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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.
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