Don’t Blame Racism For Gwinnett’s MARTA Vote

The wailing and gnashing of teeth about the MARTA vote in Gwinnett has begun. Almost everyone is starting the critique with accusations of lingering racism driving anti-transit sentiment.

Almost everyone is wrong.

The MARTA vote lost in large part because of a revolt among black taxpayers in southeastern Gwinnett around Snellville. These voters — who are somewhat more conservative than black voters generally — perceived little personal benefit for paying $100 a year in increased taxes for the services of a bus line, maybe.

Eli Spencer Hayman, an Atlantan studying at Brown, and the inestimable Steen Kirby, a young political consultant for Bold Blue Campaigns, noted the areas of change between the Lindy Miller runoff in December and last night. The Peachtree Industrial Boulevard / I-85 corridor voted more favorably for MARTA than for Miller. The biggest dropoff in support was south Gwinnett … which is the blackest part of the county. Those precincts are 80-90 percent black … many of which gave 40 percent or more of their vote in opposition to the proposal.

Were there white-flight racists who voted against this out of spite? Sure. There always are.

There were also plenty of white self-described conservatives, particularly around Peachtree Corners and Duluth, who enthusiastically voted for this because they (correctly) believed it would improve their property values and quality of life.

Other Republicans plainly saw this as a necessary economic development project. Former governor Nathan Deal, chairwoman Charlotte Nash, D.A. Danny Porter and the powerful sheriff Butch Conway — all Republicans — endorsed the referendum.

The opposition was aided by a weak organizational start by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, which did not alight on a turnout strategy until late in the game. Opponents argued that emerging technology might render this proposal archaic in short order, and supporters never really mustered a compelling counterargument. And yes, holding this vote in March was a death sentence. Turnout fell pretty much everywhere, but it fell furthest in the more Democratic precincts.

There’s a lesson here for 2020: organization matters. Applying the Abrams model to campaigns works. When grass roots organizing goes fallow between cycles, it produces … this.

But let’s be clear: this was an old-fashioned tax revolt, of exactly the same flavor that killed the statewide T-SPLOST a few years ago. The rebranding of the MARTA governance body as The ATL didn’t help; state government and GDOT haven’t built enough goodwill with the electorate of either party to be trusted with new projects.

Now come the broader questions, about whether our benighted politicians recognize the hole they’ve dug with hyperpartisan electioneering, about whether this is the red-light signal to industry about the long term future of the state, about whether we’re all going to choke to death on our traffic like L.A. or D.C.

But leave the “them damned racists” stuff alone this time. Because it does a disservice to the majority-black precincts near Snellville that turned out for Lindy Miller in a December runoff and flipped on this vote.

There’s something to be said for the very … Gwinnett-ness … of this result. While there are lingering racial resentments burbling at the edges, people appear to have been primarily motivated by their pocketbooks. In Gwinnett. Go figure.

MARTA didn’t make the case. Come back with something better.


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