No one would believe it, but a combined effort by tea party activists and the NAACP helped defeat a proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation on the 10 main counties that make up some 6 million people living in the Atlanta metropolitan area. And consider this: These two "Davids" had nothing but some printed signs and rallies to get out their message.
The "Goliath" in the contest was a collection of civic organizations backed by $8 million of support by the Atlanta corporate community. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a highly popular Republican governor, and Atlanta's "superstar" mayor, Kasim Reed, whose star will continue to rise nationally, backed the effort.
But $8 million is a tempting thing in the hands of "experts" and consultants. They created a "brand name" for the effort, "Untie Atlanta." They ran endless commercials on television, including a sort of creepy ad in which a woman driving a car and stuck in traffic is attacked by a dozen seat belts that even end up wrapped around her mouth. That went over big the weekend of the tragic Colorado shootings and thereafter ... not!
Despite all of the missteps the experts made (including telling them they were within five or four points of winning when the actual final vote was 37 percent for, 63 percent against), they likely never had a chance in the first place. Atlanta was the hottest place to be in the 1990s when it hosted the Olympics and its population was growing by leaps and bounds. Today, Georgia has a 9 percent unemployment rate and Atlanta, admittedly choked by traffic and suffering a huge continuing housing crisis, seems like a sleeping giant trying to find its mojo again.
Enter the strange twist of the tea party and the NAACP. As is the case in most states, Georgia's "tea party" is a collection of some organized activists and a much larger segment of the population that support their philosophy -- that being less taxes and less government intrusion in our lives. This philosophy dominates Georgia's Republican and independent voter universe. So it came as no surprise to anyone, except the pollster for the organization pushing the tax who had the race as close, that Republicans and independents, who dominate the region, came out in droves to defeat the tax.
Then there is the curious story of the NAACP. DeKalb County, which makes up part of the City of Atlanta and is one of the largest in the state, has a high African-American voter base. For years, the Democratic Party in Georgia depended on its mountain of votes to win statewide and Congressional contests. But a funny thing happened on the way to this transportation tax forum.
Sensing that a list of projects, designated by various committees to be the transportation needs funded by the tax, were really not helpful to their community, the head of the DeKalb NAACP and one of the most prominent African-American state senators announced they would actively oppose the tax. They also knew what the pollster for the group must not have known: African Americans are suffering through this economy, too.
Both groups had virtually no money. They went door-to-door handing out "Vote No" signs. They held press conferences that often were sparsely attended. Perhaps one automated call went out to voters asking them to vote no. The cities' corporate leaders, who are not and should not be political experts, likely viewed their effort as unimpressive. But what was going on out of their view was a gathering revolt.
On the Republican side, virtually every candidate running for office in a contested race would tell voters to vote for them ... and to vote against the transportation tax. And with "the experts" who had been hired to advertise the vote on television, it did not take long for the whole thing to get out of control. With every ad, their likelihood of winning decreased.
As for African-Americans, who normally overwhelmingly vote Democrat, something happened that is fatal to any effort: The preachers in the predominantly black churches started coming out against the tax.
The Atlanta story gives us two lessons. First, Mitt Romney should not take the tea party for granted this year. Second, Barack Obama may not see the same enthusiastic turnout from the African-American community. And there is one other lesson: Never let consultants have $8 million to play with.