Seventh-inning stretch: Cobb Chairman Tim Lee is battling to keep his job

After his second-place primary showing, the man who lured the Braves out of Atlanta tries a new approach in the runoff: talking less about the stadium deal
Tim Lee at the Atlanta Press Club's runoff debate
Tim Lee at the Atlanta Press Club’s runoff debate

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 Lee. To read more about Boyce, come back tomorrow for a follow-up story.

“You don’t want to scare anybody,” Tim Lee tells me as he drove his cobalt GMC pickup truck east on Roswell Street toward east Cobb. It’s a Saturday morning in mid-July, 10 days before a runoff that could end his political career, and the 59-year-old county chairman is fighting to get people to the polls at a time when many families are on summer vacation. Before knocking on doors, the veteran advertising professional goes over his strategy: slap a couple of magnetic black-and-yellow campaign signs on his doors to avoid being mistaken for a solicitor, don’t peer into their windows while ringing the bell, and find a way to connect with his constituents.

“It’s just like a marketing program, where you put customers in five different tiers: one being loyal to the end—‘we’re willing to buy Clorox no matter what’—all the way down to five—‘we’ll buy Clorox if it’s on sale,’” he explained. “The ones I’m going after are voters [in the middle] who feel a responsibility to be involved but haven’t made up their minds as to who they want to support.”

Over the course of an hour, Lee stopped at nine homes of undecided voters. As he zigzagged across lawns in his white polo shirt and gym shoes, he looked for small details—cars with veteran decals or well-maintained lawns—hoping to convert strangers, like Mariettan Cari Pirello, into supporters.

“You want to come in?” Pirello offered to the chairman at her doorstep.

“No, that’s OK,” Lee replied, a lone bead of sweat dripping down his face. “Then we’ll get used to the cold, and have to come back into the hot.”

“Well, Mr. Lee, what is the number one reason I should vote for you?” she asked.

“I’m the best!” he declared, pausing for a couple of seconds, before letting out a chuckle.

Pointing to his six years as chairman, Lee delivered his sales pitch to Pirello on why he should be re-elected: He’s a “trusted conservative” who’s reduced government spending and led Cobb’s economy to the point that it’s become the “best county to do to business in the best state to do business.” For most of the past two and a half years, Lee has claimed that his reputation rests on his “home run” decision to lure the Atlanta Braves away from Atlanta. Today, though, he glosses over the any mention of the team, or its new home near Cumberland Mall.

In the May 24 Republican primary, Lee nearly lost his $130,000-a-year post to Mike Boyce, a retired Marine Colonel and political novice. As Lee tells it, the upset happened because his supporters didn’t bother to vote without an established challenger on the ballot. But to many voters, the July 26 runoff is seen as a delayed referendum on the $672 million SunTrust Park, a ballpark largely paid for with public money with little public input.

“If you look at the objective numbers—the tax rates, the bond rating, the real estate investments—Cobb is being managed well,” said Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint. “The Braves deal, at the end of the day, is probably going to be an economic shot in an arm. When you have an entrenched establishment dominated by economic elites that seem to run everything, people who feel like they haven’t been listened to [can feel] lot of resentment.”

When Lee moved from New York to east Cobb in 1986, he was one of those outsiders, until he eventually volunteered as president of his homeowner association as a way to help others be heard. In the late ’90s, the community advocate helped convince a developer to scale back the density of a proposed subdivision by several hundred homes. His grateful neighbors urged him in 2002 to run for a commission seat that had been vacated by Sam Olens in his effort to replace Chairman Bill Byrne, who had decided to run for governor.

“I didn’t seek it,” Lee said of his career in politics. “It found me.”

Eight years later, Olens left to run for state attorney general, and Lee decided to run for chairman in a special election. He handily defeated opponent Larry Savage, a retired businessman, but only after being attacked for a 1995 bankruptcy that arose following his divorce from his first wife.

Nevertheless, Lee went on to oversee five straight balanced budgets and maintain the county’s prestigious Triple-A bond rating. The Cobb chairman takes credit for creating nearly 20,000 jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, and for attracting more than $2 billion in private investment countywide. By making larger investments in bus transit and infrastructure, Lee believes Cobb has become increasingly attractive to young adults—particularly those educated by the county’s highly ranked schools.

“The only way to do that is to go big,” Lee said. “I couldn’t have just built a five-story, 500,000 square-foot office tower and expect anything to happen with a little Burger King next to it.”

One night in July 2013, the chairman had dinner with Braves executives at the private Marietta Country Club to discuss the possibility of the team’s relocation. “It was very clear, if any word leaked out the deal was off,” Lee later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Over the next four months, Lee secretly hammered out a plan, known as “Operation Intrepid,” that would leave Cobb taxpayers on the hook for nearly $400 million. That November, when the Braves announced they would leave Turner Field behind after the 2016 season, Lee proclaimed the 60-acre deal a boon to the county—even as he sometimes seemed hard-pressed to explain exactly why.

“So, let’s say you go to Cumberland Mall and you’re having dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and you want to go to the game,” Lee told the Marietta Daily Journal. “Instead of driving over there, you leave your car where it is, you get on the tram, and it goes over and drops you off right in front of the Braves stadium, and at the end of the day you go in reverse.”

Rather than making his case to the public, Lee asserted that the deal didn’t need their approval—just a majority vote from the commission. It was an odd strategy, said Ron Sifen of Vinings, given residents of the mostly conservative and affluent county had been allowed to weigh in on much smaller projects, including a $40 million referendum in 2008 to fund new parks. (Lee recently told me that he believes a SunTrust Park referendum wasn’t a viable choice because the deal would’ve collapsed give the Braves’ expiring lease at Turner Field.)

As a result, the subsequent public meetings proved largely ceremonial. In the May 2014 meeting to finalize the deal, public comment was limited to 12 slots—which were all claimed by Braves boosters. When opponents objected, they were escorted out of the chambers by police. Since then, critics have filed lawsuits over the stadium bonds (they lost) and the land needed for the Braves bridge that spans over I-285 (still pending); slapped the chairman with an ethics complaint (eventually dismissed); and called for his resignation (he declined).

Though Lee prevailed, and stadium construction soon began, the criticism continued. University of Florida researchers found in September 2014 that four out of five Cobb residents believed they should’ve gotten to vote on the matter—although most said they would’ve supported the stadium.

“Now it’s a delayed referendum [on Tim Lee],” Boyce, his opponent, recently said. “He used our money without asking our permission.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Lee sat alone at a table inside a Public Broadcasting Atlanta TV studio as he ran through his notes, occasionally fiddling with his red pen and adjusting his green tie. As a producer tested the microphones at the Atlanta Press Club debate taping, Lee would soon be faced with an unusual problem: There wasn’t anyone to debate. Boyce was a no-show.

Instead of getting the opportunity to attack his opponent’s platform face to face, Lee found himself the focus of a barrage of tough questions: Does a controversial parking ordinance favor the Braves over other Cobb business owners? Can you call yourself a fiscal conservative if you take on public debt to put toward a sports stadium? Is this runoff, as your opponent suggests, a delayed referendum?

Since the primary, Lee has dialed up his efforts to hang on to his seat, knowing he came within 400 votes of losing it. At the beginning of July, he had nearly five times more cash than his opponent, which has allowed him to hire veteran politicos who have worked with statewide elected officials like Governor Nathan Deal, Olens, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. His campaign, rather than simply attack Boyce, has shifted its tone to focus on the chairman’s accomplishments—recently acknowledged in endorsements from influential GOP lawmakers like U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who told us Lee’s “personal humility and conservative values” have served the county well.

But it’s not entirely positive: Lee’s campaign has accused Boyce of vandalizing his roadside campaign signs. In addition, Joseph Cortes, Lee’s campaign’s political director, blasted out an email to supporters that attacked the “radical, liberal Atlanta media” for not reporting on the chairman’s positive track record. “The Atlanta media wants to demolish the Conservative Cobb County that is moving forward with pro-jobs, pro-taxpayer, and pro-school funding policies along with the best quality of life in Metro Atlanta,” Cortes wrote in an email. “Their wrecking ball is Mike Boyce.”

Last month, as Cobb’s board of tax assessors finalized a millage rate reduction that would lower residential property taxes, Lee called for it to be even lower so that the county would have “the lowest property tax rate in metro Atlanta” faster than expected. Cobb commissioners are scheduled to vote on the county’s tax rates during at its July 26 meeting—which would take place while the polls are open for the runoff.

In order to make a comeback, Swint says, Lee will need far more than the 14,600 Cobb residents—about 4 percent of total registered voters—who cast ballots for him in May. In the 2012 runoff, Lee only needed 14,300 votes to thwart Byrne’s comeback. However, the chairman says, the number of people who have voted early for this month’s runoff has “blown past races out of the water.”

“It’s anybody’s guess [how many votes will be needed to win],” Lee told me. “It doesn’t matter as long as we have one more vote than he does.”

With the help of past supporters, as well as some undecided residents, Lee believes he can beat Boyce, and will continue to make his case for re-election until this upcoming Tuesday. And if he can reach people like Pirello, without discussing the Braves, he might just avoid scaring away voters still on the fence.