Mike Boyce eyes upset in upcoming Cobb chair runoff

The Braves deal, he thought, was simply an “injustice.” So Mike Boyce ran to unseat Tim Lee. He’s a runoff away from making it a reality.
Mike Boyce stands outside his Marietta home.

Max Blau

By all rights, Tim Lee should be a shoo-in for reelection as Cobb County chairman. He’s an entrenched conservative official, having served on the commission since the early 2000s, who has lowered taxes and balanced budgets in one of metro Atlanta’s most conservative counties. But in May, he came within 400 votes of losing his position outright to a no-name challenger, Mike Boyce, a retired Marine colonel whose platform is based primarily on opposition to the secret deal, orchestrated by Lee, that brought the Braves to Cobb County. Last week, in anticipation of next Tuesday’s runoff vote, we spent some time with Boyce. To read more about Lee, check out our story from yesterday.

During a nearly 30-year Marine Corps career, Col. Mike Boyce was tasked with many missions, including crunching Pentagon expenditures as a budgeteer and flying in the Gulf War as a pilot. After being stationed on four continents, he retired in 2000 and relocated to Marietta, where his wife lived at the time they got married. He turned his focus toward his four grandchildren and Cobb County politics.

On January 3, Boyce launched a campaign to unseat Cobb Chairman Tim Lee. He had a simple plan: Six days a week, the 66-year-old political novice knocked on doors as his mostly volunteer team called voters from a phone bank set up in the basement of his brick ranch home. To date, Boyce’s “army” has reached out to more than 120,000 voters with a pledge to bring transparency back to the Cobb commission following the SunTrust Park deal in 2014. Five months after his campaign began, Boyce shocked political observers as the top vote-getter in the May Republican primary—coming within 400 votes of winning the seat outright.

In the home stretch of his runoff campaign, Boyce spoke with Atlanta in his living room, which is filled with mementoes from his life abroad. The hour-long conversation took place two days after he skipped a televised debate with Lee on the argument that he could focus on reaching out additional voters. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You ran against Lee once before in 2012. Why did you first run and what got you interested in running again?

First of all, I’m a Marine. I don’t believe in talking. I believe in action. If I see something I think needs fixing, I’m certainly going to be able to make an effort to try and fix it. You can’t see something that you think is wrong and not do something about it. That goes all the back to the early days of our republic.

In 2011, we had something called a SPLOST. I thought that, based on my background as a budgeter in the Pentagon, it was too restrictive. It takes money. It fences it off in a certain time period. You can’t use that money for anything other than that. I just have issues with that: Things come up that we hadn’t thought about and, based on those requirements, you adjust your targets for what revenue you need to provide the public service. The best way to really provide these public services was through the general fund.

So, you ran because you disagreed with SPLOST methodology?

Right after the SPLOST, [Lee] proposed to increase the millage rate. Why are we doing that if we just had a SPLOST? The two didn’t match up. There was never a mention of that in the SPLOST. It was the first indication of this guy’s lack of openness and transparency. We got 17,000 votes, but didn’t get into the runoff. To me, the SPLOST issue had gone away, because the chairman, after he won the 2012 campaign, made a commitment to reduce the millage.

I was fat, dumb, and happy until the Braves deal came along. But it wasn’t the Brave deal that got me into this race. [We were told] the Braves had come to the chairman with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and if we didn’t take this deal of a century, well, they would go somewhere else. There’s a lot of good reasons to have the Braves here other than baseball. It’s a great vehicle for highlighting the diversity of Cobb County. It’s certainly going to bring economic growth. My concern was the memorandum of understanding between the county and the Braves.

There were no cost caps on some of the projects. The Braves were going to be able to use county facilities to park cars, derive revenue from that, and the county would not get anything out of that. I just wanted more time to look at the MOU. On day one, the chairman announced he had three votes [on a five-person commission]. It’s what I call Kabuki Theater! Lo and behold, months later, I find out that, in fact, it wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The Braves and the county had been negotiating for months, and had been using county employees, telling them never to talk to their commissioners about the negotiations. I spent 30 years in uniform defending something called democracy. This isn’t democracy.

What would you do differently?

It has never been about the Braves. Most people welcome the Braves, even if they’re not baseball fans. The Braves did what they do as a company. They got the best deal for themselves. Why would I have any concerns about a company that does its job? But Cobb County is not a business. It’s a government.

I would have brought the commissioners into the discussions. I understand politics: It’s rough and tumble. You could have made an argument that by bringing in the four commissioners that you, in fact, brought in a representative body of the people in Cobb County. I don’t know that I would be in this race if he had done that. That crossed the line for me.

You’ve emphasized how grassroots your campaign has been. How so, exactly?

I knew we had to do something different [than in 2012]. I had to find a campaign guru. I had to raise money. Nobody knew who I was; I had to fall back on my social network of people that supported me before, and my wife and I conducted a number of private dinners, and we told people why we needed their help. My secret weapon is my wife. Everybody in this army does something. Why our campaign has worked is that we guarantee that, when they show up to so something, we’re prepared for them. We don’t waste their time.

How many volunteers do you have at this point in time?

Well over 300. It’s hard for people to believe that the key to this campaign was that in January, three people—my campaign guru, manager, and a Kennesaw State intern—drove this campaign. We agreed on this strategy to go door-to-door unless something drastically changed. But my issue from day one has always been if you can vote on a $40 million park bond, why can’t we vote on a $350 million stadium bond?

The only thing harder than getting people to turn up to a primary is to get them to turn up to a runoff. What’s your strategy against a well-funded opponent?

It’s not about money. It’s about volunteers. The chairman has the money. I have the army. He’s got to buy his army. Mine walk in the door. There are people downstairs in my basement right now—and I have no idea who they are—who believe in this cause of representative government.

If you win, what would your first six months as chairman look like?

You’ve seen my platform on my website [that focuses on transparency]. It reflects my 16 years of living in Cobb County, and what I’ve seen, and what I think the people should get from their government. On a practical level, I’d have to get the board working together as a board. It’s a matter of trust.

I spent a lot of time in my Marine Corps career living overseas, working with host nations, and the issue there and the issue with this board [are similar]. Trust. That’s going to take time. It’s well and good for me to make promises, but they’re going to have to see that I deliver. The best thing I can do as a leader is be consistent. We are not going to solve all our problems overnight. Secondly, the business community is going to have a stable government and the people can believe in their government because they have a voice at the table.

There are parts of Cobb that have had issues concerning police interactions. What do you think needs to change in terms of the force’s relationship with its citizens—particularly with people of color?

We need to have some balanced reporting on the issue. I’ve been to forums down in South Cobb, where most of the people are black, and they have great things to say about the police. Are there issues? Of course, there are issues.

What do you think those issues are?

Trust. They see what’s happening at the national scale and that bleeds down to the local scale.

It’s happened locally too.

It has. But, remember, we have to also make that distinction between Cobb County and the municipalities, all right? What happens in the municipalities can’t run over into something into another police jurisdiction.

Let’s talk specifically: There was a 2015 case where a Smyrna police officer was cleared of wrongdoing in shooting a 23-year-old African-American man named Nicholas Thomas. Cobb Police were also involved in the incident—it wasn’t just a municipality—and the death followed an attempted arrest over a failure to pay $170 in felony probation fees.

Here’s the challenge: Everyone who gets stopped by a patrolman should have the same degree of confidence that, at the end of that interaction, the patrolman is going to do his job. At the end of that incident, unless it’s some kind of armed incident, [people need to know they’re] going to walk away. The black community doesn’t have that confidence. Perception is reality. That’s the challenge. There are people in this county who, when they get stopped by a policeman, have concerns. They’re worried for their life.

Is there a direction broadly speaking where you feel like Cobb County is going in the right direction under Lee’s leadership?

Clearly, Cobb is a great place to live, still. But people can make the distinction between a great place to live and having the guy that’s leading it. [I’m offering them the choice for] representative government, where you have a voice at the table, and it is open and transparent.

I’m a pretty simple guy. I saw something wrong. I went to fix it. I will just warn people to be very, very careful about upsetting a Marine. I’ve given up my life for 18 months to do this. The personal cost isn’t to my wife or I—it’s the grandkids.

Would you run again if you lost?

I don’t see it happening. On the other hand, I didn’t see this happening either. I’m just not going to stand for that kind of injustice, I’m not going to stand for people who try to pervert my government. I believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our founding fathers intended our former government to be chaotic, quarrelsome, messy, and to have tension in it. It wasn’t meant to shut out the people. That’s what’s happened now.