A recent article about the November 8th referendum to create a city in south Fulton County reported a citizen “…who lives in South Fulton, doesn't think enough people in the community are sufficiently qualified to govern effectively.” This question leaves me slightly annoyed that anyone, particularly a resident, could have that perception. South Fulton boast beautiful homes, educated and hardworking residents, with room to grow. Why would anyone think there is not qualified leadership?
Over the past three legislative sessions, legislators have sought to give the citizens in south Fulton an opportunity to vote to incorporate into a new city. The bill is awaiting the Governor’s signature. Is it really possible that among approximately 100,000 residents, potentially the third or fourth largest city in the County and sixth largest city in the entire state, there are not enough “qualified” people to fill one mayoral and seven council seats? Maybe we need to look at where this perception came from.
There are tons of qualified, business owners, retirees, young professionals, and stay at home parents that can manage the new city’s projected $64 Million budget and potential $17 Million dollar surplus. The perception of a small pool of qualified candidates could be because prior to the 2013 election of Representative Ronnie Mabra and myself, the House and Senate seats across all of unincorporated south Fulton had been filled by politicians who held their office for at least ten years or more. All of our decisions and leadership have come from the same eight people for well over a decade.
The six educated professional candidates who are running for the District 62 legislative seat is one example of the qualified pool of candidates. These candidates have stepped up to serve their community when there is an open seat because it is extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent. The power of incumbency is not necessarily because the long-time elected officials are the best person for the job. The “I” next to an incumbents’ name is very suggestive to uncertain to voters. The money it takes to directly reach an entire legislative district is more than four or five times the salary for the position. I completely understand why the sacrifice of time, family, money and profession is not worth it to some future leaders. Winning against the dreaded “I” next to an incumbent’s name has been done if the voters pay attention. If one wins, then maybe it is worth the struggle. But in many cases running against an incumbent is a losing a position and the type of quality candidates we want are smart enough to evaluate the risk versus reward analysis and wait for opportunity. Our pool of qualified candidates will always look small as long as courageous candidates do not get a chance to show voters what type of leadership they have been missing out on.
There was a time for minorities and women when getting a seat at the political table was such a limited occurrence that it was important that whomever was so privileged to accomplished such feats held on to those seats for as long as possible. But the time of thirty year incumbents is no longer a necessity at least in south Fulton County. The elected leadership south of I-20 now more closely reflects the demographics of the community and we, as voters, can begin to evaluate candidates and electeds on a wider spectrum of characteristics.
As a voter we need to start asking tougher questions of our current elected officials. Incumbency should not be enough. If you can’t answer all the questions in the affirmative then you should take a moment to take a closer look at the courageous candidates who dare take on the incumbent. I want to know, does this person garner or earn the respect of their colleagues? Do they have the energy needed to remain enthusiastic and get others engaged in the political process? Does the elected improve each year bringing a higher level of expertise? Does the person present logical and important legislation or resources to their district? Is the leader strategic in their political work? Does the leader communicate with the public in an honest, consistent and transparent way?
There is value in incumbency. Relationships take time to foster and building your database of constituents could take years. But what if the outgoing elected takes time to introduce their replacement with the people they need to know? What if, in an ideal world, the incumbent freely shares their contacts? The benefits gained via incumbency are far more easily passed on when long time elected officials train future leaders and actively pass the torch.
This doesn’t apply to every elected who has held office for a long period of time. There are some long term elected officials that are like a fine wine that gets better with time. However, those special people are rare and easy to identify. When you have been in office for a decade or more, constituents should leave the room excited or more informed than when they walked in. Presentations should be clear, organized, coherent and representative of the well informed community they represent. After ten years an elected should have a healthy list of financial, community or business resources they personally attracted or improved in the community. In any legislative term, the list of important legislation proposed or actively opposed should exceed the ceremonial awards an elected has given or received. At least those are my requirements now that I have been on the inside of Georgia’s highest legislative body.
Whether a new city is created or not, what the perception about leadership indicates is that it is time to showcase the plethora of qualified, innovative, fresh and strategic leaders that already live in our community. Representatives Ronnie Mabra (District 63), Virgil Fludd (District 64) and myself have all elected to pass on the torch and help new leadership to pick up where we left off. Senator Donzella James (District 35) and Representative Sharon Beasley-Teague (District 65) both have challengers. Among these upcoming races there are 15 candidates. We may need to consider that the problem is not the quality or quantity of the candidate pool but rather voters not taking a real look at the other options when they are offered.
This is a year of political change at the Presidential level. The quote in this article urged me to encourage citizens in south Fulton to pay closer attention to the political change needed in the local races on the May 24th ballot. Although I anticipated my time at the Capitol would be longer, in my four years there I was able to identify a laundry list of changes south Fulton should implement. One of the many changes south Fulton needs is just that … a change in the old guard and a chance to give south Fulton a fresh look. What all south Fulton residents should ask is not “do we have qualified people” to run for newly created offices in a city, but rather, do we have the right people in the positions we currently have?