Commissioners stay in power despite Fulton’s perceived troubles

For decades, critics have complained that Fulton County government spends too much and listens too little. Botched elections, jail overcrowding and other controversies have fueled the perception that Fulton is dysfunctional.

Despite the county’s problems, county commissioners seldom pay a price at the polls.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of nearly 40 years of election results shows that incumbent Fulton County commissioners rarely face an election challenge and are defeated even less. It’s been 27 years since voters rejected an incumbent seeking re-election to the same commission seat.

Since 1986, 13 incumbent commissioners have sought re-election a combined 32 times and never lost. By comparison, voters in Gwinnett – Georgia’s second-largest county – have sent seven incumbent commissioners packing since then.

Critics say some current Fulton commissioners have overstayed their welcome and contribute to the polarizing politics that have divided north from south, black from white and Republican from Democrat.

“I moved here from Kentucky about 12 years ago,” said Johns Creek resident David Eads. “I thought Kentucky politics were crazy. But I had no idea how bad it could get.”

Commissioners and their supporters say Fulton is not dysfunctional. They say their longevity in office and the lack of competition – current members have drawn a challenger in only a third of their re-election campaigns – is evidence that their constituents think they’re doing a fine job.

“The only reason I haven’t had opposition is that people in my district believe that I at least try,” said Commissioner Emma Darnell, a west Atlanta Democrat.

Dysfunctional or not, the commission’s stability may come to an end next year, when all seven members are up for election. Redrawn commission districts awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature would pit two incumbents against each and create two districts where no incumbents live.

That means a commission with a combined 91 years of service could see its most significant turnover in a generation.

The Board of Commissioners oversees a $572 million budget and 5,500 employees serving nearly 980,000 residents. The county stretches more than 70 miles from Palmetto to Milton, and the demographic and political differences between the largely African American south and the mostly white north have long made for combustible politics.

North Fulton residents have complained the county spends too much and they benefit too little. More recently, long election lines, questionable tax lien sales, and lawsuits over jail overcrowding and job discrimination have sullied the county’s reputation.

Sometimes commissioners fuel the perception of dysfunction.

Last year, Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann accused Darnell of being disrespectful of her and her north Fulton district. And in December Republican Tom Lowe forced Eaves to reschedule a key vote on replacing faulty jail locks because he was tardy.

What some see as dysfunction others call legitimate disagreements about important policy issues.

“On 95 percent of the things on our agenda, we vote without issue,” said Commissioner Bill Edwards, who represents south Fulton. “It’s just that those things that are volatile are played out that way.”

Others disagree.

“It’s unfortunate that there is negative rhetoric that comes from the Board of Commissioners regularly,” Hausmann said. “I would really like it if that kind of conversation would stop.”

Since 1975, many commissioners have decided not to seek re-election or have given up their seats to run for other offices. But only five of the 30 people who have held the job during that time have been turned out by voters.

The last time incumbents lost an election was in 1986, when longtime Commissioner Milton Farris lost to Martin Luther King III and Michael Hightower ousted incumbent Bruce Bannister. Voters turned out three other incumbents in 1978. More incumbent Fulton commissioners have resigned in the middle of their term or died in office than have been beaten during a re-election bid over the last 39 years, the AJC found.

Incumbent commissioners are seldom opposed.

Darnell, elected in 1992, has not drawn an opponent in any of her five re-election campaigns. Lowe, elected in 1974, has run for re-election nine times and drawn opponents only three times. Like Darnell, Lowe said he usually runs unopposed because his constituents think he’s doing a good job.

At age 84, he’s considering whether to seek an 11th term next year.

“I see no reason why I won’t live another 10 years,” Lowe said. “I’m very active.”

Incumbents enjoy powerful advantages – including name recognition and ample financial support – in any elected office. But political observers say other factors make it tough to unseat a Fulton incumbent.

Brad Carver, vice chairman of the Fulton County Republican Party, said the federal Voting Rights Act – which protects minority voters from discrimination– makes it harder to oust incumbents of both parties. He said lawmakers draw commission districts to concentrate minority voting power to comply with the law.

That creates safe Democratic districts because African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic. But it also creates safe Republican districts by concentrating white voters in other districts, Carver said.

“There’s little chance of an incumbent facing a serious challenge,” he said.

Safe districts tend to bring out the extremes in both parties, which can make for more partisan clashes, according to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

“To the right or to the left, you can stake out those kind of (extreme) positions and you don’t have to worry about still being elected,” Bullock said.

That dynamic may have contributed to a bitter debate over Fulton County government during this year’s legislative session.

Local Republicans pushed a series of bills through the General Assembly they say will reform county government. Among them: the redistricting plan and proposals that will make it easier to fire employees and harder for commissioners to raise property taxes.

Republicans say the moves will force Fulton to make hard choices about spending priorities. Edwards and other Democrats called the moves a racist power play.

That troubles Eads, the Johns Creek resident. He doesn’t think anyone in north Fulton sees the issue as black vs. white. He thinks the Democrats are grandstanding and seem hostile to north Fulton concerns.

“It’s not helpful,” Eads said. “They ought to be asking, why there is so much resistance to county government?”

South Fulton resident Benny Crane, who lives in Edwards’ district, said he likes his commissioner’s passion.

“He’s a very strong advocate,” Crane said. “He may be too strong for some people’s appetite.”

Eaves said Fulton County is well-run, despite critics’ perceptions. “People who are loved by the constituents in their district to the chagrin of people outside the district.”

Democrats say it’s no accident that the proposed redistricting plan targets Darnell and Edwards – two longtime Republican antagonists. Under the plan, they would both live in what is currently Edwards’ district, while Darnell’s district would be vacant. In addition, the plan would eliminate the at-large seat held by Democratic Robb Pitts and create a new vacant district in solidly Republican north Fulton.

Republicans say the plan will ensure north Fulton residents have a full voice in county government. Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said the proposal wasn’t designed to ensure new blood on the commission.

Still, that likely would be the outcome if the plan survives scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice, which, under the Voting Rights Act, reviews elections changes in Georgia and other states with a history of racial discrimination. Unless Deal vetoes the plan, which appears unlikely, the county will submit it to the Justice Department this spring.

Democrats will ask the department to strike it down. If the department rejects the plan, history suggests all seven incumbents would face an easy re-election next year.

“I sure am going to seek re-election,” Darnell said. “There’s so much work to do.”

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