This week’s Courier Herald column:
On Sunday afternoon I was invited to a friend of mine’s home in Cherokee County, one county to the north from my home in Cobb. He was hosting a meet and greet for Buzz Aherns, the Chairman of Cherokee County’s Commission. Aherns is seeking his third term.
Cherokee is like many of the counties that ring Atlanta. Once “country”, then an exerb, Cherokee is now squarely part of metro Atlanta’s suburban fabric. It experienced a 50% growth rate over the first decade of this millennium, and with 225,000 residents is Georgia’s 7th largest county.
Cherokee had roughly 30,000 residents in 1970 when growth began to form the suburbs as we know them today. Some moved from the city outward, but many more came from other places. In short, many that call the Atlanta region home “aren’t from around here.”
Cherokee’s demographics show the county is somewhat homogenous. 89% of the county’s residents are white, the median per capita income is about one third higher than the state average, and the county has only about half the state’s average of the number of residents living below the poverty level.
Not surprisingly, the county holds a bastion of Republican votes.
Aherns, in addressing the gathering Sunday afternoon, ticked off a list of facts that would appeal to a large cross section of GOP voters. The county has metro Atlanta’s second lowest tax burden. It has the lowest number of county employees per capita. It maintains a AA+ bond rating.
Yet the county also provides quality services. A new fire training center helped get the county’s ISO rating dropped from a 5 to a 3, just missing a 2 by a trivial amount. The difference according to Aherns will be a couple hundred dollars per year on the average homeowner’s insurance bill – not unlike a property tax cut. There’s a new aquatic center that is often operating at maximum capacity. Various economic development initiatives have brought a new outlet shopping mall as well as the largest Cabela’s sporting goods store east of the Mississippi.
It sounds like the kind of record that an incumbent can proudly run on, and Aherns is. Given that he is the Republican nominee, he’ll likely cruise to re-election. Yet despite not having a Democratic opponent, he’s not taking anything for granted. Why?
Cherokee, like other suburban/exurban counties, is an area where there is angst within the Republican base. As such, Aherns has an independent who gathered sufficient signatures to oppose him on the November ballot. She’s a Tea Party leader. And Cherokee has some of the most active Tea Party groups in the state.
Her candidacy is still a long shot. Unlike a primary where motivated factions within a party can tilt a primary, only Aherns will have an “R” next to his name on the ballot. And in the last primary, his opponent endorsed David Pennington over incumbent Nathan Deal. Pennington garnered 18% of the votes in Cherokee. Deal – another incumbent with a record – took 62%.
In counties that ring metro Atlanta – you could change Cherokee to Forsyth, Fayette or Coweta and the story stays largely the same – there are more and more people that “aren’t from around here”. They vote Republican, but there remains a growing number that are inclined to vote anti-incumbent.
Many of these folks are corporate transfers, who expect to live in a community through one, maybe two promotions. They look at schools and quality of life issues when deciding on a home, but don’t necessarily think about where the community will be in 10-30 years when voting their interests.
They also tend to get their news from national conservative sources, voting against overreaching government, often without any attachment to those that provide the daily services they receive at a local level. Their mindset is easier set by names such as Limbaugh and Beck rather than anyone at a local paper or Kiwanis Club meeting.
There is, in a sense, a detachment of many from the government that is closest to them. And given that metro Atlanta now has more than half of the state’s population, this sentiment is a driving force in State politics. A check of campaign direct mail flooding mailboxes over the next few weeks will provide verification. See how many state and local candidates are compared to President Obama.
As such, or elections have been nationalized, even as Republicans continue to scream “local control”. Meanwhile, our local elected officials continue to make themselves available one living room at a time, talking to those who will take the time to listen about how their counties and towns are actually governed.