11/20/2017

Jan. 15, 2001: Bill Byrne, Chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, is said be contemplating a run for governor.

If he does, be prepared for an interesting time. I speak from experience.

Of the many issues that arose while planning the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, one of the most contentious was whether to move a volleyball venue from Cobb County because of an effort by one commissioner to promote a “Family Values” resolution that was thinly disguised anti-gay bashing.

As with most decisions we grappled with at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, there was no easy solution. Moving the venue would cost us $4 million we didn’t have. Leaving it in Cobb County would guarantee worldwide protests and take time we didn’t have to spare. Worst of all, the resolution gave the media around the world a golden opportunity to exercise their preconceived notions about the South. (Can you spell “redneck?”) The Cobb County Board of Commissioners, like most county commissions, spend most of their time rezoning land and paving streets and were way over their heads with this resolution. Byrne rightly took control of the issue himself.

Dealing with the gay rights controversy in Cobb County fell my lot at ACOG and that put me in frequent contact with the chairman. I found Bill Byrne polite but blunt. Most politicians talk in generalities, lest they be held accountable for their remarks. Byrne is about as subtle as a freight train. He said gays were welcomed in the county, as were all law-abiding groups including “Nazis and skinheads.” When the local chamber expressed concern about the venue being moved, Byrne called their concerns, “garbage.” As far as the Olympics were concerned, we could “take it or leave it.” Still, I sensed that he was more pragmatic than philosophic on the resolution. He wasn’t going to retreat – that isn’t his style – but he didn’t seem particularly happy to have the issue on his plate.

After months of negotiations, both Byrne and I agreed that we were at an impasse. The venue was moved to the University of Georgia. Cobb County’s reward for its efforts was no venue, worldwide notoriety and a resolution that later died of natural causes.

The county survived its self-inflicted wound and so did Byrne. Today, Cobb is prosperous, financially sound and growing. The county is one of only ten in the nation with a triple-A bond rating and is the lowest taxed county in the state. Recently, Cobb voters approved a measure to increase their homestead exemptions to match increases in property assessment. Bottom line: the county has managed its enormous growth extremely well. The buck stops with the irascible Byrne. And now, evidently he is eyeing the possibility of playing on a bigger stage.

When asked recently if he might run for governor, he didn’t say no. He had floated one trail balloon right after the Games but that sank like lead, given the still-simmering controversy over the family values resolution. This time might be different.

Hold up a mirror to the current Cobb County resident in the Governor’s mansion, Roy Barnes, and you will see exact opposites. Barnes is a Democrat; Byrne, a Republican. Where Barnes is gregarious, Byrne is aloof. Barnes tends to be liberal in his political philosophy. Byrne is conservative in his. Barnes is a lawyer. Byrne, a landscape architect. Barnes is a creature of the legislature, having served some two decades there before being elected governor. Byrne is a former helicopter pilot who wears a Marine Corps insignia on his lapel about the size of a Volkswagen hubcap. Both men are successful managers and both could not be more different.

But will Byrne run against Governor Barnes? More important for the Republicans, could he beat Barnes? I’m not sure at this point how many folks outside of Cobb County have ever heard of Bill Byrne. There is no way his ego will allow him to be Republican cannon fodder as happened to Mack Mattingly in the US Senate race against Zell Miller. Yet, I don’t see anybody else on the horizon, including Linda Shrenko, who has a snowball’s chance against Roy Barnes.

It would be fun to see him in the race. In my more than three decades of dealing in the political environment, I’ve never met anyone quite like him. Unlike a lot of politicians, with Bill Byrne what you see is what you get.

Besides, who else do you know that wears a hubcap on his lapel?