Winning isn't everything 

But for southeast Atlanta, ditching Dorsey a good start

Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey's 20-point Election Day shellacking at the hands of Natalyn Archibong was a political pulverizing with a point.

It was a vindication for Archibong's most ardent partisans, who coped with four years of Dorsey's backward-looking leadership. The tactics Dorsey used to try to consolidate her support while on council -- exploitation of racial tension, including re-drawing her district's lines to thwart white constituents -- backfired as District 5 neighborhoods went with Archibong.

"It reaffirmed my faith in humanity," says Sean Casey, a Kirkwood resident.

Archibong, an East Atlanta lawyer, beat Dorsey in seven of the district's 10 precincts and lost only in precincts dominated by public housing projects -- Capitol Homes and Grady Homes. The third Dorsey precinct had only two voters.

But the across-the-board victory suggests that legislative ineffectiveness and general ineptitude in meeting the growing needs of her constituents had as much to do with her loss as her racial tactics.

In retrospect, with Archibong ready to take office in January, Dorsey's missteps and missed opportunities seem legion and near-comical.

Here was a councilwoman who set up a housing program, Operation Facelift, that was supposed to benefit seniors. But it actually used inmates from husband Sidney Dorsey's jail to do work on the homes of political supporters. Sidney Dorsey, then DeKalb County's sheriff, lost his re-election bid in August 2000. He is currently the target of a DeKalb grand jury investigation and was accused of stealing campaign signs during his wife's acrimonious re-election push.

But Sherry Dorsey's misdeeds don't end with the fix-it program. She helped set up competing neighborhood and business organizations when the boards of existing groups weren't stocked with her supporters. She seldom advocated for new businesses that could have improved her district, because supporters felt threatened by them. And even when all she had to do was the right thing, as was the case with a race-baiting incident in Kirkwood, Dorsey stayed silent. The list goes on and on and on.

Dorsey did not return phone calls from CL.

For Archibong, the easy part -- winning -- is over.

She faces great opportunity in a community where the suspicions run deep. True, Archibong will accomplish a lot in the eyes of many of her constituents by simply responding when someone in her district has a concern. She'll make progress just by attending the council's committee meetings, which Dorsey skipped nearly half the time.

But Archibong also must try to get projects that Dorsey delayed or derailed in near-perfect economic times back on track during what some economists are predicting is the beginning of a recession. Possibly her most difficult task will be to mend the racial divisions within her community.

Ahead of Archibong are four important projects in two of the districts most often at odds with Dorsey -- Kirkwood and East Atlanta -- that seem like no-brainers to promote the area's revitalization.

  • The construction of a new library for East Atlanta. Dorsey butted heads with Jim Buzbee, co-owner of East Atlanta Ace Hardware, who had a piece of property that could have been used for a new library. The current facility is undersized and doesn't have any dedicated parking.

    In exchange for the property, though, Buzbee wanted to convert the current library's location into retail space. To do that he needed a parking variance, and Dorsey wouldn't back him. She wanted to build the new library in a park.

  • The implementation of the East Atlanta Village study. From February to October 1999, the city spent $10,000 to do a study of the East Atlanta business corridor -- the heart of the neighborhood's commercial district along Moreland and Glenwood avenues and Flat Shoals Road. It calls for cleaning up and reducing the cluttered streetscape along Moreland, and among other suggestions, the construction of clothing stores and art/design galleries. In short, it's a blueprint for making the commercial artery what it could be.

    The study makes clear that it wants to retain a level of usefulness for the community and not devolve into the Little Five Points-style faux-hipster gentrification typified by expensive boutiques and homogeneity of culture.

    But under Dorsey, the plan has languished on the shelf without any official push to take the actions the plan suggests. In fact, City Council President Robb Pitts had to intervene to convince Dorsey to relent in her opposition, says Tony Rutherford, president of the East Atlanta Business Association and co-owner with Buzbee of the Ace Hardware.

  • The redevelopment of the Madison Theater. Atlanta zoning regulations dictated that the Madison's developers would have to build a 90-space parking lot, a virtual impossibility in the close spaces of East Atlanta. Again, Dorsey wouldn't push for the variance so that the $1 million project to renovate the 70-year-old and currently shuttered landmark could move forward.

    The recent designation of the East Atlanta Village as a Neighborhood Commercial District -- a less intensive, pedestrian-friendly business zone -- should speed the development of new businesses, including the Madison, in the area because it allows business owners to share existing parking spaces.

    "With Sherry Dorsey out of the picture, there are obstacles that have been removed," says Denman DuBose, one of the Madison's investors. "It will be an interesting year to see how things finally play themselves out."

    Those are the big ticket items, but it's a small part of a long list of neglected projects and initiatives. Chief among Archibong's tasks will be responding when her constituents call or write -- something Dorsey did for only a select few, say her detractors.

    So far, Archibong gets a passing grade, says Rev. Dolly Mahone, president of the East Atlanta Business Association.

    "Everyone has her cell [number]; everyone has her home number," Mahone says of the councilwoman-elect. "She answers the phone."

    Archibong says she's in the process of talking to each of the neighborhood associations and asking each to give her its top three priorities, which her administration then will be charged to carry out.

    "We want a lot of accountability," Archibong says.

    But Archibong also must advocate for a more strict enforcement of the city's housing codes, Mahone contends.

    Dilapidated homes and businesses in the community have in many cases been given a free pass when it comes to the city's code enforcement standards, Mahone asserts, and that re-enforces a negative perception of the area.

    Take Ely Taxi on Glenwood, she says. There are homeless people living in the broken down cars sitting on its lot, and the building is run down. In front of First Iconium Baptist Church, there are two dumptrucks on the lot, and they've been sitting there for years.

    "As much as we have complained, nothing gets done," Mahone says. "If we would have had proper representation downtown, we wouldn't be in the predicament we're in today."

    Atlanta Gas Light's pending move from its Caroline Street and Moreland Avenue campus seems like exactly the kind of predicament to which Mahone is referring.

    "We might not be losing them if it were not for Sherry," says Wayne Carey, founder of the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization. If Dorsey could have avoided wasting time pitting sides of various neighborhood and business disputes against one another, maybe she could have spearheaded a concerted push to keep the company in or near its District 5 digs. After all, the campus is situated between two MARTA stations on a major thoroughfare that has immediate access to I-20.

    "We could be doing a miniature BellSouth," Carey says, referring to the campus the communications company is building in downtown.

    Don Bender, a neighborhood activist and developer, thinks the way has been cleared for the community to focus on the work ahead instead of on the politics surrounding each obstacle. That would give Archibong a chance to think beyond the obvious -- opening businesses and cleaning up properties -- so she could address the roots of some of the area's nagging problems such as unemployment.

    "Energy will be able to be focused on positive developments rather than ... on meetings and negativity," Bender says. "Instead of fostering rumors and suspicions, [Archibong] will lower suspicions."

    And that gets at the heart of Archibong's most difficult duty -- easing racial tension. Even Atlanta's best politicians and activists would have had trouble dealing with the problems gentrification brought to District 5 during the last four years. But Dorsey's divide-and-conquer political style reached laughable proportions, pitted longtime black residents and business owners against white newcomers to the area and turned usually mild-mannered residents into deeply suspicious enemies.

    "We'll have to get a new hobby," quips Casey, the Kirkwood resident and one of Dorsey's ardent antagonists.

    His half-joke, though, underscores how much work there is to be done to try to bring the community together.

    "We have a lot of wounds over here that we're still licking," Rutherford says. But with Dorsey out, "we won't have anyone dividing the community." Then he adds a note of caution: "Natalyn has her job cut out for her."

    Rutherford says efforts have been made to reach out to longtime business owners to recognize their contributions and make them part of the discussion. Casey says similar things about the Kirkwood Neighbors' Organization, which often found itself at odds with Dorsey's flunkies on the Kirkwood Revitalization Corp., which she helped found to consolidate power in the hands of a few of her political friends.

    Hopefully, with Dorsey out of office, the competing organizations will be absorbed into one group. That's largely already happened in the case of the Minority Business Association of East Atlanta, Rutherford says, and now the neighborhood has to figure out where it wants to go.

    "Not that everyone should like each other, but we should have the same goals," he concludes.

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