The new face of DeKalb

CEO race has crowded field for July primary

Pity poor DeKalb. The county doesn't have a financial crisis, a tax revolt or an all-consuming scandal. No wonder it's been tough to get people revved up about the race for county CEO.

In less than five weeks, Democratic voters will go to the polls to select the county's next top elected official, replacing the controversial Vernon Jones, but you wouldn't know it from the paltry few candidate yard signs scattered around DeKalb neighborhoods.

Even at the first CEO debate on Thursday, when a packed house turned out at DeKalb Technical College to see the five candidates – all African-American Democrats – the energy level was conspicuously sagging. There were no zinger questions or catcalls, only polite applause as the candidates agreed one after another that DeKalb needed more police officers and better regional transportation planning.

At one point, a man in the back let out an incoherent holler. When people turned around, he announced: "I'm just trying to liven things up." Not so amused, the crowd turned back to the debate.

In a county as relatively prosperous and arguably well-managed as DeKalb, there seem to be no big issues to drive the election. In fact, the only topic that really gets folks excited is the proposed city of Dunwoody – but that will be settled by referendum on the same July 15 primary ballot and will have little impact on the CEO's race.

The irony with this apparent apathy is that the DeKalb CEO has more power than virtually any other local elected official in Georgia. The full-time post, created in the early '80s for Manuel Maloof, oversees the day-to-day running of the county government, much as a mayor runs a city. By the time the next CEO takes office, some of that authority likely will be pared back – the CEO would no longer set the commission agenda or break tie votes – in a November referendum.

The front-runners in fund-raising are two veteran politicians. State Rep. Stan Watson, D-Decatur, represents the scrappy old guard of black leadership in DeKalb, with a formidable base of support in the south end of the county. At the other end of the spectrum is County Commissioner Burrell Ellis, a Wharton School graduate and real estate lawyer who aims to be the new face of DeKalb politics. According to the last round of campaign disclosures, Ellis has already raised more than $260,000, compared with about $45,000 for Watson.

Ann Kimbrough, who serves as chief of staff to outgoing CEO Vernon Jones, has unavoidably taken on the role of defending the current administration – and her lightning rod of a boss. To people who still admire Jones, she's promising more of the same.

The other woman in the race is Steen "Newslady" Miles, a former TV journalist and longtime DeKalb resident. Although she served one term in the state Senate and ran for CEO in 2004, Miles comes to the race as something of a political outsider, without a definable support base. Not entering the race until April also has put her behind in fundraising.

Last, in all respects, is Joe Bembry, a perennial candidate given to kooky statements delivered with a theatrical delivery.

Although race might not seem to be a factor in the CEO's race, don't be fooled. Miles hinted at DeKalb's subtle racial divide during the debate when she observed that the Jones administration has left "people feeling they're not being heard."

While few discuss it openly, political observers privately agree that the youthful, light-skinned Ellis – with his clean-cut, professional demeanor and Ivy League education – makes a good impression with white northsiders. Ellis, who has often opposed Jones as a commissioner, has in recent months notably sided with the three white, northern commissioners on key votes involving bar hours, police salaries and zoning issues.

Watson, on the other hand, is perceived by many in north DeKalb as being allied with Jones. A political streetfighter, Watson also shares much of Jones' southside support base.

Kimbrough, who describes herself as Jones' "understudy," is the dark horse in the race. Given Jones' many scandals and personal peccadilloes, it's easy to forget that, for the most part, DeKalb has prospered on his watch and there are few complaints with the level of basic county services.

Although Jones, who has his own U.S. Senate race to run, hasn't actively campaigned for her, Kimbrough says she has her boss's blessing to try to succeed him. "I think Ann will do better than most people expect," predicts state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, who is supporting Watson.

But Jones has also been a divisive figure who has alienated northsiders with his apparent eagerness to zone northern neighborhoods for dense commercial development while funneling capital investment into south DeKalb. Also, Jones fiercely opposed Dunwoody, arguing that its incorporation would snatch away a large chunk of the county's tax base.

The conventional wisdom is that Ellis has the northside vote locked up, while Watson will battle Kimbrough and Miles for the southside vote. But while Watson is known for having deep roots in black DeKalb – his town hall meetings are a must-do for any politician trying to reach that audience, even Gov. Sonny Perdue – he also has many friends on the north end. As chairman of the DeKalb House delegation, Watson is well-liked and supported by virtually every member, Democrat or Republican.

Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, says that although Watson initially opposed the Dunwoody bill, he was instrumental in allowing it to come up for a vote. Millar is supporting Watson.

Likewise, Benfield plans to throw a meet-and-greet cookout to introduce her district to Watson. "I'm trying to get people interested in the CEO race," she says.

Both Watson and Ellis have recently made the rounds in Dunwoody and other north DeKalb communities, but Ellis' hopes of winning enough votes there to put him over could be hurt by a quirk of the political season.

In 2002, then-U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney was tossed out of office by DeKalb Republicans voting in the Democratic primary. That kind of ballot crossover likely won't be seen this year, Millar says, because two prominent GOP incumbents, at-large Commissioner Elaine Boyer and state Sen. Dan Weber, have primary opposition.

If Ellis and Watson end up facing each other in the Aug. 5 runoff, as many now predict, state election rules would forbid voters who took part in the GOP primary to switch ballots in the runoff. That could have the effect of throwing the election back to be decided by south DeKalb, where Watson could have a strong advantage.