Larry Johnson brings community organizing approach to DeKalb CEO race

Larry Johnson, a candidate for DeKalb CEO, campaigns at the corner of Memorial Drive and Covington Highway in Belvedere Park on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar /



Larry Johnson, a candidate for DeKalb CEO, campaigns at the corner of Memorial Drive and Covington Highway in Belvedere Park on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar /

The temperature is just above freezing and the wind is swirling but Larry Johnson is all smiles as he stands in a median off Memorial Drive and waves at the passing drivers.

It’s the morning rush hour, and the longtime DeKalb County commissioner comes out here weekly to campaign. A few speed by without acknowledgement but many others wave and honk, all of which excites him. Others roll down their windows and shout at him in support.

This day, a driver sees Johnson and the bright red sign he’s holding and goes by honking, leaning hard on the horn after two quick staccatos. Johnson grins and yells: “Alright, alright, alright!”

“These are working people, got those 9 to 5 jobs,” said Johnson, 55. “You gotta go get it. My job is to meet the people where they’re at.”

Johnson is a veteran commissioner, having served on the board since he was elected to represent southwest DeKalb’s District 3 in 2002. He’s hoping the two-plus decades of experience will help him ascend to the county’s chief executive officer job.

He is one of three running to replace a term-limited Michael Thurmond and faces fellow commissioners Steve Bradshaw and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, all Democrats. The CEO position will be determined by the May 21 primary because no Republicans filed to run.

(L-R) Larry Johnson, a candidate for DeKalb CEO, is greeted by William Lesane while campaigning at The DOOR recovery center in Decatur on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Arvin Temkar /


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Johnson sees the CEO position as a way to continue serving, and to tackle the county’s problems from a different angle. Instead of being a commissioner people come to with issues, he wants to oversee the departments and make changes proactively.

“I want to be where the buck stops,” he said.

Johnson’s background is in public health and community organizing. After he moved to DeKalb in the early 1990s, he led a coalition that ultimately convinced the legislature to give pedestrians the right of way in crosswalks. The experience ultimately inspired him to run for office. One of the first votes he remembers casting as commissioner brought sidewalks to South DeKalb.

“I went from trying to get the county to put in sidewalks to being the person who could put that sidewalk in the budget,” he said.

Since that first vote, Johnson has won re-election five times. He was the longest-serving commissioner until stepping down to run for CEO, having served largely without controversy during a difficult period in DeKalb history that ensnared multiple public officials in allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Thurmond is the fourth CEO Johnson has worked with, and Johnson said Thurmond has brought competence and calmness to the position. Johnson said he’d like to build on what Thurmond has done.

“He’s like me: You get results,” Johnson said. “And you care about people.”

Johnson has taken a community organizing approach to his time as commissioner. He doesn’t like to sit behind a desk, preferring to be out talking to people. He does regular walking town hall meetings with residents, lacing up his gym shoes and letting folks point out problems that need fixed.

In 2020 when about a dozen families were forced out of an extended stay motel — a decision housing activists decried as illegal because of the pandemic-era moratorium on evictions — Johnson arrived at the scene while they were still taking place. His office helped connect families with county resources and with New Life Church, which paid for temporary hotel rooms and helped find permanent housing.

That year, he also pushed DeKalb to become the first Georgia county to declare racism a public health crisis. He said the county has an obligation to use its influence to ensure an equitable quality of life for all residents.

If elected, Johnson said he plans to create an office of violence prevention, elevating that role to a senior leadership position the way Thurmond has done with water and sewer. Johnson wants to see the county take a more aggressive, intergenerational approach to stemming violence, starting with increasing job opportunities for youth.

Growing up on the southside of Chicago during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, Johnson said he saw how his life could have gone in a different direction. His dad and other family members battled with addiction, and trying to understand them better led Johnson to become a substance abuse counselor in college.

He felt a lot of shame around the drug use in his family, something his grandmother helped him overcome. She always showed love for her children, he said, even when they treated her poorly because of their addictions.

“She said all birds got to come down,” he told a group of men at the DeKalb Open Opportunities for Recovery group. “No matter how high you think you’re going to get, you’ve got to come down and connect with people. I’ve never forgotten that’s how we move forward.”

Charles Sperling, who founded the nonprofit that runs the DOOR group, said Johnson has been a real advocate for the often stigmatized recovery community. The empathy he’s shown is a rare thing.

“The commissioner has been a friend of ours from day one,” Sperling said.

Larry Johnson, a candidate for DeKalb CEO, is seen at Talk of the Town restaurant in Decatur on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Owner Val Price-Littleton is a supporter. (Arvin Temkar /


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Johnson believes his experience as president of the National Association of Counties will help him as CEO. The role connected him with elected officials across the country at the local, state and national level, giving him a wealth of contacts to turn to for help and advice.

He also has the backing of former State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, State Sen. Gloria Butler and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, among others.

Johnson outraised Cochran-Johnson but his fundraising has lagged behind Bradshaw’s, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Johnson reported raising $216,206 through the end of January and had $175,035 on hand. Bradshaw raised $292,487 and Cochran-Johnson raised $118,556.

His ability to stay calm in the middle of a storm will serve DeKalb well, Johnson said.

“I can connect the dots in DeKalb,” he said.