Steve Bradshaw’s objective: Become DeKalb’s next CEO

Steve Bradshaw, District 4 Commissioner, gives a speech thanking his supporters at a campaign event at Petit Violette in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Steve Bradshaw, District 4 Commissioner, gives a speech thanking his supporters at a campaign event at Petit Violette in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Steve Bradshaw has a print-out of the U.S. armed forces’ principles of war taped to his desk.

The nine tenets were drilled into him as a young Army officer. The DeKalb commissioner is far removed from the Middle East battlefields where he was once deployed, but he still keeps the list close by because it helps him focus on what’s important.

Objective? “Everything flows from whatever your objective is. That’s your start point.”

Unity of command? “At the end of the day, the buck stops in one place.”

Simplicity? “People can tend to overcomplicate things unnecessarily.”

Bradshaw is one of three candidates jockeying to replace a term-limited Michael Thurmond as DeKalb County’s next chief executive officer. If elected — Bradshaw says when — he plans to have the principles embroidered so he can hang it prominently in his new office.

“At the end of the day it’s what I am at my core,” he said. “I was trained to be a soldier and that’s just a big part of how I operate and who I am.”

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Bradshaw, 61, was the first candidate to declare his intent to run for CEO, and faces a challenge from fellow commissioners Lorraine Cochran-Johnson and Larry Johnson. No Republicans filed to run, so the May primary will effectively decide Thurmond’s replacement.

Anger motivated Bradshaw’s first run for office in 2012, the same year a special purpose grand jury recommended indictments against former county CEO Burrell Ellis. The headlines about DeKalb were “constant and horrible” and Bradshaw thought he could do better.

Bradshaw lost his first race to the incumbent, but bested her in a runoff landslide four years later. At the time, he said his election marked the start of a new chapter in DeKalb.

As he wraps up his second term representing central DeKalb’s District 4, Bradshaw is no longer angry. He’s proud of where the county is today.

It started, Bradshaw said, with one of the first votes he cast, breaking a tie in support of Thurmond’s proposed budget that eliminated deficit spending and shored up the county’s rainy-day fund.

“I don’t know if people have a full appreciation of how close we were to heading off a cliff,” he said. “That’s a bit hyperbolic, but not too much.”

That first budget set the stage for the county’s present fiscal stability, Bradshaw said, but there’s still more work to be done. In particular, he thinks some of the county’s basic services have been neglected. Improving customer service is one of the first things Bradshaw said he’d tackle.

“People can talk about big fancy visions, and I’m a big believer in vision,” he said. “But you’ve got to be able to execute the basics … and we have some work to do on that front.”

He’s also proud of how the county handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bradshaw served as presiding officer in 2020 and 2021, and said he thinks he was meant to lead the board through that crisis. The pandemic exposed needs throughout the county and emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships. He used some of his district’s federal relief funds to support nonprofits offering housing and food assistance.

That was how he met Lorna Loh, the executive director of the Wade Walker YMCA in Stone Mountain. He showed up during one of the YMCA’s first food distributions, when a line of cars snaked down Rockbridge Road. Loh said she apologized to him for the traffic jam but Bradshaw told her he was grateful they were meeting a need. Funding from his office has since allowed the YMCA to create a permanent food pantry.

“We wouldn’t have this if not for him,” she said. “He saved the program.”

Bradshaw was born in North Carolina but grew up in Savannah and spent a lot of time with his grandfathers, both pastors. They’d bring him to deacon meetings and tell him to sit quietly, and Bradshaw said he learned a lot watching how they led.

He followed his father’s footsteps into the military. Bradshaw keeps a framed copy of his dad’s Naval class photo above his desk and likes to ask visitors to guess who he is. It’s easy: There is only one Black man in a sea of graduates.

“I don’t know what my father went through as the only Black person, and I don’t know how many other Black people started in that class,” Bradshaw said. “But he was there at the end and he got through it, and I admire that tremendously.”

Bradshaw was commissioned as an Army officer in 1986. He trained as a tank officer and was sent first to Germany.

Then, he deployed to the Middle East during the first Persian Gulf War. When he returned home, he found all of the letters he’d sent his wife, Diane. She’d saved each one, a collection that he published on the 20th anniversary of the war’s start.

The couple moved to DeKalb County after he left the Army, and Bradshaw pursued jobs in the private sector. He also taught classes on leadership as an adjunct professor at Georgia State University.

In corporate life, Bradshaw came to appreciate the benefits of under-promising and overdelivering, a lesson he said has served him well in politics.

“I try to be straight with people and manage their expectations properly,” he said.

Bradshaw said he wants to build relationships with each commissioner, not just with the four “yes” votes a CEO needs. He plans to meet regularly with them, similar to how he’s met with the mayors of cities in his district. He also wants to include commissioners more closely in the budget process.

Steve Bradshaw, District 4 Commissioner, blows out birthday candles at his campaign event at Petit Violette in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

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Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

For his birthday in mid-April, Bradshaw held a “countdown to victory” celebration. He is confident his message and record will resonate with voters, and he has the backing of many elected officials throughout DeKalb, including District Attorney Sherry Boston and Sheriff Melody Maddox, as well as the mayors of several DeKalb cities.

He has also outraised both opponents, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. He reported $292,487 through the end of January and had $190,317 on hand.

“The person occupying that seat is going to be severely tested, and I think I have the wherewithal to pass that test,” Bradshaw said.