Loud and clear, DeKalb County voters spoke Tuesday, voting overwhelmingly to boot Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton from office to make way for a candidate who campaigned on the promise of clean government.
Steve Bradshaw, a business development manager and Army veteran, defeated Sutton in a 3-to-1 landslide in the Democratic Party runoff election.
In a county government beset by corruption allegations, Bradshaw said voters rejected divisive politics and unresponsive representation. Bradshaw said he’ll join the “next generation of leadership,” along with DeKalb CEO candidate Mike Thurmond and incoming District Attorney Sherry Boston.
“We have a new chapter in DeKalb,” Bradshaw said in an interview. “The people can get ready for better governance. I kept my campaign positive, and I think people responded to that.”
In a heavily Democratic district, Bradshaw will be the favorite in the November general election against Republican Willie Willis.
As his supporters chanted “Steve, Steve, Steve,” Bradshaw said the Stone Mountain-area district he’ll represent had enough of Sutton. She faced numerous allegations of unethical behavior. Some questioned the tactics she employed during her campaign after she sent a campaign flier comparing Bradshaw to a house slave.
“The dragon has been slayed tonight,” Bradshaw said in his victory speech at Village Corner German Restaurant in Stone Mountain. “My opponent took it low. She debased herself. … We kept it high.”
Sutton, who was first elected to the commission in 2008, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
His election could have a far-reaching impact on the DeKalb Commission. In the past, the commission has split on key votes into factions representing the northern and southern halves of the county. Those divides showed through on votes to build a soccer stadium, pass a county budget and build an animal shelter.
Bradshaw said he will work with all commissioners in an effort to unify the county.
“You know what you’re getting with Steve Bradshaw,” said Jana Johnson, who worked on his campaign. “Steve is not only going to be a commissioner for District 4. Steve is going to be the commissioner for DeKalb County.”
Some of those casting votes Tuesday said he could help overhaul DeKalb’s troubled government.
“It’s time for a change. Let’s get some new blood in there,” said Earnest Killum. “They need to focus on the citizens more than personal agendas.”
Many said they didn’t trust Sutton as she faced repeated allegations of wrongdoing.
“Honesty and integrity — that was very important to me,” said Trish Huguley. “I don’t like seeing people on the news for doing something wrong.”
Pending ethics complaints accuse Sutton of misspending government money, paying her boyfriend for consulting services and her personal attorney for advice, and buying a portrait of President Barack Obama at a charity auction. She also allegedly used county employees at a political fundraising event and received free YMCA memberships.
Sutton has said all her spending and actions were appropriate. A judge put the ethics cases on hold after Sutton sued the DeKalb Board of Ethics, saying it’s operating unconstitutionally because members are appointed by private organizations.
Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who supported Bradshaw’s campaign, said he will change how DeKalb’s government does business.
“There’s been a void that has been occupied by someone who has not been doing her job,” Gannon said. “That’s a very huge difference, to have someone step in there and listen to the people of the Fourth District.”
When the new term starts in January, more than half of the DeKalb Commission will have been replaced in the last two years. If Bradshaw wins the general election, he’ll join newcomers Nancy Jester and Mereda Davis Johnson on the board, along with one of eight candidates running for District 7, which covers the eastern half of the county.
The last time a county commissioner lost a contested race in DeKalb was in 1992, when Elaine Boyer defeated Jean Williams. Boyer didn’t leave until she pleaded guilty to defrauding taxpayers and taking kickbacks, resulting in a one-year federal prison sentence.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.