Political Insider

An AJC blog about Atlanta politics, Georgia politics, Georgia and metro Atlanta election campaigns. Because all politics is local.

A north Fulton legislative race based on transit and revenge

By now, many of you have figured out that political seasons no longer have an expiration date.

They simply shift to the gopher hole one or two doors down, up, or sideways. And the game of whack-a-mole begins anew.

On Thursday, only two days after the disposal of mayoral runoffs in Atlanta and elsewhere, one of the more intriguing contests on the 2018 calendar will make its debut: Jere Wood, soon to be the ex-mayor of Roswell, will formally announce a GOP primary challenge to state Rep. Betty Price.

Price is the physician-wife of Tom Price, the former Georgia congressman and secretary of health and human services in the Donald Trump administration. Tom Price lost that latter job two months ago, after flying on too many private jets to suit President Donald Trump.

Primary challenges to incumbents in the state Legislature are rare enough. But the Republican race for House District 48 will sport two additional features likely to attract your attention: High-minded policy and revenge.

We’ll take the high road first.

Wood intends to join the growing ranks of Republican state lawmakers who think transit — commuter rail of some sort – is an economic inevitability in metro Atlanta. And in north Fulton County, in particular.

“Transportation is my particular interest,” Wood said. A 2015 hike in gasoline and other taxes by the Legislature, and last year’s approval by Fulton County voters of a .75 percent sales tax — all for road and bridge improvements — has helped.

“The biggest question left on the table is what happens to transit,” said Wood, 68. We spoke at his law office, an 1830s “dogtrot” cabin he moved to the city’s business district and restored decades ago.

“I’ve been out in front on this. This isn’t new. This isn’t a conversion,” he said. As mayor of Roswell, Wood is currently involved in negotiations among Fulton officials and mayors on both ends of the county over what comes next, transportation-wise, and how to fund it.

The group is to issue a report later this month.

If approved by referendum, Fulton County can levy an additional .25 percent sales tax over a five-year period. “It really does nothing. It doesn’t make a dent,” Wood said.

What he expects to happen: In five years, when the current T-SPLOST expires, Wood foresees an effort to levy — again, by referendum — the full penny that Fulton County is allotted. It would be split between road and transit. And extended for a period of decades, so that the proceeds could be used to attract bond investors.

And that would buy? Not rail. Not immediately. “I think we’re coming together on this bus rapid transit,” Wood said. They could use the new express lanes intended for Ga. 400, perhaps as early as 2025.

Only after that comes the discussion of pushing rail over the Chattahoochee River and beyond Roswell. “In my mind, transit is inevitable. North Fulton and Alpharetta, in particular, are growing very rapidly,” Wood said.

All that density, said I, nodding my head.

“We don’t use that word up here,” Wood corrected me. “New business is coming, and it’s going to be in the 400 corridor. Most of that is in Alpharetta. They’ve still got a lot of land undeveloped up there. So they need that additional transportation.”

But never say density.

Now, about that dish that’s best served cold.

Wood has served as mayor of Roswell since 1998, when he beat longtime mayor William Lee “Pug” Mabry. An advocate of term limits, Wood finally got his wish in 2010, when legislation passed that limited Roswell mayors to three four-year terms.

The legislation was intended to be “retrospective” — i.e., time served wasn’t to be counted against Wood. The mayor says the city attorney muffed the wording, and a lawsuit resulted in Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall ruling that Wood shouldn’t have been eligible to run in 2013.

Wood is appealing the decision, which has allowed him to finish out his term.

Prior to the lawsuit, Wood said he tried to have the language problem fixed through local legislation, but that Price blocked the effort at the state Capitol. “Despite telling me she was doing her very best to help me out,” he said.

And during that August hearing in front of Judge Schwall? “Betty was there passing notes to the [plaintiff’s] lawyer and trying to assist in the case,” Wood said.

The Price-Wood relationship wasn’t always a sour one. Several acquaintances of both told me they were once quite tight, during Price’s first years on the Roswell city council. She was elected to the Legislature in 2015.

Like Wood, Betty Price is no shrinking violet. You might remember the stir she ignited last month when she wondered aloud, at a legislative hearing, whether those infected with HIV could be quarantined. She later said her remarks were taken out of context.

But when I invited the Republican incumbent to weigh in on Wood’s candidacy, Price declined — instead sending this quote along: “It’s a privilege to represent the citizens of the 48th House District and I look forward to continuing in that capacity.”

A number of shoes are likely to drop in this race over the next six months. One of the most important could come from Tom Price. We haven’t seen or heard much from Betty Price’s husband since his removal from the Trump cabinet.

The challenge from Jere Wood could bring the former congressman back to the public stage, perhaps in his own defense.

Because how his former constituents see him — as a spendthrift or the fall guy for a volatile president — could become an important factor in this very local contest.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.