Monroe County is so conservative that Donald Trump carried it by more than two-thirds of the vote, so ruby-red that none of the four state legislators who represent the territory faced any Democratic opponent two years ago.
The county is also just one of two that Brian Kemp lost in the GOP runoff for governor, and many voters here remain deeply suspicious of him. It’s not because of his policies or background, but for a reason far more parochial.
Monroe has been warring with neighboring Bibb County for more than a decade in a boundary dispute that’s cost taxpayers millions in legal fees. At stake is a chunk of land with dozens of homes and a lucrative Bass Pro Shops complex.
And many blame Kemp, who in his role as secretary of state is responsible for hashing out these boundary fights but has yet to do so.
This is no small issue to the people of Monroe, who have spent about $3 million in taxpayer funds on legal fees over the last decade. Social media posts from residents are filled with frustration over the ongoing fight, a mood reflected by interviews with about a dozen residents.
The local newspaper, The Monroe County Reporter, has channeled that outrage in editorials and cartoons, including one depicting cheering Bibb residents holding a Kemp for governor sign. Each edition holds a reminder that the dispute is unsettled, complete with a ticker: “3,124 days … without making a county line decision.”
“We’ve been pretty tough on ol’ Brian. But you have to understand this county-line dispute has gone on for at least 10 years. Probably 100 years,” said Will Davis, the newspaper’s publisher. “The lawyers have done really well, but we’re still no better off than when it started.”
That could soon change. Kemp’s office recently sent word to both Bibb and Monroe counties that he would like to resolve the case before his term ends in January, though ongoing court litigation could scramble those plans. His office pointed to months of delays from the legal battle that complicated the process.
“At every turn, I have strongly urged the parties to reach a compromise based on the best interests of their respective constituencies without my office’s direct intervention,” Kemp said, promising to “do everything within my power to resolve this dispute by the end of my term.”
The dispute goes back generations. The county line was first established in 1822, though the original survey is lost to history. State legislators rejiggered the boundary in 1877, when about 50 acres of Monroe turf was shifted into Bibb.
That’s the way it stayed, largely uncontested, for more than a century — until around the time that Bass Pro Shops decided to build a store and a sprawling distribution center near that boundary that generates steady revenue from property and sales taxes.
That 2005 announcement upped the ante, and soon then-Gov. Sonny Perdue pressured the counties to broker a compromise. Mediation went nowhere, and county lawmakers couldn’t reach an accord.
By 2008, Perdue tapped local surveyor Terry Scarborough to chart out the original Bibb-Monroe line. After months of work, his survey concluded that Monroe’s southern boundary should actually stretch hundreds of yards deeper into Bibb territory — including the Bass Pro Shops.
That’s not where it ended. An administrative law judge appointed to help decide the dispute recommended that Kemp accept the survey in 2010, but he rejected it, citing doubts about the evidence. Frustrated Monroe officials soon took him to court.
In 2014, the case wound up in the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled it was Kemp’s duty to hash out the dispute. Another part of the litigation involving whether Scarborough must testify in court is still pending.
It helps explain why the county narrowly sided with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle over Kemp in July’s GOP runoff. Fueled by Trump’s endorsement, Kemp lost just one other county: Stephens, in northeast Georgia, where Cagle had some of his strongest support.
In the run-up to the vote, Cagle’s allies tried to make the Monroe-Bibb dispute a part of his broader argument that Kemp was an ineffective and incompetent secretary of state.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, when someone is given a task that’s costing our county a lot of money, stand up and make a decision,” said Teddy Sauls, an account manager for a forklift dealership. “That’s what Kemp was supposed to do. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. But that was one of my main reasons for supporting Casey Cagle.”
‘Settle it soon’
He was one of droves of voters who vented their anger on Facebook ahead of the runoff. Sid Newsome developed a habit during the campaign. Whenever he’d see a Kemp post on Facebook, he’d write something like “Monroe-Bibb” down below as a reminder.
“He’s got to settle it soon,” said Newsome, a retiree who helps manage properties. “If he can’t settle that issue, I don’t know about what he can do as governor.”
Nonetheless, Newsome added with a chuckle, he still voted for Kemp over Cagle, saying “it was like the lesser of two evils.”
Interviews with a dozen Monroe residents showed little optimism that it will soon be worked out. Many said they’d long learned to discount such promises.
“I wish they’d go ahead and solve it,” said Hugh Taylor, a former Monroe GOP chairman who recently moved to Bibb. “But I’m not certain it’s going to get solved in my lifetime.”
And Greg Tapley, who chairs the Monroe County Commission, expressed only dim hopes that there’s a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Davis, the newspaper publisher, sees one glimmer of hope.
“If we have to vote for him for governor so we can get a secretary of state that will settle this dispute,” he said, “it will be a good trade.”
It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Stories we’ve done include a look at Kemp’s fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams’ tax difficulties. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.