Find part one of the series here. Find part two here. Find part three here.
No incumbent commissioner has lost an election in DeKalb County in at least 20 years.
So, what might make this run different? To start, Sharon Barnes-Sutton has truly distinguished herself as an example of how to draw negative attention in public office.
She entered office with some light baggage. In retrospect, one wonders how the former school teacher somehow managed to come up with $69,000 of her own money to run while all this was happening. Why that didn’t raise more eyebrows escapes reason.
Her personal finances had been in sufficient disarray to draw a bad check charge in Gwinnett and a foreclosure during her first term. In the fourth district of DeKalb, where more than 40 percent of homes are still at negative equity, voters largely and understandably ignored it.
But in her second term, Barnes-Sutton has become the face of DeKalb’s unresolved political turmoil. And that may be because she has responded to criticism with naked disdain for the public reaction.
As the AJC and others began diving more deeply into county finances, reporters noticed that more than $34,000 of her office budget had been paid to the firm of Warren Mosby, her long-time boyfriend. Her response was to say that no law had been broken. (Warren Mosby, amazingly enough, is challenging incumbent commissioner Kathy Gannon for her seat in the May primary.)
A review under open records request of commission P-card spending revealed $75,000 in purchases by Barnes-Sutton, including the payment of a $130 speeding ticket and an $1100 portrait of Barack Obama. Of those purchases, $45,000 or so initially had no matching receipts. Her first reaction was to tell the media “I am good with everything I have done.” Barnes-Sutton issued a press release later saying that an outside auditor had declared all the purchases legitimate. The audit itself, of course, was never released.
This episode triggered an FBI investigation which presumably remains ongoing.
It also triggered a series of ethics accusations before the county’s long-stymied ethics board. Legal and political maneuvering had rendered it largely ineffective, leading the legislature to change its composition last year. Her response? She is currently suing the new county ethics board, claiming it doesn’t have the constitutional authority to hold her accountable.
Never mind that she served on the task force that led to the legislation, and damn the 92 percent of voters who approved it at referendum last year.
She has left a litany of aggrieved constituencies in her wake over the last term, from city officials in Avondale angered over delays to a new fire station in town, to animal rights activists who have been fighting Barnes-Sutton constantly for years over the construction of a new animal shelter.
Sutton was the chief proponent last year of a $5 million plan for the county to purchase and lease back the DeKalb YMCA, one that left watchdog groups scratching their heads because it made no financial sense at all. As news emerged earlier this year about an undisclosed benefit she had been receiving from the DeKalb YMCA – a set of free memberships for her and her family worth more than $20,000 – her response to the obvious conflict of interest was to say “It’s not a freebie … it was legal.”
To add to this apparent indifference to public opinion, she’s turtled up, growing increasingly absent from community meetings in the district unless she personally has control over the meeting. She has, to date, skipped candidate forums. Community leaders in the district have noticed how much less frequently she returns phone calls, even now.
“She has meetings, and then doesn’t really involve the people in the community,” said PRISM’s Dunaway. “She doesn’t really want people showing up.”
This took comic form a week or so ago, when she hosted a “Good Day Festival” on Memorial Drive, with prominent rappers and some free food that came late. Her smiling face was on a banner next to the stage, and the performers praised her, calling her “your highness” at one point. “It’s a good day in District 4” she told the crowd. But all the while, she pointedly said the event was “non-political,” and that anyone distributing political material (other than her own, like her banner) there would be ejected.
The county didn’t spend money on this event, she said. Did she spend money here? Did someone spend it on her behalf? Would that not count as a campaign expense? One has to throw up their hands – it’s The DeKalb Way.
It may be difficult for her to campaign without being confronted, and her regular reaction to confrontation – to question the integrity or knowledge of her critics – has worn thin.
“The Sharon I knew was just quiet,” said Brooks. “Now I see someone who is just bold and in your face and ‘I can do these things and they’re not against the law.’ … it’s one thing after the other, like the YMCA free memberships. It’s the audacity that she would throw things in our face the way she does and hold her head up high. There’s no remorse, no conscience. No regrets, they do what they do.”
The many accusations made in the Bowers report and the weird collusion that led to votes on a quasi-casino for South DeKalb (withdrawn after objections by Governor Deal emerged) and a no-public-hearing vote on a publicly funded soccer stadium (withdrawn after Arthur Blank got a good look at the land) simply reinforce the point: Sharon Barnes-Sutton simply doesn’t give a s—t any more about what any one thinks.
Bradshaw lost last time because he had neither money, nor name recognition, nor public mobilization. This time, he has all three.
“The very core of this jewel of DeKalb County is at stake,” said former DeKalb Sheriff Thomas Brown, a major Bradshaw supporter. “We have so much to offer to Georgia because of where we sit, in the middle of metro Atlanta, in the middle of the rapid transit system. But if people don’t trust the government, developers will wait us out. They’ll just sit there, and we’ll go another decade because of the lack of confidence they have in the policy makers in this county.”
The vitriol with which people describe Sutton reminds me of how voters viewed Cynthia McKinney just before they defenestrated her in 2006, or perhaps of how the public greeted former CEO Vernon Jones in his recent runs for public office.
Lance Hammonds, an experienced sales and account manager, also seeks the Democratic nomination. But the reform community appears to have coalesced around Bradshaw, who has raised thousands of dollars in donations from supporters to defend against the expected direct-mail assault to come.
To that, add DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown’s backing. Brown remains popular in DeKalb and presumably still has access to the county-wide political ground network that elected Jeff Mann as sheriff in 2014 while Brown was running for Congress.
Brown’s criticism of Barnes-Sutton’s tenure is blunt. “It’s governance by PR instead of governance by principles,” he said. “I’m sure she means well, but sometimes we can overstay our stay. There’s no confidence in this government from the citizens and from the business community.”