While Cleland vs. Chambliss and Barnes vs. Perdue suck the air out of Georgia's airwaves, a politically awkward race has quietly taken shape in the state's largest county.
On its face, the importance of this election seems perfectly obvious. If Robb Pitts beats Karen Handel for the Post 2, at-large seat, Democrats keep their 4-3 advantage on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and Chairman Mike Kenn looks forward to spending another four years of not getting his way.
"The election for this year's county commission race has a lot of implications," says former Commissioner Michael Hightower. "Fulton County has maintained Democratic control through recent history. Any change from that will certainly create a different set of policy questions for the board."
A GOP victory means the board would probably start tinkering with how much money it allocates for MARTA and Grady Memorial Hospital, which Fulton funds disproportionately even as the region takes advantage of both of them. Democrats fear that a change in party dominance would also mean that human services programs would be scaled back -- and so, as usual, the more affluent northern part of the county is pitted against the southern portion, battle lines that are also drawn largely along racial lines.
Except this year, the Democratic candidate, Pitts, has a reputation for fiscal conservatism that seems to jibe with the GOP's philosophy. And his positions on consolidation of city services and skeptical support for Grady and MARTA are similar to Handel's.
"I met with Mike early on," Pitts says of Kenn. "I think his exact words were that this was a win-win situation for him."
So Kenn may get what he wants no matter who comes out victorious, right?
Not so fast. Kenn is actively supporting Handel, and dropping enough inflammatory anti-Pitts nuggets in the press to guarantee an enemy in Pitts if he's elected. Speaking to the Historical Roswell Kiwanis Club, Kenn even stooped to a little old-fashioned race baiting. "If you want the city of Atlanta represented, you want Robb Pitts," the Northside Neighbor quoted Kenn as saying. "If you want the people in unincorporated Fulton represented, you want Karen Handel."
He may as well have replaced Atlanta with black people and unincorporated Fulton with white people.
It all makes for a real head-scratcher of a race. But people who follow Fulton politics closely say that the enmity between Pitts and Kenn is real for two reasons. One, county Republicans -- many of whom had supported Pitts in his races for Atlanta City Council -- expected he would run on the GOP ticket. Two, as a conservative Democrat, Pitts poses a potential threat to Kenn.
Certainly, Pitts doesn't shy away from such suggestions.
"I was encouraged [to run against Kenn] and would have beaten Mike, quite frankly," Pitts says. "But I thought it was better if I come in and pay my dues."
Still, Pitts says he will not make decisions along party lines. He plans to vote for the best ideas. Anyone who watched the stubborn way he ran his 2001 Atlanta mayoral campaign knows this isn't just bluster. If he wins, it's not clear that Kenn's words will mean an end to the chairman's heretofore denied legislative wish list.
But before he can pay his dues, Pitts will have to beat Handel, the head of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Pitts, a 24-year member of the Atlanta City Council and its former president, says the race comes down to experience -- and that's what he's touting.
If you compare Pitts' positions to Handel's, they appear remarkably similar. And if he isn't torpedoed by ethics complaints and a lawsuit that's been lodged against his 2001 mayoral campaign, name recognition alone may be enough to dispatch Handel in a race that's received very little ink or airtime.
As for Kenn, it's often hard to remember that he exists, let alone has competition for the chairmanship of the Board. Compared to his most immediate predecessors, Michael Lomax and Mitch Skandalakis, Kenn runs a stealth office. Some observers were surprised he even decided to run again. The consensus is that he's biding his time, hoping that this election brings a Republican majority.
"I think, without question, it would increase [his] profile," says one longtime Fulton political observer. "Mike Kenn has not transformed the chairman's office into a real bully pulpit. At the end of the day right now, on big issues, the Democrats control."
In his campaign thus far, Kenn has spent a healthy portion of his time boosting Handel's candidacy. And that has something to do with the competition he faces. If you've parked your car in Atlanta in the last year, campaign literature from Kenn's opponent, Dean Chronopoulos, 37, has probably been slapped on it. The Chronopoulos campaign, though, has a problem with people taking it seriously -- partly because it hasn't raised much money and partly because Chronopoulos hasn't held elected office.
Chronopoulos busies himself pushing a more environment-friendly plan for development in the traffic-choked county and attacks Kenn for failing to lead the Board -- even in the face of the legislative opposition. Chronopoulos, a restaurant owner and former aide to Rep. John Lewis, hopes to ride the wave of a big Democratic turnout for Gov. Roy Barnes and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.
It's likely too much to wish for. But in a race that's already seen likely ideological bosom buddies turn against one another, stranger things have happened.
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