As Cobb County’s commission chairman, Tim Lee governed like a man who couldn’t stand the sight of constituents.
The Big Guy just didn’t suffer idiots well. He repeatedly made that clear. What were the criteria to be considered an idiot? Well, ask lots of questions. Or disagree with him. The latter was a big one.
General Lee, the man who commanded Operation Intrepid, the secretive plan to bring the Atlanta Braves to Cobb, suffered a Major League beating this week (64 percent to 36) at the hands of Mike Boyce, a candidate with no elective experience.
The common view is Lee was undone by the lack of transparency surrounding a deal that commits up to $400 million in tax money to Liberty Media, a conglomerate that already prints money. That’s true, on the surface. But Lee died the political death of a thousand self-imposed cuts.
Four years ago, Lee soundly defeated Boyce, a retired Marine colonel. This time, Lee handed Boyce an issue that resonated with voters: And that issue was Tim Lee, a tone-deaf pol with a brusque manner and a seeming lack of empathy or self-awareness.
Some who know Lee say he changed through the years from an active, engaging neighborhood leader to an increasingly walled-off administrator beholden to Chamber of Commerce types.
The chairman could have pushed through the Braves deal and survived if he had at least pretended to listen to opponents and those asking questions. Instead, his pro-ballpark buddies snatched up all the speaking spots at a county board meeting, and then Lee refused to let others speak. Later, a cop hauled off an elderly opponent, an image that rarely comes across well on TV.
Lee’s interactions with citizens such as Tom Cheek helped define his image. A few years ago, Cheek pushed Cobb officials to revamp the medical examiner’s office after his son died in a fire and he felt the office botched the investigation. Cheek later filed an ethics complaint against Lee for, among other things, violating the Open Records Act during the Braves proceedings.
Lee’s squad hit back. The mild-mannered Cheek was called malicious, vendetta-driven, bitter, a demagogue, hidden agenda-oriented, disingenuous, desperate and petty.
Cheek dropped his ethics complaint after Lee issued a beaut of a non-apology apology that included, “I believe much of that criticism is politically inspired or is being used as a subterfuge to attack the Braves project merely because they disagree with the decision.”
I talked with Cheek this week, who said: “I’ve met with Lee. He’s physically intimidating and kind of stand-offish, even one on one. He does have positive ideas about Cobb County. But his message was too heavy-handed. ‘Don’t you get it, you dummy?’”
Or there’s Lisa Cupid, the board’s only black commissioner. Late one night, she was followed home by an unmarked squad car. Later she called for changes in department operations and Lee finally had enough. “I’m disappointed that the chief perpetrator of these accusations is a commissioner who is not being constructive about seeking legitimate solutions to what she asserts is wrong,” he growled at a meeting.
He later apologized for his “tone.”
Chuck Clay, a former Cobb commissioner who later became head of the state GOP, said the incident “did make him look like a bully. But he’s really a warm, gracious guy. He’s not a bully.”
But Lee’s demeanor, his actions and deep ties to the Chamber of Commerce — he raised more than $1 million, more than six times what his opponent pulled in — caused a rift in his perceived base.
“He managed to alienate all the Republican women in Cobb and they’re the ones who get things done,” said former commissioner Thea Powell.
One of those GOP women is Millie Rogers, who worked for Lee for a decade but was let go last year when Lee wanted a more “professional” aide. Rogers, who once headed the Georgia Federation of Republican Women, dived headlong into the Boyce campaign.
“He started (his political career) with the homeowners’ association and was more connected; he knew he had to listen to people,” she said. “But he moved away from the people because he became known by the power players, those with the purse strings. He had a lot of people pulling at him. He had a wall that has been built around him.”
In the end, Lee hired the best political consulting team money could buy.
GOP hired gun Brian Robinson arrived two months ago to resuscitate Lee’s image, a portrait that Robinson said was forged by three years of pounding by the media, especially the AJC.
“He is funny, self-deprecating and is appreciative of people,” Robinson said. “That’s what I saw behind closed doors.”
Robinson and others in his well-compensated crew tried to open those doors to Lee’s hidden personality. But instead of being cosmetologists, they were left performing like a team of emergency room doctors applying the paddles to a patient who had flat-lined.