By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, September 14, 2012
The regional transportation sales tax would have won had the vote been held on Nov. 6, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said a wide-ranging interview about the failed referendum and where the region and city should go from here.
Other points Reed made in the Sept. 10 interview included:
The campaign should have targeted early and absentee voters instead of focusing on the July 31 primary election.
Even though polls showed the referendum was going to fail, Reed decided to step forward to become the face of the campaign two weeks before the vote because he wanted to stand strong with the business community that had raised about $8 million and had galvanized strong corporate support for the effort.
Reed does not fault Gov. Nathan Deal for saying the day after the vote that there was not going to be a revote or for his statements on MARTA and rail.
Although the city of Atlanta would welcome working on transportation plans with the rest of the region, Reed said the city needs to focus on its own priorities — most likely entering into public-private partnerships to build light rail.
Reed also said the region needs time to recover from the vote before coming up with a new plan.
“I think that everyone needs to take a moment to regroup and figure out a path forward,” Reed said. “The path forward is going to involve many more public-private partnerships.”
Asked whether the community needed to analyze the vote and what went wrong with the campaign, Reed said not yet.
“I think that will be appropriate during the first quarter of next year,” he said. “Right now is really too soon.”
Reed had been pivotal to the whole process of getting the transportation referendum bill passed, putting together the list of $6.14 billion of proposed projects as well as emerging as a major advocate for the tax.
Reed served on the five-member executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable where there were intense negotiations and discussions of what projects should be included in the in the final proposal.
In an unprecedented show of regional consensus and cooperation, the project list was supported by all 21 of the region’s elected leaders who were serving on the Roundtable. With such support, how did the transportation special purpose local option sale tax (TSPLOST) end up losing in a62 percent to 38 percent vote in the region?
Reed said there were three main reasons.
“One, we need to deliver concrete results so the public has greater confidence in government,” he said.
“Two, I said all along that I thought the date was very detrimental,” he said. “Everybody shares in the responsibility on the date of the election (being held during the July 31 primary). I believe we would have won if it had been held during the General Election.”
Reed actually lobbied hard to move the date from the primary to the Nov. 6 General Election, but that effort died during a special legislative session held during August 2011, because of political opposition.
The third reason it failed was because the campaign was geared primarily to people voting on July 31.
“The transportation referendum shows that in elections going forward, you have to operate from the date when absentee and early voting begins,” said Reed, estimating that the campaign should have been in full force about 10 weeks earlier.
“The early voters and the absentee voters made it impossible to prevail,” he said. “The absentee vote made winning on election day almost impossible.”
According to Reed, about 70 percent of the early and absentee voters voted against the referendum and that people voting on July 31 were more evenly split.
Reed also explained how he emerged as a referendum champion — the face of the campaign — in the last couple of weeks before the vote.
“There was a collective decision that I believed in and supported. We had decided that you would not have one individual driving this campaign,” Reed said. “At first it was working. Then we started hemorrhaging and there wasn’t support in places where we should have gotten it. I felt a different path was needed.”
Also the opposition was gaining more traction than the campaign had expected.
“You can’t beat something with nothing,” Reed said. “At that point I decided to engage directly.”
And what about the political risk he was taking to support the failing effort?
“You cannot be the leader of the city and have a corporate community that has gotten involved in a process, largely for their own interests but also for what was best for the region, and when things got tough, walk away,” Reed said. “That would have been extremely harmful to any future regional effort going forward.”
Later he said he did not want the business community to “feel abandoned” when the going got tough.
Everyone had underestimated how many people would show up at the polls. Until the very end, campaign consultants believed the turnout would be between 375,000 and 400,000 voters in the 10-county region. Instead, the turnout totaled 675,535.
The day after the vote, Gov. Deal proclaimed there would be no revote (even though the bill states there can be another one as early as 2014), that MARTA will need to be fixed before the taxpayers would invest more money in the system, and that the referendum outcome “slams the door on further expansion of our rail network any time soon.”
Reed and Deal have developed a close relationship as the mayor has worked hard to get federal funding to deepen the Port of Savannah and the governor had proclaimed his strong support for the referendum.
“I wasn’t disappointed by the governor’s response,” Reed said. “The governor took exceptional political risk, and I think he was being responsive to what he believes was the message of the election. I was not stunned at all. You have to be respectful. We all have elections.”
Despite cordial relationships between Reed and state and regional leaders, he confided Atlanta is exploring its own strategy to improve transportation choices in the city.
“We remain in a posture where we are willing to partner with the rest of the region,” Reed said. “But we do have a responsibility to the city of Atlanta.”
In other words, Reed has not given up on the city’s ability to implement light rail — especially along the Atlanta Beltline.
“We see a path with increased public-private partnerships because that is the path that will allow us to afford to build our transportation projects,” Reed said. “There’s an unprecedented amount of money in our banking system in the United States that’s willing to invest in a light rail system in the city of Atlanta. We are already seeing a significant amount of interest.”
The mayor emphasized the city is not going to stand still — especially as it relates to his legacy Atlanta Beltline project, which would have received more than $600 million had the tax passed.
“We are going to build the Atlanta Beltline,” Reed said. “And we are fully exploring how we are going to pay for it.”