The runoff will be Aug. 21.
Lee received the most votes at 29,024, or 40 percent, followed by Byrne, who received 19,388 votes, or 26 percent.
Boyce came in third with 17,025 votes, or 23 percent, while Savage trailed the pack with 7,662 votes, or 10 percent.
Lee, who has been in the fight for his political life, celebrated in the ballroom of the Embassy Suites in Kennesaw with a cash bar and spread of finger foods from cucumber and salmon canapés to crabmeat stuffed mushrooms. Supporters in attendance ranged from Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell to lobbyist Michael Paris.
Lee, who said he’s raised about $390,000 to date, said fundraising was the most challenging part of the campaign simply on account of the down economy.
Lee moreover said he wasn’t surprised to be in a run off.
“It’s statistically hard to win outright with four people in the race, especially if you have someone that’s got prior name recognition,” Lee said.
Lee commented on why voters decided to keep him in the race.
“It was my experience and the support I have among the vast majority of folks that we’re on the right track for Cobb County to grow and prosper and to continue to be a leading county in the region and the state — those supporters came out and showed their support,” Lee said as he watched the returns come in.
“This was a race between myself and three other candidates who all took the same position on most of the major issues, so the fact that I either win outright or am in a run off is a testament that most folks seem to agree with the direction we’re heading.”
While the traditional rule of thumb is that an incumbent who enters a runoff is in trouble because the voters who supported the other candidates will unite against him, Lee doesn’t see his runoff playing out that way.
“I don’t think that with the dynamic in this particular race that that will occur,” Lee said.
Boyce and Savage don’t seem to favor Byrne much, Lee said.
(In point of fact, Savage said he is a Byrne supporter.)
“Because of the dynamics of who’s in the race, I don’t think you can look at past races and apply it to our race,” Lee said.
Lee’s opponents have attempted to portray him as a tax-and-spend RINO — Republican In Name Only — more interested in toeing the line for the Cobb Chamber, Atlanta Regional Commission and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed than providing fiscally conservative leadership.
Lee’s opponents have pointed out that since being elected chairman in July 2010, he asked voters to consider a county sales tax; raised property taxes; and helped draft the list of transportation projects on the TSPLOST list that would raise the sales tax by one percent for 10 years.
Cobb voters agreed to renew the county’s $492 million, four-year SPLOST in March 2011.
A few months after the sales tax was hiked, the commission outraged the community by voting 3-2 with Lee, Woody Thompson and Helen Goreham in favor, to raise the property tax rate as well. Despite a contentious public debate over whether Lee should cut government spending further or raise taxes, Lee ultimately sided with “progressive” state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell), who appeared before the commission, asking Lee to raise taxes. Lee rejected Cobb Republican Party Chairman Joe Dendy’s request not to raise taxes.
Then there is the $1 billion list of TSPLOST projects he and Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews selected for the county to be funded with the proposed one percent sales tax increase. That $689 million of Cobb’s project list was earmarked for an uncertain transit project led just about every Republican Cobb legislator to turn out in opposition of the tax increase.
Lee didn’t endear himself to many voters when he referred to TSPLOST opponents as “spoiled brats” either.
But Mathews, who also served on the 21-member Atlanta Regional Roundtable with Lee, was returned to office in November. And lobbyist Brian Noyes said endorsements and connections are not always in people’s thoughts when they vote, meaning any TSPLOST backlash may not hurt Lee.
That proved correct Tuesday.
“The fact that the TSPLOST lost by the margin that it did, and I still ended up with the most votes out of the four, I believe it impacted it to some degree but didn’t have a significant impact,” Lee said.
The key, Noyes said, is name recognition, something both Lee and Byrne have.
Lee was also heavily backed by the establishment, from Cobb Chamber of Commerce Chairman Tony Britton and Atlanta Regional Commission Chairman Tad Leithead to east Cobb lobbyist Michael Paris.
Byrne, who spent the evening at Shillings on the Square, campaigned for more than a year against Lee and spent at least $43,909.
Byrne said he was “ecstatic” about the results, and he plans to continue to attack Lee to the failed TSPLOST. And because Lee won’t have big-money TSPLOST supporters to help in the runoff, Byrne sees an advantage there.
“Our goal from Day 1 was to beat the TSPLOST and Tim, and tie it around Tim’s neck,” Byrne said Tuesday evening. “The people who voted for Mike Boyce or Larry Savage are voting against Tim Lee. You get into a runoff and it’s one-on-one against Tim Lee. Voters show up unified behind a candidate … With establishment candidates, a lot of your supporters don’t come back, but all of the people who want you gone do come back.”
Byrne cited Lee’s support of the 16 percent property-tax hike in 2011, as well as increases in Cobb Community Transit bus fares and water rates, and his role in creating the county SPLOST and TSPLOST as reasons for Lee to be ousted.
Byrne also called Lee’s proposed consumption tax a planned tax increase, though Lee insisted residents wouldn’t pay additional taxes because property taxes would be rolled back.
Late in the race, Lee fought back, bringing up statements Byrne made in 2008 to the elections board in Polk County, where Byrne was running for a county commission seat. Lee said Byrne told those officials that he did not want to live in Cobb County and wanted to make sure the more rural Polk County didn’t emulate Cobb.
Byrne responded that Lee was taking the comments out of context and that it was a sign that the chairman’s campaign was imploding.
Byrne was eventually disqualified from running in Polk, where he owns a horse farm. He came back to Cobb in an attempt to regain the seat he held from 1992 to 2002, when he resigned to run for governor.
Byrne expects Lee to continue negative campaigning in the runoff.
“We expect that when you can’t defend a record or run on a record, you have to deflect the issues and run a negative campaign,” Byrne said. “Candidates that have the record Barack Obama does or Tim Lee does, they’ll use that to deflect attention.”
Byrne’s time as chairman was marked by successes, including passing an education property tax exemption for seniors. But he was also criticized for some of his tactics, including allowing a large number of closed-door meetings and voting for an antigay resolution that cost Cobb events in the 1996 Olympics, a subject Byrne has since expressed regret over, saying, “It shouldn’t have happened, and I wish it hadn’t.”
Byrne supporters at his Tuesday gathering included Cobb school board President Scott Sweeney and Development Authority of Cobb County board member Donna Rowe.
The last reporting period revealed that Boyce was neck and neck with Byrne when it came to fundraising. Byrne reported total contributions of $55,649 cash and $10,300 in in-kind contributions. Boyce reported $52,499 as of June 30.
Boyce, who hosted a gathering Tuesday night at the Paper Mill Grill near his east Cobb home, said his qualifications for chairman were largely based on his time overseeing the private operations of a Marine base in Hawaii. He received a Meritorious Service Medal for his actions as the operations and executive officer of a helicopter squadron.
But late in the race, Savage questioned Boyce’s military service. He said it was unclear what Boyce actually did in the Marines, and some of Savage’s supporters took to calling Boyce a “mystery man.”
“With our campaign, our goal was to win and also to make sure we had done all we could to win,” Boyce said Tuesday night. “We did at least half that.”
When asked who he would support in a runoff with Lee and Byrne, Boyce said, “I haven’t even thought about that.”
Before entering the chairman’s race, Boyce built a local reputation as a tea party leader. But he sometimes let opportunities to hammer his points home slip. Although he was against the TSPLOST, Boyce declined to criticize projects Cobb commissioners had placed on their 15 percent local project lists, such as $2 million northeast Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell set aside for a driveway and trails at Mabry Park in her district.
Savage, who watched the election returns at the Arena Tavern in Kennesaw, correctly predicted on Monday that the run-off would come down to Lee and Byrne. But since Byrne shares the same political ideology as Savage, Savage said he is at peace with this outcome, provided Byrne wins.
“I could sleep at night with Bill Byrne as chairman,” Savage said.
While Monday morning quarterbacking is fashionable, Savage said he had no apologies for his campaign. Winning requires either a lot of money or a lot of volunteers, he said.
“I had a shortage of money and didn’t have the free labor to make it up,” he said. “If you’ve got enough people, an army to go bang on doors and call people and that sort of thing, you can start to close the gap without the money, but you either have to have one or the other — or a lot of luck.”
Political campaigns are often built on imagery, something Savage said he doesn’t do very well.
“Imagery almost by definition includes illusion, and that also doesn’t suit me,” he said.
As for what the future holds, Savage said he will move on to other things.
“I was talking to a lady at a commission meeting one night, and she was talking about having taken such an interest in following the affairs of the county government,” Savage said. “I said, ‘well I’ll give you one piece of advice before you go any further. Either plan for it to take over your life, or get away from it immediately. There isn’t much middle ground,’ and I will take my own advice. I need to get my life back.”