Tea Party Rises Up in the Land of Newt and Home of the Braves

Matt Towery

11/21/2013 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

ATLANTA -- The tea party spirit is alive and well in a Georgia county, where less than 20 years ago Newt Gingrich led a national movement that propelled Republicans to control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And while they may not have the power to stop a new Atlanta Braves stadium that is on a rocket-sled pace toward approval by a GOP dominated Cobb County Commission, they have likely been awakened to a frenzy that could be a preview for 2014 in many parts of the nation.

Earlier this month, the Atlanta Braves baseball team announced that it would abandon its current home field in downtown Atlanta in 2017 for one of those mega-fancy new ballparks to be located in the suburban and traditionally conservative Republican Cobb County, which sits just north of the city limits of Atlanta.

When the stadium was first announced, opinion polls showed that most voters in the county approved of the move.

But hidden in even those first flash surveys was not-so-good news for the politicians who negotiated the deal in secret and decided to vote on the project just a few weeks later, with no real public hearing on a massive stadium being created in their county. The earliest of polls showed that if any tax dollars were used to help create or maintain a new home for the Braves, support by the voters dropped to well below 30 percent.

And those polls were taken before it was announced that taxpayers would chip in what is publicly stated to be in the neighborhood of $300 million, but which, according to columnist Kyle Wingfield of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, is actually closer to $550 million.

That price tag, along with the new stadium's location, set near an already traffic-clogged intersection of interstates, brought about a visceral reaction from voters who felt blindsided and left out of the process. It seemed for a day or two that the simmering irritation felt by most voters in the area would stay at a muted "low boil" level. But in the past week the local tea party blew the top off of the cauldron.

Thousands of automated phone calls asked voters if they approved, and as one might expect, they did not. They were given the chance to be connected automatically to their individual commissioner's office. Apparently, they chose that option by the thousands, and many a choice word was left on voicemail systems that quickly filled up.

In an effort to stop the calls, county leaders invited the media to film their staff sitting and staring at the phone lines as they rang endlessly. It was supposed to be a photo-op that would garner sympathy for the elected officials. But it instead became a symbol for the frustration these voters were voicing.

The pictures of county workers -- paid by taxpayers -- sitting on their rears and not trying to answer the calls of the voters will likely be exhibit one in campaigns against their bosses in the future.

In a county where the seemingly dominant Republican Party is critical to Georgia's "Red State" status many a Republican seems furious over what seems to be a lack of transparency and public input into the stadium deal. Republicans in this "Land of Newt" question any project in which public bonds are used, or taxes rerouted to help a private entity.

But what really has the tea party and even much of the rank-in-file Republican voters upset is the nearly contemptuous manner in which their leaders have responded to requests to slow down, examine the project and allow public input.

When the only countywide elected leader on the Commission, who serves as Chairman, was asked about public hearings, his reported response was, "we've made our decision... were not going to do that."

To Republicans, those are words more likely associated with Barack Obama and his ham-fisted style, not some Republican county politician.

I truly thought that the tea party was dying off, even in states that appeared to be heavily Republican. But with hoards of their members gathering wherever these officials go, with thousands of calls going to elected officials in the county, and serious talk of recall efforts, it is clear that, if riled properly, not only can the tea party rise up, but they can quickly gain the support of many more conservatives and Republicans.

The Braves' current stadium in Atlanta is named after CNN founder and former Braves owner, Ted Turner, and is affectionately called "The Ted." Perhaps, if nothing else, the new stadium will be named "The Newt."