Georgia ReportNews

After Braves Deal, Cobb Voters Chop Chairman Tim Lee

It’s generally considered impolite to take pleasure in other people’s misfortunes, but sometimes you have to make an exception.

One such exception could be granted in the case of Tim Lee, the chairman of the Cobb County Commission. I have seen quite a few arrogant, egotistical politicians in my years of reporting, but Lee could very well be the most pig-headed of them all.

You may remember that three years ago, Lee secretly negotiated a deal in which he gave the owners of the Atlanta Braves $400 million in public funds to persuade them to build a new stadium in Cobb County. That money belonged to the Cobb taxpayers, but neither the people nor their representatives on the county commission had any say in the matter.

Lee presented his “deal” to the county commission, and demanded that they approve it quickly without having an extended discussion. The commissioners had little time to study the matter, and citizens had no chance to vote in a referendum.

At the lone commission meeting where the stadium deal was on the agenda, Lee treated critics of the transaction with such undisguised contempt, you would have thought they were a bunch of terrorists. When some local residents tried to express opposition to the proposal, Lee not only refused to let them speak, he ordered police officers to remove them from the meeting.   

At that point, there was no danger that Lee’s deal was going to be stopped. A smart politician would have had the decency to allow 15 minutes for critics to have their say, but it wasn’t enough for Lee to win—he had to rub his opponents’ noses in the dirt while doing it.

Earlier this year, Lee geared up for a re-election race against one of the candidates he had easily defeated in 2012, a retired Marine officer named Mike Boyce. Lee had lots of campaign cash and friends in the business community who appreciated how he poured public money into a stadium project for private interests. I’m sure Lee thought that Cobb residents would be so grateful for his bringing in the Atlanta Braves that they would overwhelmingly re-elect him.

The voters, as it turned out, had other ideas. In the Republican primary, Boyce worked hard to turn out his supporters, who were mindful of Lee’s lack of transparency in finagling that stadium deal. Lee finished second in the primary, and it wasn’t even a close second—he had only 40 percent of the vote. Boyce nearly won the race outright with close to 50 percent support.  

It was a shocking result for a politician who was used to snapping his fingers and producing $400 million in tax money for his favorite corporate executives. Lee tried to make up the difference in the runoff, but the embarrassment was even worse. He attracted only 36 percent of the vote in the runoff as Boyce crushed him.

It’s clear that Cobb voters were eager to kick Lee off the commission. In most Georgia elections, voter turnout decreases dramatically from the primary to the runoff. That didn’t happen here, as there were actually more ballots cast in the runoff than in the primary. Cobb residents wanted to make sure Lee got the message.

There’s a lesson to be learned from all this: Dollars don’t vote, people do. The lesson, unfortunately, is lost on some politicians. On the night of the runoff, when it was clear that voters had rejected him, Lee told a local reporter, “I’ve been asked many times tonight if I would have done anything differently, and the answer is no.”  

The lesson for voters is: If you really don’t like what fat-headed politicians are doing, you do have a way to pay them back at the ballot box—but it only works if you make the effort to vote.