances, missing that the appeal is really about more conservative political and cultural reactions to how a city handles those subjects, with its local support coming mostly from Republican residents. The overlooked larger dynamic was the state Republican Party’s chance to mess with Blue Atlanta.

Opponents are now engaged with the state-level political battle, but this isn’t just about parties. The populist aspect is still being overlooked and the cityhood notion wouldn’t be going anywhere without it.

Buckhead separatism isn’t hard to conceive when, if we’re honest, it’s often talked about as quasi-separate already, sometimes by locals living in a bubble and sometimes by fellow Atlantans who treat it like an embarrassing uncle from north Fulton. It’s been that way for years, but this is a time when self-determination and anti-elitism is the hot trend across the political spectrum. Part of the establishment surprise about Buckhead cityhood is that politicians and tycoons didn’t simply gather behind closed doors and strangle it in its crib like they’ve done with other disfavored ideas via the “Atlanta Way.” It may just be working slower, but the Atlanta Way took a beating from candidates this year in an election where voters clearly wanted to sweep out old-school figures and have more citizen input in government.

The notion of financially elite Buckhead being populist may seem counterintuitive, but long before the BCC came along, locals have agitated about remote and unresponsive government. Some of it’s cranky or partisan, but it’s true that Atlanta really did cook up some zoning changes in secretive and confusing ways and really did have a mayor stupendously absent in the wake of shocking crimes. A bigger question is what kind of populism appeals, as the cityhood brand is showing its capacity for taking dark turns with White’s recent social media posts about race and racism. Meanwhile, Mayor Andre Dickens is trying his own personal touch with support from local grassroots anti-cityhood groups.

It’s remarkable enough that even the immediate future of the cityhood legislation is hard to predict as it goes before the General Assembly in a session that began this week. Or that if it doesn’t pass in 2022, it’s not hard to predict its return in a lot less than 45 or 20 or 15 years from now.

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4 Comments

  1. Charles Mourne January 11, 2022 9:09 am

    The big question is whether the Republican leaders of Georgia actually support Buckhead City. As far as I can tell, Kemp and Ralston are at best neutral on the issue, and Duncan is pretty much outright opposed. If it were any other year, I would say Buckhead City is a pipe dream. HOWEVER – can the republican leadership afford to placate Democrat Atlanta by stabbing Republican Buckhead in the back? Can they really say they stand against Stacey Abrams when they work against their constituency? People say Georgia is a blue state now, if Republicans throw Buckhead under the (MARTA) bus then they may be right about that.Report

    Reply
  2. Charles Mourne January 11, 2022 9:10 am

    The big question is whether the Republican leaders of Georgia actually support Buckhead City. As far as I can tell, Kemp and Ralston are at best neutral on the issue, and Duncan is pretty much outright opposed. If it were any other year, I would say Buckhead City is a pipe dream. HOWEVER – can the republican leadership afford to placate Democrat Atlanta by stabbing Republican Buckhead in the back? Can they really say they stand against Stacey Abrams when they work against their constituency? People say Georgia is a blue state now, if Republicans throw Buckhead under the (MARTA) bus then they may be right about that.Report

    Reply
  3. Randy Farmer January 11, 2022 3:09 pm

    As an early participant in the grass-roots movement for Buckhead City, I’d like to point out some salient facts that haven’t been addressed.

    First, journalists always fail to mention that the current de-annexation movement really picked up speed during the May riots and Democrat Party support for defunding the police. Atlanta’s Mayor also refused to send any police protection to Buckhead during these riots, so it was looted.

    Second, journalists fail to mention that rapid development of Buckhead has caused traffic congestion and a lower quality of life. The same developers who are responsible for ruining Buckhead are the primary force against it becoming a city.

    It would be fair and balanced coverage if journalists would mention these things. Buckhead City is an expression of the desire for local control.Report

    Reply

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