Sunday Morning Meditation – There but for the grace of God
Decatur Mayor Pro Tem Kecia Cunningham made a mistake.
She admits it. On June 11, Cunningham was driving back home after having drinks at a cigar club 19 miles outside the city. She was way over the legal limit, and she shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car. It was reckless. It was irresponsible. She could’ve hurt someone else, herself, or both.
It wasn’t long after she admitted her mistake to Decaturish that commenters began calling for her resignation. It’s not surprising. An elected official in a position of trust should be held to a higher standard, because she doesn’t just represent herself. She represents the city of Decatur. As Mayor Pro Tem, she is often the public face of the city.
That’s why I had no qualms about publishing the entire police report documenting her arrest. I report on the arrests of private citizens all the time. While I personally like Cunningham, she should not be given a pass. If anything, her arrest should be held up as a prominent example and a warning to others.
That said, Cunningham’s mistake should not be the end of her political career. She’s served as a commissioner since 1999, and her record is solid, even if you disagree with some of her decisions. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never profited from her position or used it to her advantage. Indeed, even the police report contains no evidence she tried to use her status to avoid responsibility for making a stupid decision.
Cunningham sinned, but it was not a sin related to her role as an elected official. I’ve seen politicians who have used their position to benefit themselves. I’ve seen the public’s trust betrayed.
And while other politicians would have attempted to deflect responsibility and place blame, Cunningham owned up to her bad choices. She did it unequivocally, without hesitation. People shouldn’t applaud that. That’s what you’re supposed to do, and no one should get credit for doing the right thing. It is, however, more than enough reason to give her a second chance, particularly in the city of Decatur.
Decatur’s not known for being a town of teetotalers. We have dozens of places to drink and purchase alcohol. The city hosts one of the most successful beer festivals in the Atlanta area every year. It’s not a city that endorses drunk driving, but there is a strong drinking culture in Decatur. Within that enabling culture, people have gone astray.
People who are ready to let Cunningham go must reckon with their own transgressions. Did they ever have more than one drink and roll the dice by getting behind the wheel of a car? We are all equally susceptible to failure. Our ability to think rationally is often impaired by our smug sense of security and self-importance. Add a little alcohol to the mix, and the power of self-delusion intensifies.
As a wise person once said, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Our elected officials are also a reflection of the communities that elect them. If we run them out of office at the first sign of trouble, what message does that send to others who might want to run? Don’t run unless you’re flawless? Or, barring that, hide and make excuses if you get caught doing something you shouldn’t? We need to think carefully about the kinds of politicians this uncompromising attitude could attract.
Cunningham is a loyal public servant who has confessed to an error of judgment. It is the only error on her record, as far as we know. If she had done it before or does it again, we’d be having a very different conversation.
But if we throw public servants away when they first fall, then we must all hope that there’s a perfect person out there in line to replace them. I don’t know of any. Do you?
If the voters in Cunningham’s district want to replace her, let them make that decision. The courts will give her an appropriate punishment for her crime. Until then, she should be given an opportunity to redeem herself by continuing to do her job to the best of her ability. She deserves another chance.