It's a Tuesday night in early July in Jonesboro, and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell is still smarting from a weekend dalliance with a pistol.
Bell's left thumb is wrapped in a cartoon-sized bandage, a reminder of yet another newsworthy moment that made people scratch their heads over the embattled county. Bell – a 33-year police officer and ordained minister who looks and acts decades younger than his 73 years – "burned his thumb" while attempting to fire a .50-caliber handgun at a Fourth of July party at the Butts County compound of strip-club impresario Jack Galardi.
Bell sits on the dais alongside his colleagues, his collar button undone, his red tie tugged loose, his tight, dark curls mussed. Stubble sprouts from his chin and his vivid blue eyes look haggard. It's 8:30 and Bell's night is long from over.
Bad news in Clayton ranges from the bizarre to the sordid. Aside from Bell's self-inflicted wound, word came this morning that another lawsuit had been filed against Victor Hill, the controversial sheriff. This one, a discrimination suit filed by a white employee, contains explosive allegations that Hill misused funds seized from drug busts and vending machines he operated in the department's headquarters and jail. The suit alleges that he used the money to purchase provocative artwork for his office that depicted "African American cowboys" and "a lynch mob scene portraying Caucasian people with shotguns."
It's just another day in the headlines for Clayton County. The schools are on the verge of losing accreditation. The district attorney is a barrister who had little experience with criminal cases when she was elected. The sheriff fired 27 deputies on his first day in office, under the watch of snipers he'd dispatched to rooftops. And there's the irony that Bell was at a party thrown by Galardi, who had successfully sued the sheriff for setting up roadblocks almost every weekend near the newly opened Pink Pony South.
The clock is ticking toward 9 p.m., but Bell lingers with a small group of residents because he wants to reassure them. In a circle of five they gather and yield to the chairman when he speaks. He does so with a minister's flair, telling them Clayton is the victim of a political divide inside the black community, with one faction led, in part, by Lee Scott, who is challenging Bell for the county's top elected position.
"We came out of an era as separate but unequal, creating greed among ourselves," Bell says. He references the fact that Africans once sold rival tribesmen into slavery. "Remember who sold who into slavery. We are no different now than we were then, just a bit more sophisticated. Isn't it ironic amongst our own community, [people] came out and said, 'They got theirs, and now I want mine.' And they want it without the effort that goes with it."
The conversation veers from topic to topic. One person asks how Clayton will deal with an expected influx of residents from the remaining Atlanta Housing Authority projects, which are set to meet the wrecking ball within the next year.
Someone else asks about impact fees. Another brings up the controversial sheriff. Then conversation drifts to the deterioration of the nuclear family in black society. "Education is something we Americans are willing to pay for, but not get," Bell says. "It means we put a half a billion dollars into the Clayton County public schools, and half our children won't go; 72 percent of our people who get married are getting divorced, and they're leaving our kids behind."
He's still there in the hallway as midnight approaches, long after the lights are turned out in the main commission room. "Go ahead," he says to one person who itches to discuss the invasion of thug mentality into suburbia.
"Let me help you with that," he says to another, who struggles for words to convey the disappointment he has for African-American men.
As he listens to each question, you can see the intellectual spark and then the idea ready to burst. To no one in particular, Bell quickly whispers, "Watch this, watch this, watch this."
He waits like a boxer for an opening. Every problem has a solution, he says, and so does every conundrum posed by the people who stayed after the meeting. But there's one point Bell makes over and over: He believes in Clayton County. Now, Clayton County has to learn to believe in itself.
Nestled in a right-angle nook below Fulton County sits the little county that couldn't.
Its shape resembles a torch – wide at the top, funneling down into a southern strip referred to as "the Panhandle." The seal that hangs in the commission meeting room plays off the likeness. A combination of Fulton and DeKalb forms a metaphorical flame, surrounded by beams of light. Everything appears to shine except for Clayton.
Gene Hatfield arrived in the county in 1976, a newly graduated Ph.D. ready to teach political science at Clayton Junior College, now known as Clayton State University. He found a blue-collar bedroom community that was growing as the nation inched its way out of a recession. The population was upwardly mobile, he says, gainfully employed with sound union jobs at Eastern Airlines and the Ford plant in adjacent Hapeville.
But shortly before the 1996 Olympics, residents noticed the face of the county beginning to change. Between 1990 and 2006, it underwent a dramatic shift in demographics – from 75 percent white to 64 percent black.
"Back in the 1950s, Forest Park was one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the country," Hatfield says. "Clayton County was growing dramatically. But that was a largely self-selected population that wanted to get out of Atlanta and the problems of the big city. Over the recent years, the population growth has been from those seeking lower-cost housing, and they've had relatively larger numbers of children."
As gentrification swept through Atlanta and the city tore down its public housing, many of those displaced shifted to Clayton. Data from the Atlanta Regional Commission show that from 2000 to 2005, 94,698 people migrated there from the 20-county metro region. Nearly half of them moved from Fulton County. According to Bell, two-fifths of the new residents are single women and their children. And while new, poorer residents were moving in, many longtime Clayton residents began an exodus to neighboring counties such as Fayette, Spalding and Henry.
Despite that emigration, the building boom continued. According to an analysis by the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, housing permits from 2000 to 2005 outpaced growth in households by 12,058 units. To this day, the county has a glut of inexpensive housing.
Kem Kimbrough, an Emory law graduate who ran for sheriff in last week's Democratic primary, moved to Clayton County in 1999. "You could buy one heck of a house and not only were you going to get a bargain on the house and the size and the yard, but the taxes would be low," Kimbrough says. "The economy seemed to be booming, and Clayton County had it going on. There was a significant air that Clayton County was the place of opportunity."
Loans were easy to obtain, and many borrowers were encouraged to take what later became known as subprime mortgages.
"No matter what your income was, they'd get you a house," says Bobby Cartwright, a city councilman in Lovejoy. "You had a lot of people who were living in metro Atlanta who wanted a home of their own. Clayton County had all these $99,000, $150,000 homes, and it wasn't hard to get that credit."
The national housing market meltdown was particularly cruel to Clayton residents. In June 2007, the county had the highest foreclosure rate in the metro region. It also ranked second in the nation for homes purchased with subprime mortgages, an astonishing 38.9 percent. By this May, one in 10 homes faced the risk of foreclosure.
"All of this has combined to make the present picture in Clayton County rather bleak," Hatfield says. "So on one hand, this has been some time in developing. On the other hand, it's taken on a life of its own and is dramatic in its implications. I doubt if there are many counties that have seen this kind of dramatic transformation in such a brief time frame."
Today, there are remnants of a Clayton County that no longer exists.
Jonesboro, the county seat, served as the setting of the fictitious Tara estate in Gone With the Wind. The main strip downtown boasts the Road to Tara Museum, just half a mile from Stately Oaks plantation, an antebellum architectural artifact that sits downhill from the city's low-income apartments. Robert E. Lee Drive is a few blocks away. Two years ago, residents unsuccessfully petitioned to rename the county's asphalt spine, Tara Boulevard, after Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks. Old Dixie Highway crosses the county, and Jeff Davis Boulevard snakes in from neighboring Fayette.
"There was always racial tension in Clayton County," says David Barton, a white lifelong resident who is now a lobbyist for the South Metro Realtors Association. "I can remember as a kid in Riverdale when the Klan used to stand outside Highway 85 and Upper Riverdale Road. They used to pass out fliers and leaflets. My mom would always roll up the window and ignore them when they came up."
Jon Antoine grew up in Los Angeles, where gangs were a problem; his family came to Clayton when he was a teenager. "The first time I ever saw a Klansman was when my family moved here," says Antoine, an African-American who now works as an investigator for the district attorney's office. "And there were two black women posing for a photograph with him. And he was laughing! Seeing a Klansman didn't scare me. Seeing a Crip did, though."
Much as Atlanta faced a transition from white leadership to black in the '70s, Clayton County's new demographics brought a changing of the guard that began in the 2004 elections. It just happened less gracefully than it did in Atlanta.
That year, Bell – running on a platform of a seamless transition to a black-led government – was elected the county's first black commission chairman.
Bell is one of Atlanta's most flamboyant, and controversial, sons. He'd been a racial trailblazer before. At 7:05 p.m. on March 31, 1961 – a date and time he's memorized – Bell was sworn in as an Atlanta police officer. He served more than three decades with the force, and garnered admirers and critics for his headline-grabbing acts. He was named chief of police in 1990, and served there until he was fired by Mayor Bill Campbell.
After two unsuccessful runs for the Fulton County Commission, Bell moved to his father's hometown of Jonesboro. He took a conciliatory approach in his 2004 campaign, but other candidates weren't as affable.
A political faction led by businessman Lee Scott took control of two key offices. Scott's wife, Jewel, was elected district attorney; she hired her husband as chief of staff. And Victor Hill, a former Bell protégé, was elected sheriff.
Hill set the immediate tone when he fired 27 deputies on his first day in office, including four of the highest-ranking officers, all of whom were white. He called the officers in on the pretext of swearing them in; instead, they were relieved of their badges and service weapons and taken out of the sheriff's office inside inmate vans with police snipers posted on nearby rooftops.
Clark Talmage Stevens, chief of staff for the commission and a former adviser to presidents Carter and Reagan, told the New York Times it was "an embarrassment" and "blatant mass political firing." He added: "This is all over the country, like we're a bunch of goofballs."
It was also expensive. The firings wound up costing taxpayers $7 million in settlements and court costs.
Then, in 2006, Lee Scott made a run for county commission against a white incumbent, Michael Edmondson. He distributed fliers with Edmondson's face superimposed over a Confederate flag. Scott lost, but the changing of the guard was nearly complete. With the exception of Edmondson, the white Democrats who'd controlled Clayton County government were all cast out. The political leadership finally mirrored the demographics.
It's hard for an outsider not to notice the role the Scotts have played in Clayton County's political circus. They're close allies with Hill, often contributing to each others' campaigns. And Bell has openly bickered with Lee and Jewel Scott. But he reserves his harshest criticism for Hill, who was once his driver.
"If Victor Hill was [white], we would have already run him out of town, hung him in effigy, and we would've cussed his grandma out even if she were already dead," Bell says. "We would have not tolerated it. I'm worried about the fact that we vote for race over the ability to lead."
The Scotts and Hill opted not to participate in political debates during the current campaign. Jewel Scott told a local newspaper she's "never debated" and prefers to meet her constituents one on one. None of the three responded to CL's requests for comment. Scott even told CL he'd be at Boston's restaurant in Morrow on election night and available for an interview. But Boston's turned out to be where Bell's supporters gathered, and Scott didn't show up.
"When the guard changed, everybody said they were gonna change things," says Cartwright, whose own city council in Lovejoy saw a similar shift from an all-white group to majority black. "But just because it's different doesn't make it better. They lost all the wisdom and experience, and didn't ask for advice."
And then there's the school board. One member successfully lobbied to fire a high school football coach, allegedly because he wouldn't provide her with a highlights tape of her son for college recruiters. Another member led a teacher's union that picketed an elementary school and called for the principal's resignation. Another recommended the school superintendent hire a bodyguard who was under investigation for child molestation.
Many residents fault a purported ally of the Scotts for contributing to the school board's woes. According to a March Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, John Trotter, president of a for-profit teachers' group called the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, gave campaign money to three board members, and five members of his group have served on the board. A former board member was the executive director of the teachers' group.
Though Trotter denies it, a former superintendent accused him of persuading the board to fire him. And the schools' accrediting body accused his association of convincing board members to help scrap a district-wide curriculum program.
Missteps by board led to a threat by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to take away the district's accreditation. It was the second time in five years the system had been given such a warning.
The last time a public high school lost its accreditation in the United States was in 1969 when the Duval County, Fla., school system refused to integrate schools.
It's not as if Clayton County has nothing going for it.
The county contains two-thirds of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In part because it collects $20 million a year in jet-fuel tax, it has some of the region's lowest taxes. Bell envisions an "aerotropolis" – essentially, a city surrounding the world's busiest air hub – that would lure conventions, businesses and travelers from schlepping up to Atlanta after getting off a plane.
And in a region where each drop of Lake Lanier's levels produces an audible gulp among its leaders, Clayton County's reservoirs are full to the brim. Its water system is considered one of the most progressive in the nation. Virtually drought-proof, the county's water needs are supported by four reservoirs scattered throughout the county.
The county's compact size also makes it nimble. Earlier this month, Clayton fell off the list of foreclosure hot spots. According to David Barton of the Realtors association, the market is on the path to stability. Chairman Bell says a building moratorium established in 2005 in key parts of the county has given it a jump start on bouncing back from a recession because the building pause helped lower the housing inventory.
Bell says Lake Spivey, an enclave of posh homes that straddles the Henry County line, is being eyed as a retirement community by such notables as Monica Pearson [nee Kaufman] and Gen. Russel L. Honore, the cigar-chomping general who oversaw New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While some families may be leaving because of the school board accreditation scare, Bell says others are arriving; of 3,300 homes listed last year, 3,100 were sold.
"Somebody outside of us sees something we can't see," he says. "And where some people see problems in Clayton County, I see challenges. And out of those challenges come opportunities."
The county's chaos is bookended by two economic engines – the airport to the north, and the Atlanta Motor Speedway to the south. It's on the cusp of finally completing a master plan that would help it come to grips with its sprawl. And a proposed commuter rail line to Griffin would pass through Morrow, Jonesboro and Lovejoy.
The county's biggest economic promise may lie in Fort Gillem in Forest Park, a 1,400-acre Army base that soon will be closed and available for redevelopment. Planners envision turning it into a mini-city with retail, residential, school and even industrial components. The city's development director says the project would double Forest Park's tax base.
"I look at Clayton and think, 'It's just a matter of time,'" says Dan Reuter, director of land use at the Atlanta Regional Commission, who points to a proposed redevelopment of the Hapeville Ford plant. "Especially with gas prices and all these other factors. Look at [developer Jim] Jacoby and what is happening with the Ford plant. He's going to build a major office and retail center. Then look down the street to Forest Park and what's planned for Fort Gillem. Give them a little more time, and some of those places in Clayton County will be desirable."
It's Tuesday night, July 15. The polls have closed for a primary election that's supposed to determine which of 58 candidates -- among them Bell, Hill, Kimbrough and the Scotts -- lead the county for the next four years.
But all day an issue that's been at the heart of Clayton County's problems has been on full display in empty polling stations: Even with all the uproar about the sheriff, the school board and the problems eating away at the community, only 21 percent of registered voters even bothered to go to the polls.
Some say one reason for the leadership struggles is the county's largely transient population. An estimated 67 percent of Clayton County residents are renters, a segment of the population that historically isn't vested in local politics. And Hatfield, the political scientist, says many of those who do vote select familiar names rather than investigating the candidates' platforms and background.
"Today it's difficult for voters to know who a lot of these people are on the ballot," he says. "They haven't lived here long; it's difficult to know their qualifications. So we elect people" – he starts to chuckle – "who obviously shouldn't be holding public office."
Clayton County's African-American leaders say the county's political leadership is experiencing growing pains.
"In the Caucasian community, you have these notions [of leadership] that have passed through the centuries," Kimbrough says. "In the African-American community, not only do you have the segregation, Jim Crow laws and these things, but we're only one generation removed from the Civil Rights Movement. And the question is, how do we become viable citizens? And what you see in Clayton County is a microcosm" of that struggle.
In the months leading up to the primary, forums and meet-and-greets were held with candidates for the school board and county offices. Park your car at a county fair, and you'd return to a windshield littered with fliers hyping political hopefuls who were, by and large, running on the platform of "competence."
Angela Jackson, a mother of four who moved from Chicago in 2005, attended one such school board meet-and-greet forum at the Jim Huie Recreation Center off Tara Boulevard. She says she knows 16 children who have been placed by their parents in private school because of the accreditation fallout. She doesn't have that option. Tuition per child is $8,000 a year, more than she can afford.
"As a parent, I have to get out and do my research," Regina Hall says after a recent school superintendent town hall at Lovejoy High School. "We go by the signs we see in yards and on [the candidate's] cars. I never cared about the political side. We're learning the hard way."
Rosalie Doggett, a greeting card vendor who lives in Jonesboro's Keystone Apartments, held voter registration drives and encouraged her neighbors to get involved. The days of blind voting are over, she says.
But as the primary results filtered in last Tuesday night, it was unclear whether anything had changed. Sheriff Victor Hill posted a strong lead, but ended the night with 49 percent and will have to face Kimbrough in an Aug. 5 runoff. Jewel Scott won more votes than Tracy Graham-Lawson, a white juvenile court judge whom she had branded in campaign literature as a "hanging judge." But Scott and Lawson will also meet in a runoff.
As for Eldrin Bell, his election night ended after midnight at Boston's Restaurant in Morrow with friends, family and supporters proud, yet shaking their heads. The man with the bandage on his thumb – who on July 15 looked crisp, clean-shaven and alert – came in first, but with only 41 percent of the vote. In the Aug. 5 showdown for commission chairman, he'll face Lee Scott.
Bell talks about a young woman who had fled to another county, where she found the school system was in disrepair and the local taxes high.
"I urge those who are running to be careful about what they are running from and what they're running to," Bell says. "'Fear not' – 365 times in the Scripture those two words are mentioned. And I encourage people all the time to stay the course. If it's bad today, if you work toward helping, things will get better. Things will change. What is our responsibility in change as we look in the future? It is our responsibility to determine what it will be, but also what it won't be."
We are in control of our own destiny?
"Yes," he says. "We are in control of our own destiny. I'd rather stay here and fight and make it what we want it to be."
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