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"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.
Hopefully he has enough sense not to repeat the TSPLOST debacle.
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