Politics

Tea Party Running the Show in Georgia County

Most of Fayette County’s elected leaders are Tea Partiers, shedding light on how Tea Party reformers -- if given full control -- might shape public policy and overhaul Republican politics at the local level.
by | April 2013

Fayette County, Ga., is exactly what you think of when you think of the exurban South. It’s technically part of the Atlanta metropolitan area -- the county’s northwest corner lies just six miles from the runways at Hartsfield International Airport -- but Fayette rolls south from there over the gentle hills of central Georgia. With just over 106,000 residents, it’s the second least densely populated county in the region, full of rural woodlands, artificial lakes, grassy fields and affluent pockets of modern suburbia. Most of the roads have no more than two lanes in either direction. The planned community of Peachtree City, with a population of 35,000, is the county’s largest town. (Crisscrossed by a 90-mile network of bike and golf-cart paths, the town routinely shows up on national “best places to live” lists.) You can walk your dog through the middle of Peachtree City and still spot deer and raccoons.

But there’s one thing that distinguishes Fayette County, one aspect that makes it different from other exurban enclaves throughout the Sun Belt. Fayette County is run entirely by the Tea Party. All five county commissioners are Tea Party members, as is the entire county school board, along with a sheriff, a mayor and several city council members.

Read the April issue of Governing magazine.

It’s a nascent political experiment, to be sure: Most of the Tea Partiers on the county commission were only voted into office in November. And it’s certainly too early to know exactly what impact the new guard will have on the area’s future. But what’s already happening in Fayette County illuminates how Tea Party reformers -- if given full control -- might shape public policy and overhaul Republican politics at the local level. It poses a fundamental question about Tea Party leadership: What happens when some of the biggest critics of government end up being the ones in charge?

Fayette County has long been a conservative bastion. Locals have voted decisively for every Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan’s first election. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Congressional district once included Fayette County. Fayette is overwhelmingly white and mostly well off (the median household income is about $81,000, significantly higher than the national median and nearly 40 percent higher than the rest of Georgia).

Through the 1990s and most of the 2000s, Fayette enjoyed rapid growth as Atlanta commuters moved farther and farther out, seeking big houses on leafy streets. The new development was fueled in part by the brand of pro-business, pro-growth Republicanism that rose to prominence across the South. With the vast majority of county revenue coming from property taxes, Fayette’s coffers rose along with home values. A bullish housing market allowed the county commission to pay for more roads and a few public amenities, including a senior center, which paved the way for even more development. The elected body didn’t do much else: It levied taxes, controlled county property and oversaw county roads. The county raised more money than it spent each year.

Then the Great Recession hit, and the political and economic climate changed. The local unemployment rate jumped from under 5 percent in 2008 to over 8 percent in 2010. As housing prices plummeted, so did property tax collections. Money from the county’s sales-and-use tax took a nosedive as well. In 2012, after several years of rising expenditures and declining revenues, the commission had to dip into its reserve fund to balance the budget.

That’s when the Tea Party stepped in. “People were suddenly in a position where whatever worked before was no longer working,” says Pat Cooper, the managing editor of the Fayette County News. “When things went from bad to worse, the Tea Party became a guiding star for residents.”

Two Tea Party candidates won commission seats in 2010. In a post-election analysis that year, local Tea Party co-founder Bob Ross detailed the ways he believed the old-guard GOP had failed local residents: Commissioners had supported a costly road project, backed a sales tax increase and failed to officially reprimand a fellow commissioner for criminal behavior (a DUI involving marijuana). Ross’ words echoed the frustrations of conservatives nationwide, who have attacked expensive new public programs under the Obama administration, such as the economic stimulus package and the universal health-care law. Local Fayette Tea Party challengers promised to be frugal, transparent and persistent in trying to block further construction of the costly and unpopular road.

In 2012, the party swept the three remaining seats. All of the candidates ran on the same platform, vowing to uproot “corruption” and restore order to the local budget. (Their accusations of fiscal malfeasance warrant some skepticism. True, the county had begun spending slightly more than it was taking in, but the commission still had more than $8 million in reserves and a rainy day fund.)

Ever since, the Tea Party in Fayette County has been on a roll. As the party has sought control of the commission, the school board and other local seats, its record has so far been a sterling 14 wins in 14 races. “Anything we’ve gone after,” says local party co-founder Harold Bost, “we’ve gotten it.”

The schism in the local Republican Party mirrors the GOP soul-searching that’s currently taking place in the states and Washington. The Tea Party candidates portrayed Republican incumbents as left-leaning moderates who were wasting taxpayer dollars. “They tried to say they wanted to cleanse the party, but what they really wanted to do was control the party,” says county Republican Chairman Lane Watts. “It was mind-blowing.”

At the national level, the Tea Party movement has rallied around federal budget cuts, a stronger check against executive power and a pledge against any new taxes. In Fayette, the focus is somewhat shifted. (Herbert Frady, who retired from the Fayette County Commission last year after serving five terms, counts himself as a member of the national Tea Party. The local party, he contends, isn’t the real thing.) The local party supports limited government and fiscal conservatism, yes, but it also is waging battles against high-density growth and investments in mass transit.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the old-style Republicans and their successors is their respective appetites for new development. After the pro-growth GOP of the past 20 years, the Tea Partiers in Fayette can almost sound like environmental protectionists. “The county commission is a big part of what kind of future you’ve got,” says local party leader Ross. “Are you going to be a county full of strip malls? Are you going to pave over the county?”

That’s a major distinction, says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. Republican leaders in rural counties accept tradeoffs, such as sales tax increases, in order to maintain roads and high-quality schools, so long as they attract private-sector investment. “Your Tea Party people can’t make that kind of assessment,” Bullock says. “Their top priority is to maintain low taxes. They would say, if you have a very low tax structure, that alone is enough inducement to private industry coming in.”

The development question was a big part of what galvanized the Tea Party takeover in Fayette. The former commissioners approved a six-mile road project to relieve traffic congestion that mostly doesn’t exist yet, plus a new fee for stormwater maintenance. They also supported a failed statewide referendum last summer on a one-cent sales tax that would have paid for new roads in Fayette County, plus bus and light rail in other parts of the metro Atlanta region. Until late last year, the incumbents backed a regional transportation plan that included potential mass transit segments in Fayette by 2040.

Supporters of those plans -- particularly the statewide referendum, a measure that would have brought nearly $7.2 billion in new transportation investments to 10 counties around Atlanta, but which voters throughout the entire region overwhelmingly rejected -- said they were necessary to meet the area’s future growth challenges. In Fayette County alone, the population more than tripled from 1980 to 2010. The Atlanta Regional Commission, a metropolitan planning organization, projects that another 54,000 people will reside in the county by 2030.

But the local Tea Party saw those sorts of long-term plans as tantamount to urbanization and a betrayal to residents’ preferred way of life. It prompted accusations that commissioners were in developers’ pockets, and paying more attention to interest groups in Atlanta instead of the voters in Fayette County. “No one moved to Fayette County to be close to anything,” said Tea Party Commissioner Steve Brown at a public meeting in 2011. Fayette residents, he argued, chose a rural setting with long commutes over the conveniences of urban life. “Many of us are refugees from the current mass transit counties in metro Atlanta.”

“You do see an idealism around the suburban lifestyle that they’ve created,” says Ashley Robbins, president of the Atlanta-based Citizens for Progressive Transit and an advocate of the failed sales tax referendum. “That county has always gravitated that way. It has always been exclusive and I think that will continue.”

Even before the party’s sweep of the county commission last fall, the two Tea Partiers who had won election in 2010 had given an indication of how they would run things. Brown and his colleague Allen McCarty have championed a menu of policy changes to reduce the cost of government, impose stricter ethics rules and discourage high-density development. Between the two of them, they’ve proposed outsourcing the county’s building inspections, opening more contracts to competitive bidding and diverting some transportation funds to pay for stormwater maintenance (rather than imposing new fees).

One change that’s already taking place? More direct access from citizens. As the new chairman, Brown has revised the rules for public meetings so that citizens have more opportunities to speak to the commission, not just those residents who sign up at the start of a meeting. The new commission is looking into posting online videos of its meetings. They’re also making an effort to be more open and transparent in the process of appointing citizens to advisory boards. “We’re really striving to be a representative government,” says Brown.

Now the Tea Party must translate campaign rhetoric into the work of governing the county. Some of their actions already seem to invoke the more mainstream Republicans they ousted. The commissioners, for example, are already discussing ways to connect the county to an interstate highway, which would shorten the commute time to Atlanta and could result in expanding development in Fayette once again. One commissioner is even talking about finding money for employee pay raises.

Ultimately, it may not even be that paradoxical that a party that frequently rails against the government is in charge of running one. True, national Tea Party leaders such as retired Texas Rep. Ron Paul and his son Rand, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, have advocated for the elimination of entire federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education. But the issues at the local level are different. Tea Partiers -- at least the ones in Fayette County -- aren’t seeking to dismantle the local school system or eliminate the sheriff’s office. Government does have a legitimate, if limited, role in public life, they argue -- to protect individual rights provided under state and federal constitutions, such as access to affordable education and public safety.

Still, if the commissioners stray too far from Tea Party ideals, the local party operatives will be watching. “If they don’t do it right,” says Bost, “we’re going to be right down their backs.”

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