The campaign to lead DeKalb County out of a period marked by scandal and divisiveness gained momentum Tuesday when former schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond announced he’s running for the CEO job.
The two other declared candidates — former DeKalb Commissioner Connie Stokes and retired MARTA employee Calvin Sims — welcomed Thurmond to the race, with all three focusing their messages on clean government.
DeKalb’s next CEO will set the course for a county in need of stability after criminal convictions of numerous leaders, investigations of corruption and lackluster business growth. Interim CEO Lee May isn’t running for office, and suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis is imprisoned after a jury found him guilty of attempted extortion and perjury.
The CEO is responsible for running the executive branch of Georgia’s fourth-largest county, which has more than 6,000 government employees and a $1.3 billion annual budget. The job pays a $153,000 salary.
The May 24 primary election could decide the race. All three candidates are Democrats, and so far no Republicans have entered the field. The general election is Nov. 8.
Thurmond, an attorney and former state labor commissioner, said his experience repairing DeKalb’s school system prepared him to become the county’s chief executive.
“We’re in the midst of a major crisis in the county,” said Thurmond. “We’re suffering from a lack of trust, as well as major concerns about efficiency.”
Thurmond was hired as DeKalb’s superintendent in February 2013 as the county school system was put on probation amid slumping test scores and budget mismanagement. When Thurmond’s contract ended in June, the school board hired Superintendent Steve Green. The system’s accreditation was fully restored this month.
Thurmond previously served as a Democratic member of the Georgia House of Representatives from 1987 to 1992, and he was elected Georgia Labor Commissioner in 1998.
Stokes said her work on the county commission and in the state Senate has prepared her for the CEO’s position.
“We need someone to come in and get DeKalb County back on track,” said Stokes, the Democratic Party’s 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor. “Our big agenda items are to decrease crime and have open and honest government.”
Sims, who previously has unsuccessfully campaigned for county CEO and commission seats, said he’s the most ethical candidate for the job.
“Corruption places a stigma on our county, and businesses aren’t interested in investing money in a county where there’s corruption,” said Sims, who would require ethics training for all county employees.
May has served as DeKalb’s chief executive since Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him in July 2013 to replace Ellis, who was elected to a four-year term in 2012.
May announced this month he won’t seek election, and he praised Thurmond’s leadership style.
“He doesn’t get too high or too low. He’s cool in a time of intense pressure,” said May, who plans to pursue a career in ministry. “He works tremendously to bring people together, to work collaboratively. I think DeKalb County needs that more than ever.”
Jennifer Young, president of DeKalb Young Democrats, said residents are hoping that whoever wins the race will change the county’s direction.
She said DeKalb needs a CEO who can ensure the county’s government works with its school system and other agencies.
“The CEO race here in DeKalb is important. We’re heading to a direction of change and progress, and the CEO will be at the forefront of that change,” she said. “Our next CEO has a lot of work to do to set us on the right path.”
More candidates could still join the race. Qualifying to run for CEO and other local offices will be held March 7-11.
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