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The surprising roots of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s idea of national divorce

Greene probably has visions of suburban Atlanta in the 1990s and 2000s, not the Civil War

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3 in Fort Washington, Md. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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On Feb. 20, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted out a call for a “national divorce” of red and blue states. Greene later told conservative commentator Sean Hannity that she wanted to create “safe spaces” for conservatives. The tweet generated both outrage and mockery, particularly because Georgia has turned Democratic in recent national elections — illustrating that American political divides are less between blue and red states than among urban, suburban and rural areas within each state.

But for all the scorn heaped on Greene, one gets a better sense of why she made such a proposal by considering the world in which she came of age: suburban Atlanta in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly north Fulton County.

Fulton County stands at the center of the Atlanta metro area and includes the city of Atlanta and suburban areas to the north and the south. The same county government presides over suburban north Fulton and poorer, majority Black, heavily Democratic areas to the south. These circumstances have made public spending and property taxes flash points of conflict.

As Greene was becoming a parent, homeowner and business executive in north Fulton, White residents were revolting over property taxes and launching a suburban secessionist movement — with considerable success. In this context, Greene’s endorsement of a geographic “divorce” makes more sense. Greene saw how such an idea could forge a political community and spawn a successful brand of politics that protected the interests of conservative White homeowners.

Metro Atlanta’s pattern of racial separation unfolded in two phases. During the 1960s and 1970s, working- and middle-class White Atlantans fled to the suburbs nearest to the city by the tens of thousands, fearing the integration of Atlanta’s schools and its residential neighborhoods. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a further suburban boom — one that helped Greene’s father’s construction company (which she and her husband later bought) prosper — centered on new residential and commercial development in the northern suburbs.

This suburban surge was fueled by a half-million people, mostly affluent professionals, relocating to the region. The transplants saw themselves as epitomizing the American Dream — moving to leafy suburbs where they had access to large houses, good schools, professional jobs, rising property values and low taxes. Although the newcomers didn’t experience Atlanta’s wrenching period of White flight and school desegregation, their communities were shaped by it; Whiteness was a key — if not always acknowledged — part of their high property values, the prestige of their schools and the quality of infrastructure they enjoyed.

But in 1991, the bill for this suburban dream quite literally came due.

Rapid growth in the affluent, majority-White northern suburbs had pushed up property values quickly enough that Fulton County had been unable to update its tax rolls to keep pace. This meant that most north Fulton residents were paying artificially low taxes on their homes, which put more of the tax burden on poorer areas and violated state law. In 1990, 80 percent of homes that sold for more than $200,000 had improperly low tax appraisals.

Large industrial property owners — who were paying full freight — balked, threatening to sue the state. Georgia responded by forcing the county to reappraise every parcel. In 1991, the county informed taxpayers that 90 percent of them would see increases in their assessed value — by an average of 40 percent. One anti-tax activist offered an example: At prevailing tax rates, a house reappraised from $500,000 to a fair market value of $750,000 would see its taxes leap from about $10,000 to nearly $16,000.

The announcement prompted a tax revolt in north Fulton led by attorneys Robert Proctor and Mitch Skandalakis, who mobilized suburban homeowners by blaming the County Board of Commissioners, which was controlled by a Black Democratic majority. They charged that Fulton County was wasteful and complained that north Fulton was underrepresented. Most perniciously, they accused the county of soaking White suburban taxpayers as a form of racial reparations, and “playing the race card” in response to criticism. Proctor told the New York Times that spending could be attributed to “a small group of blacks in Atlanta who trade political favors with each other” through minority contracting programs, and wondered “should we take 50 percent of the wealth of White America and give it to Black people” as “reparations?”

Protesters marched with effigies of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and county commission chair Michael Lomax (both Black), and organizers gathered more than 90,000 signatures on a petition to recall Lomax. Skandalakis won a seat in the state House, then won a special election to replace Lomax when he resigned to run for mayor of Atlanta in 1993.

Most importantly, because the northern suburbs kept growing with high-value developments, every new cycle of reappraisals produced another sudden jump in tax bills. Conservative Republicans like Karen Handel, who won countywide election as commission chair in 2003, used these hikes to stoke resentment over taxes for political gain.

The tax revolt catalyzed a secession movement in north Fulton. First, led by economist Eva Galambos, Sandy Springs, just north of Atlanta, renewed a push to incorporate as a city, which would give it control of land and more power over the use of its tax revenue while limiting the influence of county government. Beyond Sandy Springs, Republicans began to call for splitting Fulton County in two, with the northern, suburban part becoming Milton County.

In 2005, the state legislature, with a new Republican majority that included a substantial suburban Atlanta contingent, authorized an incorporation referendum for Sandy Springs. It passed with 94 percent of the vote. A year later two other towns, Johns Creek and Milton, followed suit, completing the “municipalization” of north Fulton and launching a cityhood movement across the region.

At the root of these efforts was the reality that White suburbanites didn’t want their taxes to support services in poor Black communities. Sandy Springs’ first major initiative was to condemn and demolish apartment buildings that had housed most of the city’s Black and Latino residents, who, unlike White residents, were overwhelmingly renters. The goal was explicitly to drive renters from the community. Galambos told Atlanta magazine that renters “don’t have the same investment in the community, the same commitment,” and erroneously stated that renters didn’t contribute to school taxes.

By 2007, north Fulton legislators were introducing bills to pass a state constitutional amendment to allow the residents of the proposed Milton County to vote on secession, putting the county’s tax base and social services in severe jeopardy.

The cityhood movement also began spilling over to affluent areas in neighboring counties, which hoped to wall themselves off from increasingly liberal and diverse surrounding areas.

This movement has remade the Atlanta metro region. Due to its success, far fewer resources are shared between wealthier and poorer areas. Eventually less-advantaged areas were compelled to incorporate, including South Fulton, which formed in 2017 with a population that was 92 percent Black. Although leaders have tied local control to Black empowerment with the slogan “Black on Purpose,” less-advantaged new cities are constrained by the need to attract commercial development and to exclude people who could drive up the cost of municipal services. Indeed, geographer Scott Markley has linked the cityhood movement to the demolition of thousands of units of affordable housing in the northern suburbs, particularly affecting Latino residents.

Even for its champions, the secession movement has proved far from a panacea. In 2015, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that elected officials in the new cities steered contracts to friends and relatives or cut questionable deals with developers. Sandy Springs was also forced to consider high-density “new urbanist” redevelopment favored by younger professionals as its aging single-family housing stock became attractive — and affordable — to immigrants. And Johns Creek witnessed an exodus of White families that one writer attributed to fears that their children would be academically uncompetitive with the children of Asian American families drawn by tech jobs.

Despite these unintended consequences, the secession movement persists: On March 2, the Republican-led state senate voted down a bill that would have allowed for a vote on secession by the Buckhead district, the wealthiest part of Atlanta. Legislators worried it would jeopardize municipal bond credit. But Greene endorsed it on Hannity — signifying how intertwined her version of national divorce is with the geography and politics of modern Atlanta.

Rather than conjuring up memories of the Civil War, Greene is taking inspiration from the rhetoric and achievements of a movement that enabled privileged White conservatives to keep their resources, build a political community in opposition to outsiders and cloak their self-interested politics in the appealing language of community and local control. That’s what she’s looking to replicate on a national basis. It’s worth taking this vision, and the politics behind it, seriously since 8 in 10 Americans now live in a metro area.