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New Political Action Committee Takes Aim at Athens’ Progressive Government

Steve Middlebrooks (right) with Charlie Upchurch after receiving the Upshaw Bentley Citizen of the Year Award in February. Credit: Athens Area Chamber of Commerce

A new political force has emerged in Athens, pledging to raise and spend an unprecedented amount of money to elect conservative candidates to replace the current progressive Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission.

Athens Clean & Safe is a political action committee with ties to the local pro-police group Athens Classic. It formed to support the campaigns of Mara Zúñiga for mayor, incumbent Patrick Davenport in Commission District 1, the since-withdrawn Robert Finch in District 3, Dexter Fisher in District 5, John Culpepper in District 7 and incumbent Ovita Thornton, who is running unopposed, in District 9, according to a Mar. 12 fundraising email from Athens Classic cofounder Steve Middlebrooks that was recently obtained by Flagpole.

“Unfortunately, the city of Athens is not the same place that it was when we were growing up or even that of 5–10 years ago,” Middlebrooks wrote. “In fact, Athens is at a tipping point that will soon be irreparable and impossible to return to the community that we all grew to love.

“The startling facts are that the voting majority of the Athens-Clarke County Commission, including the mayor, are aggressively adopting policies that are directly aligned with those in Portland, Berkeley and other radical cities. Please note that this is not an exaggeration.” 

Middlebrooks cited crime, lack of support for police, panhandlers, litter, businesses moving to Oconee County, lack of cooperation with the University of Georgia and “reckless spending” of tax dollars, specifically a $300,000 public toilet downtown and a $2.2 million homeless encampment.

Middlebrooks, the owner and general manager of Heyward Allen Toyota and GMC, formed Athens Classic after discussing the “defund the police” movement over lunch with his friend, real estate broker Charlie Upchurch. “We looked at one another and said, ‘Is that all we’re going to do, talk about it?’” Middlebrooks told Flagpole. With children, grandchildren, 200 employees and a business that’s undertaking a $5 million expansion, “I have a vested interest in a cleaner and safer community,” he said.

The ACC commission did not defund the police. A proposal from Mariah Parker and Tim Denson in 2020 to gradually divert half of police funding toward mental health and other social services did not garner much support. In fact, police funding actually rose 2.7% in 2020 and 3.3% in 2021, with another increase expected this year.

While crime in Athens actually fell by 11% last year, the perception remains that it’s grown worse. Middlebrooks argued that the statistics are misleading because former police chief Cleveland Spruill told him that ACCPD had stopped making drug arrests unless another crime was also involved. In any case, crimes committed against UGA students are often played up by Atlanta media, and Athens Classic became involved with a Facebook group of concerned parents of UGA students.

Athens Classic’s mission statement describes it as a nonpartisan organization devoted to public safety, public education and public health. Gordon Rhoden, chair of the Athens Republican Party, is also listed as a cofounder and board member of Athens Classic. Zúñiga, although she says she is nonpartisan, was formerly the treasurer of the Athens GOP. Middlebrooks spoke at Zúñiga’s campaign kickoff event, but he said that was in his personal capacity. Athens Classic shares a post office box with the Athens Clean & Safe PAC.

At an Apr. 18 candidate forum, commission candidate Allen Jones connected Athens Clean & Safe to Republican state legislators’ new district map that prevented three progressive incumbents from running for re-election. “They made these new districts, which if you look at them, there are clear people that they chose to represent those districts,” Jones said. “And now they’ve also really gotten together with a lot of people from Atlanta to fund those people who have that kind of more conservative mindset.”

Jones, a self-identified Democrat who is facing Culpepper in the District 7 race, elaborated on his concerns during an Athens Politics Nerd podcast interview. “To me, it seems like a David and Goliath kind of race,” he said. “I’ll never be able to raise the kind of money they’ll have coming in from Buckhead and Alpharetta…. It really bothers me that we’ve got that kind of money infused from either party into the race. Athens elections should be Athens local elections.”

While the PAC and the candidates it supports are required by law to disclose their spending, and future campaign finance reports should shed some light on its activities, PAC donors can be shielded from view. As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, Athens Classic is allowed to engage in political activities but does not have to reveal donors’ identities. Money given to Athens Classic can be funneled anonymously to the Athens Clean & Safe PAC. 

Middlebrooks bristled at Flagpole’s previous report that the PAC had hired an Alpharetta consultant, Jason D. Boles, who had previously worked for controversial Georgia GOP congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Middlebrooks said that he has never met Greene and that Boles has thousands of clients all over the country. “What I hear on the news, that’s all I know” about her, he said.

In last month’s fundraising letter, Middlebrooks said Athens Clean & Safe had already raised $120,000 out of its $225,000 goal. Although the letter identified the beneficiaries of the donations, Middlebrooks said in an interview earlier this month that the PAC has not made any endorsements and would not until after last week’s Athens Area Chamber of Commerce forum.

Some of the candidates named in the letter—including Davenport, Fisher and Zúñiga—have denied any involvement with Athens Clean & Safe. Davenport said he has not been contacted by them and would not accept any PAC funding. In a Facebook post, Zúñiga called reports of her endorsement “misinformation being sent out by an individual who stirs hate against successful women of color.”

Fisher said that he would not want support from the PAC, but he would welcome support from Middlebrooks as an individual District 5 voter. “Why would I not want support from anyone who lives in my district?” Fisher said. “If he supports me, then he supports me.”

Chris Dowd contributed to this report.