Cover Story: Citizen Brumby

Last week, Otis Brumby said he would step down as Board of Education chairman. But have we heard the last from him?

When Otis Brumby Jr. announced his resignation last week from the state Board of Education, no one saw it coming. Even Gov. Roy Barnes, the man who appointed Brumby to the position in 1999, didn’t know his friend of 30 years would step down until just hours before, when Brumby dropped by his office during the board’s lunch break.

Brumby, the hot-tempered publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, the Cherokee Tribune and 28 weeklies in metro Atlanta, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made him re-assess his priorities.

“During the last month or so, I’ve been trying to reflect on what was important in my life,” he tells CL. “I want to spend a lot more time with my family. I missed my friends and business associates in Marietta.”

Brumby’s announcement shocked fellow board members and caught the governor’s office so flat-footed it didn’t issue an official reaction. Even on Monday, the executive office was quiet. Offered the chance to comment on Brumby’s surprise departure, a Barnes spokesperson said there just wasn’t time in the governor’s schedule to make any such statement.

If Barnes is too perplexed for words, he’s not alone. Otis Brumby is, in many ways, a throwback to the old days of journalism, when a publisher’s political agenda was as apparent on the front page as it was on the editorial page. Like the fictional Citizen Kane, Brumby is a child of privilege who has used his newspaper and a lifetime of contacts as entree into the circles of power. It was his friendship with Barnes, after all, that led to Brumby’s appointment to the state Board of Education, a stepping stone to what some associates say was Brumby’s highest goal — the state Board of Regents.

Now, with the surprise resignation, Brumby must reconcile his ambitions with a new, more modest, reality. The Marietta Daily Journal, his flagship paper, has seen its circulation drop while its target audience has exploded in number. It’s a newspaper that reflects the style of its owner — conservative and very slow to change.

At 61, Brumby possesses a power to evoke disdain — and even hatred — that is undiminished. An ex-writer once put a secret message into a sports column, so that the first letter of each paragraph spelled out “Otis Brumby is a son of a bitch.”

That was Aug. 19, 1974. A few weeks ago, Bill Byrne, chairman of the Cobb County Commission and a Republican candidate for governor, reaffirmed his antipathy: “The next time I’m in three feet of Otis Brumby, he’s going to hit the ground.”

What is it about Otis Brumby that makes even a candidate for governor want to punch his lights out?

The Brumby name is O.M., or Old Marietta. O.M. families go back generations, even centuries, in Cobb County. To be O.M. is to come from money and influence. Barnes, as in Gov. Barnes, is another O.M. name.

Otis’ grandfather, Thomas M. Brumby, put the family on the path to wealth by co-founding the Brumby Chair Company in 1875. Otis Brumby Jr. is president of the company, which to this day makes the Brumby Rocker, a rocking chair that sells for up to $805.

Otis Brumby Sr. founded the Cobb County Times back in 1916, and later merged that paper into the Marietta Daily Journal, founded in 1866.

Brumby is a fourth-generation Cobb Countian, born April 9, 1940. He graduated from the University of the South in Sewannee, Tenn., in 1962.

Brumby planned on practicing law, and even graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1964. He was admitted to the bar the same year.

In 1965, at the request of his mother Elisabeth, he took the reins of the Marietta Daily Journal when he was just 25.

In 1968, Brumby launched the Northside Neighbor, the first of his suburban community weeklies that would become his media empire in the metro area.

“It was a very exciting time because those were the years of great growth,” says Carrol Dadisman, retired publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat and the MDJ editor from 1966 to 1972. “He really wanted the paper to excel. He took great pride to win for three straight years the Georgia Press Association General Excellence Award.”

Brumby’s “title technically was assistant to the publisher. But Otis was clearly in charge and influenced the paper quite a bit,” Dadisman recalls.

Eventually Brumby would own two dailies and 28 community weeklies in Bartow, Cherokee, North Fulton, Paulding, DeKalb, Clayton, Fayette and Henry counties, as well as the cities of Roswell and Rockdale.

Brumby and Barnes, then a Cobb County lawyer, were clumped into a group of Cobb comers known as the Young Turks, which included Bill Bullard, a mortician and former director of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce who died in 1998, and Harold Willingham, who’s credited with bringing Kennesaw College and Southern Tech to Cobb County and creating the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority. Willingham died last year at the age of 84.

“Because of the Young Turks, Cobb didn’t develop as a bedroom community. [Cobb] went from a single-member commission county and [became] a magnet for residential and commercial industrials,” says Chuck Clay, a Cobb County attorney, former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and Brumby’s friend and next-door neighbor. Cobb “developed that way because of the foresight of these people like Otis. It takes a tremendous amount of foresight, and we should all be grateful. We are the heirs of their vision in the ’60s and ’70s.”

To this day, Brumby is credited with aiding Cobb County and Marietta. Alice Summerour, who was sworn in as president of the Kiwanis Club of Marietta Oct. 1, has known Brumby for 10 to 12 years. (Brumby has been a member of the Kiwanis Club since 1965.) “He’s a wonderful man and always gives 110 percent in every thing he does,” she says. “Last year, what sticks in my mind, was a $50,000 donation to a hospice.”

As players such as Brumby engineered the future of Cobb County, and metro Atlanta’s population skyrocketed, new business opportunities arose. Newspaper chains, seeing the growth in Atlanta’s suburbs and exurbs, began sniffing around for papers to buy.

In June 1988, the New York Times Co. bought the Gwinnett Daily News for $88.2 million and was reported to have offered a similar amount for the MDJ and Brumby’s Neighbor newspapers. The New York Times has since sold the Gwinnett Daily News. But the plan was to launch an assault on the dominance of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Brumby declined.

“It wasn’t part of our strategic plan at the time,” Brumby says today.

And why should he sell? Owning those papers brought him titles and positions that money just can’t buy. He served as Georgia chairman of the National Newspaper Association, director of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, and a member of the Board of Advisers to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia.

At the same time he nurtured his political and journalism connections, horror stories about his managing style began to percolate from his newspapers.

Journalists by nature will complain about anything, but alumni of the MDJ reserve special venom for their former boss.

“I personally found him to be, in one plain word, mean,” says Harriet Hilland, who worked for Brumby for only nine months in 1994 and 1995 as a health care reporter. “And there’s so much depth to that unnecessary meanness. He would continually berate people — that was what staff meetings were all about.”

“Brumby ran [the MDJ] like a third-world banana plantation,” says Jesse Tullus, MDJ editor from 1986 to 1988 and now editor of the Georgetown (S.C.) Times. “He did give a lot of people a start in journalism, but he also drove some [reporters] right out of college away from journalism forever.”

Tullus says that during the time he was there, the paper burned through 19 editors, who either resigned or were fired by Brumby. He also tells the story of showing up for work and being told that Brumby fired the entire circulation department the night before.

When asked about the allegations that he’s been called a madman and a belittling boss, Brumby says, “We look ahead,” meaning he didn’t care to discuss events of the past.

Then he named several people — associate editors, associate publishers and operations manager — who’ve worked for him for 20 and 30 years.

He says he doesn’t know how many people he’s fired but the number “has been greatly exaggerated, I can assure you. As boss, you get more credit than you deserve and you get more blame. Talk about turnover, that’s silly. I don’t think our personnel department is on trial here.

“The newspaper business is a tough business to start with, and we’re in the toughest media market around with all the competition from radio, TV and newspapers. To survive, you have to be aggressive, you have to be tough.”

More disturbing, however, are the charges of an “unspoken” rule at the Marietta Daily Journal and the other newspapers Brumby publishes that editors should avoid running photos of African-Americans on the front page.

“He didn’t just single out blacks. He also didn’t want old people on the front either,” says Ray White, a former Neighbor Newspaper editor who now works for Tullus at the Georgetown Times. “He did not tell me that directly. It always came from someone else. But it was common knowledge that it was Otis’ philosophy.”

Brumby dismisses the charge as “completely bogus.”

Bogus or not, the paper’s presentation of blacks or black-related issues sometimes is peculiar. On July 20 this year, the cover of the Cobb and State section featured a photograph of a policeman passing out trading cards to two African-American children. In the bottom right corner of the photo, the outline of two laughing white children was pasted on, apropos, it seems, of nothing.

Such manipulation of a picture, without alerting the reader, is taboo in most journalistic circles.

In the 35 years Brumby has run the MDJ, Cobb County has seen tremendous growth. In 1970, there were 196,793 people living in Cobb. By 2000, the county’s population had climbed to 607,751 — a 209 percent increase.

Yet the paper’s circulation stands at just under 19,000, and has even dropped 26 percent in the last 10 years, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

“Was he influential? Absolutely. Was he a player in the community? Yes,” Clay says. “But Cobb is much bigger now and more diverse. Time marches on, and there’s new leadership in both the economic and political arenas. Certainly Otis Brumby and the Marietta Daily Journal continue to be influential sources, but [the newspaper] is a little bit further removed from the community.”

So it was inevitable he’d clash with, for lack of a better term, New Marietta, ambitious up-and-coming political players who never felt the need to bow down before the old guard.

One of those was Commission Chairman Byrne. Since Byrne first stepped into the Cobb political scene in 1992, he and Brumby have nurtured a vicious rivalry. About three months after Byrne was first elected, Bill Kinney, Brumby’s business partner and a columnist at the MDJ, set up a lunch meeting in the Kennesaw House for the three to meet face to face.

Recalls Byrne: “He made it quite clear to me he was the key player in Cobb County. I probably should have bit my tongue, but I told him I was elected by the voters of Cobb County and he wasn’t elected for anything. It went downhill from there. For eight of the last nine years, I have been his public enemy No. 1. No one has been the target of as much negative press in state of Georgia, ever.”

That’s probably an exaggeration. But the fights between Byrne and Brumby were fought on a public stage, including the pages of the Marietta Daily Journal.

As recently as July, an editorial ran in the MDJ with the headline, “Byrne’s ethics attack the height of hypocrisy,” when Byrne filed an ethics complaint against Barnes for using state money for TV spots that were widely believed to be campaign promotions.

The editorial called Byrne a “gubernatorial wannabe” who was grandstanding to gain “name recognition by pretending to occupy the moral high ground.”

Byrne says the publicity has worked in his favor. “Obviously I’m biased, but with his avid focus and negative attention on me, the more the rest of the county thought about me. I was first elected by winning 52 percent [of the vote]. Four years later I won 60 percent and last year I won 70 percent of the vote. That makes it clear that the political influence of the Marietta Daily Journal in Cobb County is nonexistent.”

Brumby calls Byrne “an unhappy camper.” He says the basis of their feud goes back to an editorial about Byrne getting booed during Cobb County night at an Atlanta Braves game in 1993 because of a resolution Byrne supported that denounced homosexual lifestyles.

Still, the feud with Byrne burned up a lot of Brumby’s political capital in Cobb County, forcing Brumby to rely on other powerful connections. In early 1995, Brumby asked the Cobb County Commission for a low-interest loan worth $3.6 million to expand the Marietta Daily Journal complex and buy a new printing press. Because of his feud with Byrne, the commissioners rejected his request. Brumby then went to the city of Marietta Development Authority, and subsequently got a $3 million loan.

Undoubtedly, one of Brumby’s best instruments of power was Roy Barnes — also a cousin by marriage — who’d represented the Marietta Daily Journal and was Brumby’s personal attorney for million-dollar land deals.

When Barnes became governor, the access to power that Brumby craved for so long would pay off.

Case in point: Brumby benefited from last-minute, lightning-quick legislation Barnes signed in March 1999 that guaranteed one of Brumby’s papers, the Cherokee Tribune, would retain the contract for Cherokee County’s legal advertisements.

Cherokee County commissioners were days away from giving the $200,000 to $300,000 legal ads contract to the Tribune’s rival paper, the Lakeside Ledger. But House Bill 782, which changed previous laws by requiring newspapers to offer paid subscriptions for one year before they are eligible to be county legal organs, passed on the last day of the 1999 legislative session. Barnes signed HB 782 into law the same day.

Three months later, Barnes picked Brumby to head the state Board of Education. Before that, his only experience in the realm of education was a six-month stint on the Marietta School Board and an appointment to Barnes’ 63-person Education Reform Study Commission.

During his three years on the board, Brumby did accomplish a lot, such as putting more resources toward preparing students for standardized tests and guiding the board through the implementation of Barnes’ controversial educational reforms. He also sent his children through the public school system even though he could easily afford to send them to best private schools in the state.

But most of the time, Brumby only grabbed headlines when he talked trash about state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko.

As superintendent, Schrenko heads the state Department of Education, a position she’s used as a firm Republican to challenge Democrat Barnes. She’s already announced her plans to run against him for governor, and regularly questions his education reform ideas.

Brumby, by choice, has been caught in the middle as Barnes’ mouthpiece on the Board of Education.

In October 2000, while schools were implementing Barnes’ education reform legislation, an MDJ editorial said that Schrenko was “more interested in verbal combat with the governor than in providing leadership to the state Department of Education and the state board.”

And at the August board meeting, Brumby surprised even the other staunch Barnes supporters during budget discussions by playing a radio interview in which Schrenko blamed Barnes for issuing unfunded mandates.

The board also hired its own publicist to put together monthly newsletters and to send press releases on the Board of Education. The department already has staff to do that, but according to Schrenko, Brumby wanted someone to put his spin on things.

The press releases “say, ‘Here’s all the great things the board did, and here’s what the bungling blond superintendent did,’” Schrenko says.

Schrenko may be right. In an Aug. 3 press release, with the headline, “Brumby calls superintendent’s budget ‘unrealistic,’” Brumby is quoted as saying, “It would certainly have been more helpful to the board if the superintendent had submitted a more realistic budget that prioritized the department’s enhancement needs. By putting together a budget that is based on highly inflated and unrealistic requests, it makes it very difficult for the members of the board to know what the Department’s greatest needs are. In the absence of any direction from the department’s chief executive officer (Schrenko), we were forced to weigh the merits of several wish lists submitted by individual staff members. This is not the best way to put together a responsible budget.”

Barnes appointed Brumby. Naturally loyalty is expected, but as Schrenko sees it, Brumby is just the governor’s puppet.

“My impression of Otis has been that when he first got into education, his heart was in the right place. He wanted to do the right thing, but he became more and more politicized. I don’t think he can tell where the political and educational lines are, so he crosses them all the time,” Schrenko says.

Then something apparently happened to make Brumby rethink everything: the events of Sept. 11.

When he resigned, Brumby told the board: “Since the tragic terrorist attacks last month, I have tried — like most Americans — to focus on things that mean the most to me and my family. ... I realized that during the last two-and-a-half years I was spending less time with my wife, our five children and their families, my friends and my business associates.”

To the governor, Brumby told the same thing, he says. But Barnes’ response remains unknown. “I don’t want to divulge what he said, but he would have liked for me to stay until the end of his first term.”

The weekend after the attacks, Brumby went to Athens to be with his son, a University of Georgia student. The following week he and some family members went the Georgia coast.

Some Department of Education insiders, among them Schrenko, don’t buy Brumby’s explanation. After all, the announcement was as puzzling as it was impulsive, just like the man himself.

“If we ever want to know the true reason behind his resignation, you’ll have to get it from either Roy Barnes or Otis,” Schrenko says. “It just doesn’t ring true to me.”

Brumby will officially leave behind the Board of Education — and the controversies he created there — Dec. 13, his last board meeting.