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George on Georgia – House District 90: Your vote is worth about $36,000

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George on Georgia – House District 90: Your vote is worth about $36,000

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

The last time you found yourself in the street at a protest, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” I don’t think you had an election in February on your mind. Democracy is a constant mess of commitment and involvement. It doesn’t evaporate every two or four years. You have to keep doing it.

That is my attempt to keep from curling into a fetal ball in a corner as I contemplate what happens next.

That’s because almost no one is paying any attention to the special election for House District 90 on Tuesday. The district snakes through Stonecrest Mall and Panola Road south into Henry County. About 26,000 voters are registered in DeKalb County in this district. About 16,000 of them cast a ballot for the venerable and wise Pamela Stephenson, even though she had resigned the seat late last year due to health problems. About 80 percent of those voters cast early ballots or absentees.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 253 people have voted in the special election.

I know we’re all tired of politics now, but what the hell.

We have six people running to succeed her (Valerie Murphy has apparently withdrawn), and their stories are getting lost in the news cycle. Democracy is reading their bios and their position papers and voting in an off-year special election.

Divide a $26 billion state budget by 180 state representatives and you get about $144 million per state house district. Now divide that figure by the number of voters who will decide this election – if history and early voting are any guide, it will be fewer than 4,000 voters. That makes every voter the political arbiter of $36,000 or more in state government spending.

That’s about 30 times what the median income voter pays in taxes. Democracy is about who shows up.

And it’s not like everything is going along just swimmingly in this district and people can afford to pay attention to other things. Three things come up in varying order as I speak to candidates: the pandemic, voter suppression and jobs. House District 90 captures this in microcosm, right around the empty food courts of Stonecrest Mall.

The city of Stonecrest owns the part of the mall that was once a Sears and is now a concrete cavern. The county used the building as a major early voting site. Anchor tenants own the rest, though they have been leaving as the mall depopulates. Middle-class and affluent Black residents surround Stonecrest Mall, but they take their business to Dunwoody and Decatur while white people with the same incomes in DeKalb County rarely venture south of I-20 to shop.

The mall is in a weird position now because of the pandemic. Retail was getting killed even before COVID-19 forced us to stay close to home. But, ironically, businesses closer to residential neighborhoods are doing a bit better now as people shift toward working from home. Stonecrest Mall has been at the center of arguments about redeveloping South DeKalb for a generation now, and every wonk in the area has an opinion about it.

Enter Joel Thibodeaux, a public policy guru who helped lay the groundwork for the municipal incorporation of Stonecrest as the chair of the policy committee that created it. Thibodeaux, an accountant, is the auditor for DeKalb County schools and spent three years working on budgets for the state senate – a credential that landed Carolyn Bordeaux in Congress this year.

“I believe that DeKalb County and Stonecrest can get state money to redevelop the mall,” he said, imagining how half of the property could be turned into a civic center. “We’re also talking to Marta to putting a nonstop shuttle to the airport. But everybody just looks at the mall area. Panola Road corridor desperately needs investment and growth.”

Solving this problem requires community buy-in, he said. And that’s been elusive, because local residents lack consensus about what their community should look like. Should South DeKalb industrialize? What does that do to the “bedroom community” and residential property values? “They’re screaming about the Home depot distribution center,” Thibodeaux said. “We’ve got a big industrial area that needs to put jobs in.”

Thibodeaux ran in a primary election for the state senate in 2018 and presumably built connections to voters that would carry over today. In a weaker field in a regular election, I would expect Thibodeaux to run away with this campaign. In a special election with high-quality competition, predictions are dangerous.

Dr. Greg Shealey runs the National Property Institute, a general contracting and real estate development company. Shealey has a Ph.D in health – an exceptionally-useful background right now – and ran against Stephenson a few years ago. He has been a consistent voice in community discussions since then.

Shealey’s history is interesting to me, because he testified during the corruption investigations into former CEO Burrell Ellis about being pressured to make political contributions as a contractor. That’s bought him a lot of goodwill with the reform community, though the issues of political reform seem almost quaint compared to the massive problems Georgia wrestles with today: a full-on assault on voter participation, an economic crisis and the mishandling of the COVID-19 response.

It’s a contrast to the elephant in the room: Stan Watson.

Watson served for 10 years in the legislature, and is a former head of the Legislative Black Caucus and the DeKalb delegation. When talking to folks over Zoom, I’ve watched him elide over his service as a county commissioner, where he was implicated in federal corruption investigations. After resigning from office, Watson pleaded guilty to a charge of theft by conversion for stealing $3,000 meant to cover the cost of government trips.

A Watson win would signal an indifference to corruption in DeKalb after nearly a decade of hard-fought reforms, which would horrify the political establishment. Still, Watson has very solid political instincts and a base of support in South DeKalb. If Watson earns a spot in a runoff, a multiracial coalition of activists across the county would immediately align with whoever faces him.

Ed Williams is the dark horse. He’s a critic. He’s cranky. He is an ever-present voice in social media. He sued the county over its vote to give raises to commissioners … and won. As a fellow advocate for transparency, I like him. Groupthink destroys decision-making; a willingness to challenge orthodoxy in ways that aren’t adversarial (looking at you, Vernon Jones) adds value. And, frankly, he’s drawn a lot of attention over the years, which means he may have more name recognition than others. He has a story to tell with his candidacy, and cannot be written off. It might be enough to make a runoff, and if it’s with Watson, he would win.

The six-way race is hard to predict, because the low turnout of special elections allows for … quirky … results. The first name on a ballot gets an extra percent or two of the votes. Women candidates have tended to outperform men at the local level, particularly in predominantly-Black districts.

Two women are fighting for a spot in the inevitable runoff. Diandra Hines is a marketing account executive and the mother of a young child who worked for a year for Vernon Jones as a legislative assistant. She told me she does not subscribe to his politics, but was … diplomatic … about offering criticism. If she is campaigning in front of people, her personal stories managing working parenthood through a pandemic are likely to connect with voters.

The other is Angela Moore, a self-promoting perennial candidate with no business holding elected office, who likely will raise a little money, lose and disappear again. (That said, since no one has filed any fundraising disclosures yet, one cannot presume even that.) I’m critical of Moore because she has lied to me in person in the past in ways that I find generally disqualifying … and that the state found legally disqualifying.

I am firmly in the anyone-but-Watson-or-Moore camp.

Of course, I don’t live in this district. I don’t have to worry about an election for … oh, at least another nine months or so, when Pine Lake’s city council is up. 

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept

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