Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How the Tea Party Became Our Best Hope Against Public Financing of Stadiums

Since the dawn of time, the baseball blogosphere has complained about the public financing of ballparks. For just as long, it has also expressed variations on the same theme: if only taxpayers would hold elected officials accountable for wasting their money on millionaires' playgrounds. Instead, it seems, voters either buy into their claims or don't care, letting incumbents skate to easy victories, as incumbents tend to do.

But could today be different? Today brings something we haven't seen for a long, long time: an election fought on the issue of public financing for stadiums. In Georgia, you see, not everyone has reacted well to the Atlanta Braves' planned move to Cobb County in 2017. County commissioners' hastily approved package to lure the Braves—$400 million in public money—fed right into the political discontent that has been festering nationwide, especially in red states. And so it was that the Braves' new publicly funded stadium became a flashpoint for the Cobb County Tea Party.

Georgia's primary elections this May 20 are, of course, more broadly speaking, approximately the 1,505,739th faceoff between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party since the latter's birthing in 2009. But in a certain corner of the state, that happens to mean the 2014 primary will judge voter anger over Cobb County's sweetheart deal with the Braves. That means anyone who ever blogged, tweeted, or complained about the folly of public financing—no matter if they give a lick about politics or even expressed a preference for Obama or Romney as leader of the free world a few years back—should train their eyes to tiny Georgia House District 34 on Tuesday night as results trickle in. This swatch of suburbia along US 41 between Kennesaw and Marietta—six miles northwest of where the stadium will actually be built—is the unlikely site of the public-financing electoral battle so many have waited so long for.

In the 2012 primary, Charles Gregory defeated a longtime Republican legislator to become the first representative of the new House District 34. Gregory pulled off the upset under the banner of libertarian hero Ron Paul, railing against both parties as part of the problem and demanding a return to strict constructionism. The message clearly resonated, and Gregory has spent the two years since trying to tear down what he sees as a corrupt system: a swollen government bureaucracy that exists primarily as a feeding trough for special interests.

One of those interests—and the one that happened to plant its flag right in Gregory's backyard—is the Atlanta Braves. Gregory hasn't minced words about what he thinks of the public-financing deal: "theft." Fitting the Braves neatly into a favorite Tea Party narrative, Gregory continued, "A large corporation and some public officials have conspired to forcibly take money without consent from the electorate and then spend it on a private business venture." He later described it much like a Craig Calcaterra or Maury Brown would:
"So what I would say to the Atlanta Braves is, 'We would love to have you. You, just like any other business, you take out your loan. You build your stadium. You buy your land. You make your investment. You take the risk, and you keep all the profits,'" Gregory said. "We don’t need to be putting or socializing the risk on the backs of taxpayers. It really is legal plunder, corporate welfare, corporatism, whatever you want to call it. The taxpayers don’t need to fund private business."

Gregory said he would love to have a water park in his backyard, but understands the government is not going to give him the money to build one.
Music to many an ear—but a siren to plenty others. Gregory's anti-business crusade in the state house didn't take long to draw the attention of the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Georgia Republican Party, which has targeted him and his Tea Party brethren for defeat in 2014. In only the past month and change, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and large Atlanta corporations from Coca Cola to Delta have poured over $350,000 into an independent committee called the Georgia Coalition for Job Creation. Its goal? To support business-friendly Republicans and sling mud at "extremists" like Gregory, one of the incumbents it has targeted for defeat. The group has sent foreboding anti-Gregory mailpieces to district voters and set up a microsite, www.firecharlesgregory.com, to let voters "get the facts for yourself."

In House District 34, the coalition has enlisted Marietta attorney Bert Reeves to primary Gregory, and it has been a heated race all the way to the finish line. At the same forum where Gregory expressed his opposition to a Cobb-Braves partnership, Reeves had this to say—a succinct defense of moderate Republicans' cozy relationship with big business:
"One of the key differences between Mr. Gregory and myself is his absolute point of view about the complete exclusion of government involved in private enterprise," Reeves said. "He and I disagree, and I believe there are certain partnerships that certainly provide economic growth and jobs, and that’s what I’m all about."
With views like that, Reeves has received ample financial backing from the Georgia corporate community. In addition to the $350,000 being spent by the Georgia Coalition for Job Creation, Reeves had raised $50,585.14 as of March 31, 2014; Gregory had raised $35,343.95. Add it all up, and the numbers aren't encouraging for Gregory, who doesn't have much room for error in his 56%-to-44% primary win from 2012. There's a good chance this year will be even tougher, with the weight of the establishment behind his opponent and the element of surprise gone from his bag of tricks. As one lobbyist put it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on background, "We’re not going to let liberty Republicans throw business out of the Republican Party."

So, if/when Gregory loses, can we take it as conclusive evidence on how voters feel about publicly financed stadiums? Well, not so fast. There are a few caveats about tonight's results:
  • Although the race is really and truly a proxy war over the role of big business, many voters won't see it that way. The money from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce is going into anti-Obamacare messaging, anti-tax messaging, and a host of other issues that voters probably feel is more relevant to them than the next home of the Braves.
  • While important, state representatives were not the ones to actually vote for the Braves deal and have little to no actual power to do anything about it. The Gregory-Reeves race is entirely symbolic in that regard. One of the actual Cobb County commissioners who voted for the public financing is also facing a primary (JoAnn Birrell, County Commission District 3), but that has been a quieter race, and Birrell is expected to win without difficulty.
  • The House District 34 dynamic is unusual among Tea Party elections because, in this case, the Tea Partier is the incumbent and the establishment candidate is doing the primarying. It's therefore not the best example of an angry electorate choosing to punish sitting elected officials for their backroom, tax-spending deals. Instead, it's best viewed, again, as a simple proxy battle.
Finally, even if he does win, Gregory is an unlikely hero for the baseball-blog intelligentsia, whose politics tend to be as progressive as their statistics. Gregory is one of the leading supporters of Georgia's new "guns everywhere" law, which allows licensed gun owners to carry firearms in bars, churches, and unsecured government buildings. It's also legislators like Gregory who have been responsible for this year's few "religious liberty" bills designed to legalize anti-gay discrimination—whereas Reeves's big-business backers have opposed these laws, because why shrink your pool of possible customers?

So no, Gregory's views aren't likely to sit well with those who oppose public financing from the left—but the reality is, in House District 34, it's the best they're going to do. The district is so conservative that Democrats aren't even bothering to run a candidate there; they likewise let Gregory go unopposed in 2012. It's led to the odd arrangement whereby progressive activists who oppose Cobb County's subsidization of the new Braves stadium have joined up with Tea Party protests of the deal. "The labels here don't really matter," says progressive Tea Party ally Rich Pellegrino of Cobb County. "Whether it's Republicans, Democrats, whatever, what's going on here is that the chamber of commerce types run the county, and the politicians are doing their bidding."

You can see from Pellegrino's comment how the alliance makes sense, in a weird way. The particular strain of Tea Party-ism on display in House District 34 is remarkably populist and anti-corporate—traditionally a complaint of the activist left. In truth, though, pure conservatives don't want government to prop up big business any more than liberals do; they don't believe government has any role interfering with the market. In the aftermath of a Bush administration that many saw as an extension of the Goldman Sachs boardroom, that's as deserving a target for libertarians as socialized medicine is.

Progressives can claim the mantle of public-financing opponent, and Democrats can be the party opposed to big business. But protest movements can take many forms. Opposition to the same thing can take root in very different places. With the failure of Occupy Wall Street, like it or not, the Tea Party is now the most effective voice for small-l liberalism. (Watch Republican Senator Mike Lee's Tea Party response to the State of the Union address this year. You'll be surprised at how some of Lee's ideas sound, well, liberal.)

And the Tea Party's realizing it. In Cobb County, after the county's only Democratic commissioner was the only one to vote against the Braves deal, the local chapter saw that its primary enemy was its fellow Republicans, and it welcomed progressive activists to its cause. "It’s big business trying to buy government...They’re propping up their business interests over everybody else’s." That's Charles Gregory's rallying cry, but it could be Elizabeth Warren's. In a place like Georgia, if that's your message, you can't be picky about the messenger.

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