Breaking The DeKalb Way

Dekalb County Commission

I discovered something about DeKalb politics as I went looking for the gears in the machine, and it’s been swirling around in my head, a Lovecraftian horror that might have spared me notebooks full of arcane twaddle, gibbering madness and self-destruction, if only I had ignored the early signs and stopped asking questions.

Most people who pick up an AJC headline about DeKalb County in their Facebook feed think there’s some hidden hand guiding this political horror show. Someone has to be profiting from the disaster of corruption investigations and convictions. Otherwise, why would people accept it?

But this is The DeKalb Way, and it resembles six year olds playing soccer. People follow their own opportunities without regard to the larger consequences. As openings emerge – almost always by special election because someone died or quit to run for something else or finally got indicted – whoever happens to be able to pick up the odd extra fifty or five hundred votes in an 8-percent-turnout race wins. Sometimes they’re good. Sometimes… not.

A political machine like what you might see in Boston or New York or Chicago can discipline itself. Those who don’t play ball find themselves facing well-financed and well-organized opposition.

And then, I got it. There is no machine.

The county’s reputation? An externality, a cost someone else can bear. DeKalb has the largest Democratic voting constituency in Georgia. But harnessing that power to move state races … is someone else’s job. The trains might run on time. Or not. Who cares. I got mine.

The self-correcting process – voting out incumbents – has been broken by The DeKalb Way. It has been decades since an incumbent from the legislature, the county commission or the school board has been voted out of office.

I’ve been holed up like Kurtz contemplating diamond bullets in my forehead ever since.

Two political figures in DeKalb have stood out for years as exemplars of incompetence. Sharon Barnes-Sutton and Stan Watson have not just been bad at their job as county commissioners, but they’ve been bad at being bad at the job. They haven’t been able to fly under the radar. And for once, the public seems ready to make an example of someone.

There is no machine.

But … the two may have inadvertently created something better. Diverse interests – the business community, local activists, party leaders and others – appear ready to throw their weight behind a broad-based reform effort, and anyone elected now will have to answer to it. If Barnes-Sutton falls to her primary challenger, Steve Bradshaw, next month, it means the old system may have finally faltered under its own ineffectiveness.

This is how to break The DeKalb Way. 


Steve Bradshaw

There’s a mini-cassette, somewhere, with Stephen Ray Bradshaw’s last words on it.

Bradshaw, 52, grew up in Savannah. He was commissioned as an armor officer out of the ROTC program at Armstrong State University in 1986, making captain rank just in time to lead convoys in the first Gulf War.

He wrote daily letters from the field to his wife, Diane. I think that reflects an understanding of how historically valuable war correspondence can be. War mementos carry generational significance – ask any Southern family who had kin in a war.

He would call the letters sentimental. (The letters are sappy. Just trust me.) But a few days before the ground war started in earnest, he mailed a tape recording of himself home to Diane, just in case he didn’t make it.

“She later shared with me that she listened to it once, cried her eyes out for about 30 minutes and threw it in a drawer never to revisit it,” he said. “I know it was hard for her. But, it was necessary for me because I could then face combat at peace with whatever was going to happen.”

That stood in contrast to his public mien in the face of war. Bradshaw served as an S1 – a battalion staff officer in charge of personnel issues like duty assignments, awards and legal problems.

“There were times when pay wasn’t going to come on time, or things weren’t going to be delivered on time, and he was the one who had to deliver that message, and he didn’t hem and haw about it,” said Howard O’Dell, a manager at First Data who lives in Stone Mountain and served with Bradshaw as an officer in the Gulf War. “He was direct, but you sensed he had integrity, doing the right thing, even though it wouldn’t be popular. He didn’t sugar coat things, but he was very personable.”

Bradshaw speaks regularly of “chow line leadership” to his supporters – the principles behind the idea that good field commanders eat last, to make sure they’re living like the people they’re supervising. “The soldiers eat first,” he said. “This may seem like a very simple thing but to me this is indicative of the essence of true leadership. Leadership is about self-sacrifice for the good of the whole.”

But the letters reflect Bradshaw’s early academic predilections. He thinks on paper.

“There’s not enough time for reflection,” he said to a Savanah television station host, discussing the book Dear Diane: Letters from the First Gulf War that came from those letters. “It’s always responding, and there is an art form to crafting a letter and getting a cogent thought across that makes sense.”

I note purely in passing that Bradshaw’s stump speech emphasizes thrift … and AT&T charged $3 a minute for long distance calls to the Persian Gulf at the time.

Bradshaw always carries a notebook with him.

I noticed that when I was invited to a community meeting at Brannon Hill a few months ago. Brannon Hill’s residents meet with whoever they can, looking for a way to pull the fire-damaged, gang-plagued, deeply dysfunctional place from the edge of hell.

We sat together in a well-worn rec room with the East African immigrants of the dilapidated condo complex. Bradshaw sat there quietly listening to the residents and taking notes. Lots and lots of notes. And then phone calls later, with more notes. And then phone calls to other people, with more notes still.

Bradshaw has been dipping in, again and again, to maintain contact with the emerging leaders at Brannon Hill. It’s a granular, local issue. And it requires attention, and responsiveness. Solving DeKalb’s problems can’t be done with sweeping plans.

“I’m tired of plans,” he said at a forum last week. “I’m a big fan of not reinventing the wheel. I don’t know how many plans there have been. … We don’t need new plans. Those plans are probably gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. We need to pull those plans off the shelves, go back through ‘em, pull out the relevant items from each and put together a comprehensive plan to fix this.

Bradshaw left the Army after Desert Storm, first to help manage the plant of venerable Atlanta printer John H. Harland Company, then national accounts for the staffing firm Spherion.

A few years after leaving the Army, Bradshaw started a master’s program in public policy at Georgia State, where he has returned from time to time as an adjunct to teach civics courses like “Public Service and Democracy,” and “Organizational Contexts of Public and Nonprofit Personnel Policy and Administration.”

Let’s call Bradshaw a romantic policy wonk who’s willing to get shot if he’s on the right side. But let’s also call him the reform effort’s chosen warrior. Whatever else he is, he’s the big bet – and all the marbles are on him.

Barnes-Sutton wields a gavel at the dais, and has been able to raise six-figure sums while in office despite integrity questions. She knows how to run and has won twice. Bradshaw’s great strength may be the simple ability to return phone calls, to know which pot holes need fixing, and to know who made what ludicrous claim when, without succumbing to the wailing madness of The DeKalb Way.

Tomorrow – a look at the playing field.  


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