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.
"It was always about race; it was all about black and white," says former NPU-W Chairman Paul Zucca, who is white. But, Zucca added, "We had not had [Louis] Farrakhan or [Rev. Al] Sharpton rhetoric, and Atlanta was not ready for it. It was driven by the council person. She was always in the forefront."
Sherry Dorsey's husband is a rather controversial politician in his own right. He came to the job having killed a man in 1970, when his gun accidentally went off during a scuffle. Once in office, allegations arose of inmate abuse at the DeKalb jail and revelations came out that he'd used on-duty deputies to staff his security agency.
Then, there was that nasty little re-election campaign last year, which he lost in the runoff while claiming to be the victim of a racist plot (the victor, Derwin Brown, was a black man). As tabloid readers around the world know by now, Brown was assassinated before he took office. A DeKalb police investigation into the killing has focused, at least in part, on personnel Dorsey hired and Brown said he planned to fire from the Sheriff's department.
Sherry Dorsey's involvement in the sheriff's office isn't quite such high drama. But in March of last year, Dorsey's work and her husband's job began to intertwine, when she founded Operation Facelift, an "organization" ostensibly intended to fix up the homes of her district's poor and elderly citizens. Some of the labor was provided by inmates from her husband's jail, and instead of working on the homes of senior citizens, Operation Facelift lent a helping hand to political supporters, like Janice Cash-Johnson.
Despite its goal, the group had no income or age requirements for its beneficiaries. What's more, it wasn't listed as a nonprofit organization with the state, it had no organizational structure, and businesses listed as "sponsors," such as Lowe's, had never actually signed on.
Once the story hit the 6 o'clock news and front page of the AJC, a cast of characters trotted out to support Dorsey. It's a group that's grown familiar to many in her district, including state Rep. Billy McKinney, D-Atlanta, former campaign manager Sherman Barge and neighborhood activist Cash-Johnson. Race, they said, motivated the criticism she received for creating a charity.
Ten council colleagues approved a resolution in support of the organization. And in February, the Georgia Secretary of State's office found that Operation Facelift hadn't violated state laws that govern charities: It didn't have to register with the state because it had not solicited more than $25,000.
But the Operation Facelift fixer-uppers are now part of a grand jury investigation into alleged malfeasance at the jail, says DeKalb district attorney's spokeswoman Susan Cobleigh.
In between the public controversies, a growing antagonism has festered between Dorsey and neighborhood organizations in her district, which tend to be dominated by the upscale whites who are moving into large swaths of her districts. When groups don't do what Dorsey wants, she skirts them. In Kirkwood, instead of working with the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization, she works with the Kirkwood Revitalization Corp., run by supporter Edgar Hillsman.
In East Atlanta, where her 1997 foe and current opponent for City Council, Natalyn Archibong, was president of the East Atlanta Business Association, Dorsey put together the Minority Business Association. The response could be predicted, says Archibong, who is black. Some white members of the group, said " 'Maybe we need an association of white business owners.' "
This spring, the City Council began re-drawing the lines of each district as required after the 2000 Census. Dorsey was faced with the prospect of a district that included the Candler Park, Lake Clair and Druid Hills neighborhoods. Only about two-thirds of her constituents would be black, compared to more than 80 percent in her current district.
So, Dorsey encouraged a group of black residents and leaders to truck down to City Hall to push her own redistricting map through. And push is a nice word.
After the meeting, she denied any claims that introducing the new map represented a naked attempt to try to secure her re-election, and she didn't take a public stand during the meeting. But it was her supporters who shouted down opponents in City Council chambers, and it was she who introduced the map that eventually was accepted by the Council.
The atmosphere at the redistricting meeting was one of intimidation. When Bender, the Candler Park resident who argued on behalf of the original map, tried to speak, voices competed to drown him out. For one of the speakers, Dorsey's supporters "were calling out faggot and things like that," Bender says.
"It was pretty clear the folks were there as supporters for her," he says. "It was also clear that they wanted to give the message to the African-American City Council members that they would be in trouble" if they didn't vote for Dorsey's map.
It worked. After threatening to take the original, less-favorable-for-Dorsey map to the federal Justice Department, the councilwoman constructed a district that is 78 percent black and which splits Lake Clair from its logical neighbor, Candler Park.
Racial politics is nothing new to Atlanta, and manipulating the rules to preserve political strength isn't either.
During the 1950s, as Brown vs. Kansas Board of Education threatened to eliminate the notion of separate but equal, Mayor Bill Hartsfield came up with a plan to continually expand the borders of the city to try to ensure that white politicians would retain power in the face of white flight.
"It was couched in all kinds of obtuse terms ... but the bottom line was race," says Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech planning professor and author of Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion.
Georgia's Supreme Court eventually struck down the scheme. But today the migration pattern is reversed -- whites are fleeing the commute and returning to the city -- and so is the political protectionism.
"We're going to fight with every inch of our being to maintain political control," says Joe Beasley, regional director of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Beasley fears that more whites, higher property values and taxes, and black flight could conspire to turn Atlanta into a majority-white city again within this decade.
Some younger black political leaders take a more conciliatory and inclusive approach. In 1997 -- the same year that Dorsey edged Archibong in southeast Atlanta -- public relations consultant and former NPU-D chairwoman Felicia Moore was elected to a City Council seat representing District 9, which includes neighborhoods like Collier Heights and Center Hill. She's experienced some of the same problems faced by residents in Dorsey's district. In 1991, she bought her house for $31,500. Today, houses on her block are selling for close to $200,000.
But Moore argues that preserving black political strength could be accomplished by simply getting black folks to vote. And she says gentrification "could be used as a wake-up call." But she also warns, "We can't stand at the border and tell white people to not come in."
Dorsey didn't talk for long to CL. She says her political supporters have advised her to avoid the press.
"I'm a bi-racial product," she protests, implying that she has not been racially insensitive or pitted blacks against whites. "If anybody is diverse, I certainly am." She puts some of the blame for the tension in her neighborhood on the media, specifically the print media: "I've read stuff I haven't even said."
Later, through an aide, she says her husband's lawyers told her not to speak to the paper because of the ongoing DeKalb County grand jury investigation.
In the past, she's said she's misunderstood. In a November CL article about a Kirkwood revitalization effort, she said it is simply not in her nature to hurt people, to be divisive.
And each time she declined to speak at length, Dorsey demurred politely. In fact, while she can be accused of fomenting racial discord, even Dorsey's opponents say that one-on-one, she's often cordial. And she's not without vocal supporters.
"She's been given a raw deal and [the media has] saddled her with whatever problems her husband had," McKinney says. "She's been grossly mistreated by the press."
There's just a section of her district that's out to get her even though she's done the best she can to represent them, McKinney says. "[White residents] moved in thinking she's anti-them.
"She's a very intense person, and she takes politics and her position very seriously," McKinney says of Dorsey. "Unfortun-ately, she's in a transitional district."
Clifford Jacobs, the head of NPU-O, which includes the Kirkwood neighborhood, and is a member of the Kirkwood Commercial Corridor Task Force, says Dorsey is willing to work with her district's newer residents and white people in her district if they will accept it. "She's a young person with young ideas," says Jacobs, who stammers out his few wary answers about Dorsey.
"I'm just a public servant; I'm working stone free," Jacobs continues haltingly. "I love everybody, but I don't know if everybody loves me."
Jacobs declines to talk about the good things Dorsey has done. The Rev. Dolly Mahone, chairwoman of NPU-W, says she's replaced some sidewalks. As for legislative accomplishments, there aren't many. The one economically significant piece of legislation for which she was a driving force was an increase in a homestead exemption for seniors.
Any claims of on-the-job sincerity must be compared to Dorsey's attendance. While she showed up to most full council meetings, she missed nearly as many of her committee meetings as she made in 1999 -- 34 to 29. Last year, she made only 62 percent of her Public Safety Committee meetings and just 57 percent of her Community Development/Human Resources meetings, according to numbers compiled by the council staff.
The latest display of Dorsey's legislative ineptitude -- or downright contempt for a specific constituency -- comes in the form of a stalled library project in East Atlanta.
The existing library sits on Flat Shoals Road. It offers only on-street parking, and the little shoebox of a building is designed in a truncated 'U' shape that has enough space to include a wall of children's books, a wall of books for adults, a small island of four computers and some desks.
Mahone says the librarian can't stock books that the library has money to buy simply because there's not enough space. East Atlanta store owner Buzbee OK'd a deal that would have allowed Fulton County to build a new library at a site he owns in exchange for the old library site. But Buzbee planned to use the old library for retail space. To do that, he needed a parking variance from the city. None came. Buzbee and others in East Atlanta say that's because Dorsey has failed to get behind the project and encourage the city's Planning Department to grant the variance.
Mahone, who is black, says she's looking into the problem, but the people pushing for the project are many of the same residents, new and white, with whom Dorsey has clashed, and there's no love lost between Dorsey and Buzbee. Again, her opponents claim, it comes down to playing one side against the other and an utter lack of representation by the woman who's supposed to represent everyone in District 5.
"I've been in her office, and she's been in my store," Buzbee says. "You leave thinking she's on your side, ready to do something for you." But nothing happens.
Nowhere is the Dorsey effect more palpable than in Kirkwood, where two organizations -- split mostly along racial lines -- are doing battle over how to spend more than $1 million earmarked to improve Kirkwood's main business drag along Hosea Williams Drive.
You'd think that would be a good problem to have, but the level of mistrust makes any get-together on the project look like a summit meeting between India and Pakistan.
On June 11, the all-black Kirkwood Commercial Task Force -- which was formed by Dorsey -- met at the Israel Baptist Church. Dorsey had changed the location at the last minute, from the public library to the church, without telling residents, seemingly to minimize public comment.
In fact, when a CL photographer showed up looking to shoot the meeting -- held by a publicly appointed board making recommendations on how to spend public money -- he was told the press wasn't invited, that it wasn't a public meeting, and was taken by the arm and shown the door by Hillsman and Dorsey aide, India Pullin. (Dorsey herself didn't show.) Under state law, such meetings are required to be open to the public and barring them from the press is illegal.
What ensued between the task force and members of the predominantly-white Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization resembled a sort of rhetorical American Gladiators, with members of the neighborhood organization sparring with the task force over who would get to vote and hammering task force members about how they were appointed.
At one point, as the rhetoric heated up and Neighbors' Organization president Sally Alcock tried to fill out an attendance sheet, Pullin snatched the sheet from Alcock's hand.
"That's city property," Pullin snapped as Alcock sat agog.
Later in the meeting, Cash-Johnson, a task force member and one of the beneficiaries of Operation Facelift, lit into the neighborhood organization, questioning why the members even cared about voting.
"None of you all are going to come up there to purchase anything anyway," she said, implying that the white audience wouldn't patronize predominantly black businesses.
The back and forth stopped long enough for the task force to take a vote on taking a vote for officers. They all agreed, yes.
As the task force called the vote, Jeannie Barrett, the most combative member of the audience and the woman who is supposed to be representing the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization on the task force, jumped up and asked who in the crowd was opposed to selecting officers. In a self-righteous flurry, she counted the raised hands of the neighborhood group, scrawled the number down on paper and shoved it at the task force.
As the meeting broke up, after more than an hour and a vote to have a vote, Barrett and Cash barked at one another, pursued and retreated, like the prelude to a junior high fight.
"You're the one who's trash," Cash hissed at Barrett.
And that was a constructive meeting, the attendees said afterward.
"Please don't think I behaved that way when I started out," Barrett says. "It came after attending meeting after meeting with [Dorsey], talking to her like she's someone with a logical thought process."
Of course, the June 11 meeting shouldn't have been a seminar in de-evolution. The Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization just wants its chosen representative on the task force, and its members want to know if the task force has bylaws and who decides who gets to be "in the club." They think they're being ignored by Dorsey, who obviously controls the task force.
Meanwhile the task force thinks the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization just wants to gum up the works so time runs out on the grants the community has received.
The irony is that, three years ago, one of the Kirkwood Neighbors' group, Steve Suna, wrote the original grant proposal that secured federal funding for the corridor project.
The bottom line is that Sherry Dorsey has polarized and energized an angry group of people -- people who have good reason to be upset by the double-edged sword of gentrifying neighborhoods. At the same time, it doesn't take much for an elected official to piss off 240 people -- Dorsey's margin of victory in 1997 -- or for an opponent to win over an equal number. It's clear that, unlike Dorsey, Archibong wants to appeal to both whites and blacks, new and old residents, to be a diplomat.
Archibong charges that Dorsey hasn't done enough to address the hard feelings that come with gentrification. "She's allowed them to fester."
With her first election under her belt, Archibong, a black lawyer, says she has a campaign budget in place this time, and she plans to officially kick off her campaign July 19.
But Zucca says the fight is going to be tougher than it should be. It's going to come down to a question of whether Archibong is "black enough."
"Out in the community, there's already talk that the 'new people' are running Archibong," Zucca says.
Dorsey may be a mirror image of a white racial politician from the 1950s, but don't underestimate her.
"She's a wonderful campaigner, and she's very pretty," Zucca says. "Anyone who discounts her, come November, is going to be very, very surprised."
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