A new chief executive. A new top prosecutor. A better DeKalb County government?
Many hope so.
Last week’s primary and November’s upcoming general election could mean a turning point for scandal-plagued DeKalb County, as voters supported candidates who emphasized honest government while shying away from those associated with questionable behavior.
Michael Thurmond, a former DeKalb schools superintendent, won the Democratic primary for the open county CEO seat, campaigning on the promise that he will restore the people’s trust in their government. His victory immediately makes him the front-runner in November’s election. And Solicitor Sherry Boston unseated District Attorney Robert James after questioning his credibility to repair the county.
Meanwhile, voters rejected former Commissioner Stan Watson’s bid for tax commissioner, which came less than year after he was reprimanded for voting to award $1.5 million in contracts to his employer. The remaining two candidates in races for tax commissioner, County Commission and the Georgia House of Representatives are heading to runoffs.
Thurmond rallied his supporters behind the idea of rebuilding DeKalb, highlighting it as a land of opportunity for business, transportation, quality of life and education. He faces Republican Jack Lovelace in November. Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May isn’t running for office.
“We’re going to be honest. We’re going to be transparent. We’re going to work hard, and our only focus will be serving the citizens of DeKalb County,” Thurmond told cheering supporters as election results came in Tuesday. “Those folks in politics who were about division and divisiveness, those folks whose politics were us versus them, let me tell you … they lost.”
As Boston was fine-tuning her message to voters, she found one issue that stood out among every demographic, said Fred Hicks, her campaign manager.
“Integrity is what mattered to people,” Hicks said, citing a poll the campaign conducted in April. “We talked about the fact that people deserve a leader who can operate with the highest level of integrity, honesty and accountability.”
That emphasis on personal character and ethical purity led to a decisive victory over James, an incumbent who campaigned on his record of high-profile convictions of public officials and gang members. Boston defeated with 62 percent of the vote.
On the campaign trail, candidates said they repeatedly heard from voters who were sick of corruption, said Rhonda Taylor, a legal support consultant who made it into the July 26 runoff against former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones for House District 91, which covers parts of DeKalb and Rockdale counties.
Jones, whose strong opinions made him a controversial political figure, represents a history that DeKalb should move beyond, she said.
“They did want change. They wanted someone new and fresh,” Taylor said. “They’re seeking someone they can trust with the functionality of their government.”
Renitta Shannon, a medical sales representative who ousted Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur, said voters gravitated to candidates who were open and accessible. She criticized Mayo for missing votes at the Capitol and said he was out of touch with the community.
“They wanted transparency, honesty and most importantly, someone who had done work on the issues and knew something about how things work in Georgia,” said Shannon, who touted her advocacy for women’s rights and a higher minimum wage.
Only 19 percent of registered voters participated in Tuesday’s primary, a low number likely driven by disillusionment with local politics and an election scheduled soon after the March presidential primary, said William Perry, executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs.
But those who did show up were motivated.
“Ethics was the overwhelming issue throughout this campaign, in every one of the offices,” Perry said. “Clearly, everyone was ready for change.”
Most voters interviewed on Election Day said personal character was important to them — they were looking for sincere, straightforward candidates focused on serving their communities.
“We need to get the right people in office. We need honesty, and they have to say what they mean,” said Nora Thrasher after voting at Peace Baptist Church.
Jane White, who voted at Martin Luther King Jr. High, said she looked for candidates with a record of experience that was untainted by suspicions of wrongdoing.
“Honest and ethical people are what we need – absolutely,” she said.
Changes in DeKalb government
Michael Thurmond, Democratic candidate for CEO
Sherry Boston, incoming district attorney
Renitta Shannon, incoming House member for Decatur
District Attorney Robert James
Former DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson, who finished last in tax commissioner’s race
Rep. Rahn Mayo
Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton vs. business development manager Steve Bradshaw
Former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones vs. legal support consultant Rhonda Taylor
Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson vs. attorney Susannah Scott
Note: Contested races won’t be settled until after runoffs and November’s general election; incumbents remain in office until then.