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George on Georgia – Lamenting the resignation of Pam Stephenson

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George on Georgia – Lamenting the resignation of Pam Stephenson

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George Chidi


I’ve been speaking quietly to colleagues of State Rep. Pam Stephenson for the last day or so, parsing the news that she is resigning her seat — that her daughter has taken power of attorney over Stephenson to file the resignation.

Stephenson’s 90th district is mostly in Rockdale and Henry County, snaking north from east Stockbridge through the Snapfinger neighborhood to the commercial node at Wesley Chapel and I-20. It’s about 70 percent Black with aspirational middle-class Black women at the center of its politics. 

Stephenson is suffering from a degenerative dementia, which explains quite a bit. Her law license was suspended earlier this year after a disastrous performance in a defense case in court. It’s heartbreaking. But as people are telling me, it’s not shocking. She wasn’t expected to qualify to run for re-election this year. Many people I spoke to said they were surprised when she signed on for another term.

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I have not spoken directly to Rep. Stephenson. I want to. I’m not the only one. Her voice mailbox is understandably full.

She has long been a friend and has also been candid and brave with me in soft-spoken private conversations about the state of DeKalb politics. To a degree, legislators have looked to her to mediate policy disagreements and personality conflicts (looking at you, Vernon Jones) in a county that remains stubbornly riven by the politics of race.

Well, Jones is gone next year. So is Michele Henson — a major loss of experience and wit, in my opinion. And now Stephenson, who has had a storied career of public service. She started practicing law at a time when Black women were astonishingly rare in the legal world. In addition to her legislative service, Stephenson has been one of Georgia’s DNC representatives, helping set national policy for the Democratic Party. 

In 2008 she served as an interim CEO for Grady Healthcare while the hospital was wrestling with financial problems, enduring serious sexual harassment in the process. She remains on Grady’s board, and attended a board meeting this summer, despite missing the June legislative session.

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A grand melee will emerge for her seat, as happens with any opening. Dr. Greg Shealey, an able candidate, ran for this seat this year, and two years ago. Stonecrest City Councilman George Turner lives in the district, as does perennial candidate Geraldine Champion and Mary Pat Hector, a young Black Lives Matter activist of some note. 

Legislators have been talking about her transition out of office since the start of the year. But when former DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson qualified to run for her seat, a general alarm arose. Watson pleaded guilty three years ago to receiving about $3,000 in advances for government trips and using the money for his own purposes. He was being tied to federal corruption investigations when he left office in 2016. Watson represents old-school DeKalb politics that the county has been trying to shed since Jones left the county’s corner office.

Watson and Stephenson are friends. So the question comes: did Stephenson choose to run again to block Watson, or because she saw two challengers and realized they would cut each other’s throat, or out of the stubborn resolve we see of people in a state of decline? I can’t know that without talking to her, and maybe not after.

This sucks.

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