Vernon Jones walks casually among two rows of teenage police academy recruits who stand rigidly at attention, staring straight ahead.
He leisurely eyes each uniform-clad hopeful as an upperclassman might inspect a lineup of fraternity pledges. Jones is genial and soft-spoken but carries an undeniable air of authority as he asks their names and peppers them with questions.
"Is anyone here from North Carolina?" A tall kid answers yes. Jones takes a step toward him, locks his gaze and demands to know where he went to high school. When Jones hears the name of a rival football powerhouse, his face softens into a mischievous grin.
"Man, we used to kick all y'all's ass!" he proclaims to muffled laughter.
And with these words, on a sunny afternoon outside the Decatur courthouse, minutes after the end of a county memorial service for fallen police officers, the DeKalb CEO has hooked another audience.
Jones segues into a brief, impassioned sales pitch praising the county police force - something about the crime rate and state-of-the-art helicopters - but it's superfluous. What will stick with these kids is the memory of Jones himself: Another big shot in a dark suit, to be sure, but a tall, striking, youthful big shot who spoke to them the way they speak to each other, not like some graying politician trying to sound cool. Vernon Jones seems real.
It's a safe bet that more than one of these would-be cops will go home with this thought in the back of his mind: "I want to work for that guy."
That guy, of course, is not the Vernon Jones you've read about in newspaper articles detailing various investigations and allegations swirling around him. Nor is it the guy rumored to have anger-management problems around women and subordinates. It's certainly not the guy you see glumly being deposed in heavy rotation on the evening news.
This is the street-level Vernon. The tireless glad-hander who can't seem to walk 50 feet down the sidewalk without being stopped by admirers. The charismatic campaigner who woos potential supporters with a friendly quip and infectious laugh. The head of the state's largest local government who listens to constituent complaints about, say, garbage pickup, and offers assurance that he's looking into the problem.
"You hanging in there?" the CEO asks of a thirtysomething man slouching on a bench as he hurries to his next appearance, the annual meeting of the DeKalb Bar Association in a nearby hotel ballroom.
"If I can do it, you can do it," Jones calls to the slacker.
It's in moments like these that Jones' ease around regular folk, his apparent sincerity and, dare we say it, his offhand charm stand in stark contrast to the popular, media-enhanced image of Jones as a power-mad egotist, a shady demagogue who's one step ahead of an indictment.
Still, several people interviewed for this article (most of whom spoke to Creative Loafing on the condition of anonymity, so we're representing an informed consensus) suggest Jones is mellowing - and may be growing out of his apparent need to dominate his peers and bully his rivals.
But it might be too late for an image overhaul. A pair of high-profile lawsuits left over from the CEO's first term will soon direct an even harsher spotlight on some of Vernon's first-term shenanigans, meaning things likely will get a lot worse for Jones before they get better.
TWO BILLS AND A DICK
Much about Jones is contradictory, even up close. He spends long conversations bemoaning his damaged political career, then turns around and cheerily cites some initiative he'll undertake "when I'm governor." He talks of looking forward and staying focused on running the county, yet seethes with resentment over his treatment by the press, claiming Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin enjoys a "free ride" from the media.
That's why we're here at his regular window table at Mick's across from Decatur Square. Jones wants to rehabilitate his image, and he hopes that inviting a CL reporter to shadow him for a couple of days will give readers insight into the real Vernon Jones.
"Do you want a margarita?" he asks as the waitress arrives.
"Um, sure," I say, somewhat taken aback. Noticing Jones' slight grin, I then ask if he's kidding.
"Ha, did you see that? I had him going," Jones says to Burke Brennan, his communications director, who's at the table with us. The CEO's security officer, wearing a suit and dark glasses, sits nearby at the bar.
"I didn't figure you were actually allowed to drink on the job," Jones says teasingly.
When I joke that members of the alternative press are virtually permitted to snort coke off their desks, Jones turns back to the waitress.
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