Sherry Dorsey plays the race card 

Her district includes the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in Atlanta. So why is East Atlanta's councilwoman so behind the times?

Another city council committee meeting, and Sherry Dorsey is nowhere to be found.

David Walker, a City Hall gadfly who seems to attend more council meetings than the councilwoman herself, rises to speak his mind.

"Mrs. Dorsey, where are you?" he asks the empty air.

"We're not getting represented, except when a scandal comes along," Walker complains later. He has a point: When TV cameras are around, Dorsey is too. But for committee meetings, where most of the actual work is done, her chair is empty almost as often as it's occupied. In fact, in 1999, Dorsey had the dubious honor of worst attendance at council committee meetings, and last year just about equaled that record, missing more than 40 percent of them.

But playing hooky isn't Dorsey's worst offense. Nor is her tepid lawmaking record. Nor was the faux-pas last summer of using inmates from her husband's jail to work on the houses of political supporters.

No, Dorsey's gravest insult to constituents has been the cynical number she's played on their emotions. Dorsey represents a district that -- more than any other in Atlanta -- is feeling the tensions of well-to-do whites moving into working-class, mainly black neighborhoods. And she has exploited those divisions for her political advantage.

At first, her style seemed the misstep of a political neophyte. But Dorsey's brand of politics has slowly defined itself as a familiar force in Southern politics: Occasionally, she lets slip her own intolerant remark and then denies any insensitivity; more often, she ducks while lieutenants shout increasingly shrill epithets at her opponents; but she never puts a finger to her lips to quiet the hurtful shouts of bigots.

It is a familiar brand of politics in the South. It is the politics of demaguogery. And sometimes it works.

Just ask, Candler Park resident Don Bender, a white man who marched for civil rights during the 1960s. He was hissed and booed by Dorsey's supporters as a racist last month when he tried to voice his opinion on City Council redistricting.

"The polarization is so regrettable," Bender says.

Jeannie Barrett, a member of the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization, recalls a confrontation she had with Dorsey when she tried to ask her councilwoman about the rules for a neighborhood task force.

"I said, 'You're my representative,'" Barrett says. "She said, 'I don't represent you. You didn't vote for me.' "

The challenges in Dorsey's district would test the savviest politician, let alone a 36-year-old mother and former fashion model, whose most significant experience before taking office consisted of working in the security firm of her husband -- the controversial, then-recently elected sheriff of DeKalb County.

In 1997, the district that comprises East Atlanta, Kirkwood, Reynoldstown, Edgewood and East Lake Meadows already was undergoing a dramatic shift in its racial makeup. As affluent whites sought out hip, urban addresses, longtime black residents saw property values and rents shoot up, sometimes to levels they no longer could afford. Young professionals looking for deals snapped up fixer-uppers for as little as $30,000, bankrolled renovations and quadrupled values.

Onto this stage strode Dorsey, whose first political skirmish set a nasty tone for fights to come. It started because South Trust Bank wanted to rezone some land that belonged to the Rev. Timothy McDonald's First Iconium Baptist Church on Moreland Avenue south of I-20. The bank wanted the rezoning so it could build a new branch. McDonald, a politically influential black pastor, was for it. The Neighborhood Planning Unit W board -- which consisted mainly of whites, even though the surrounding area was largely black -- was against it.

It had the makings of a divisive racial controversy. In similar situations, Atlanta's most sensitive political leaders -- the Andrew Youngs, the David Scotts, even more activist types like Hosea Williams -- have sought ways to bring folks together.

Not Sherry Dorsey. She sided aggressively with the church, and argued that the NPU -- whose support was needed for the rezoning to get through -- should change its bylaws so that anyone who attended its meetings could vote. She introduced legislation at council that would have prevented NPUs from having representative boards. She helped organize protests. Her supporters dogged white neighborhood activists with claims that they were "racists." After two years of fighting, she eventually convinced the City Council to pass an ordinance that required an open election on the bylaws. After NPU-W's vote affirmed the NPU's bylaws, Dorsey asked the Council to void the election and throw out the ballots. She lost.

The irony was that Dorsey had a point: Blacks were underrepresented on the NPU board, but harsh rhetoric and burned bridges made it difficult to find a productive solution.

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