Charlie Harper: Preparing for a New Era in Georgia

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Eight years ago the state of Georgia was reeling from a total collapse in the US housing and financial markets.  Banks were failing here at the highest rate in the nation.  Even the soundest real estate transactions were viewed as speculative investments.  Our unemployment rate soared well above the national average.  Tax revenues plummeted.

Campaigns were in full force for the 2009 City of Atlanta Mayor’s race as well as for Georgia’s 2010 statewide elections.  There were few grains of optimism to cling to.  One could have legitimately questioned why anyone would have wanted to get elected in that environment.  Whomever was elected would have to deliver less in terms of government services, while asking voters for more. 

Eight years later in the City of Atlanta voters will select a replacement for mayor Kasim Reed in a couple of weeks.  Given the size of the field of candidates a runoff is all but a certainty.  Meanwhile, a couple of blocks up the street, Governor Nathan Deal is finalizing the agenda for his last legislative session as Governor.  His replacement will be selected next November.

One era is ending.  Voters must select what the next era will look like, and what tone it will bring.

It’s worth noting that Kasim Reed was polling third until just before the election that put him into a runoff, and then the Mayor’s office.  Governor Deal was polling forth a few weeks out of his primary.  Polls provide fodder for media and speculative entertainment.  They are horrible predictors of actual voter results, especially in crowded fields and times of voter angst and uncertainty.

The front runner for Governor was then Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine.  One of his proposals was to pave a freeway parallel to the downtown connector through East Atlanta.  Those with a memory of the Presidential Parkway debacle knew the chances of success for such a proposal approached zero.  It seemed, instead, designed to rile up intown Atlanta residents for the purposes of pitting Atlantans against suburbanites. 

The raw politics of political bases makes it easy to pit one group against another for electoral gain.  Stoking divisions between suburban Republicans and inner city Democrats and vice versa is an easy electoral layup for candidates and their consultants.

We now prepare to enter the stage where the Mayor’s race will gain salience statewide as it narrows to two candidates and the primaries for Governor begin to become part of the daily news cycle.  It’s important to take a moment to remember how the last two elections turned out for the state and city. 

Govenor Deal and Mayor Reed didn’t pit the capital city against the state.  Quite the contrary, the two were often held up as a national model for bipartisan pragmatism.

Mayor Reed summed up the relationship and their motivation together last month for New York Magazine:

“…we sat in a room one day and figured out we agreed on job creation, infrastructure, transportation, the deepening of the Port of Savannah. And we were both elected in an economic ditch, like most of my colleagues. So we had a reason to try to be successful together, because if we hadn’t been, we’d have been tossed out.”

They weren’t tossed out.  Both are preparing to leave a city and state in better fiscal shape than they found it.  We’re no longer trying to figure out when the hemorrhaging will stop.  Quite the contrary.  Cranes again dot the skyline of Midtown and Buckhead.  Downtown is experiencing a reemergence.  One of the most exclusive areas of DeKalb County is asking to be annexed into Atlanta. 

The state, as well, is prosperous again.  The construction cranes extend well beyond the city center.  A state that had 2 or 3 days operating cash on hand when Governor Deal took over now has about 2.5 Billion dollars saved for the next rainy day.  Georgia is open for business, and is growing again.

We’re no longer in an economic ditch.  Political relationships between partisans, however, are separated by a deep and growing chasm. 

The next Mayor and Governor will not have the built in necessity to work together. Quite the contrary.  Success provides the opportunity to argue over the spoils. 

As voters in the city and the state decide over the next year who will lead them into the next era, there will be those who seek to score off the easy political layups of division.  This will be all too easy during this time of great discord.  Georgians need two more leaders who can help us focus on what unites us, rather than stoking the embers of what divides us.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.