Jabari Simama returns to role in DeKalb

Sixteen years ago today, Jabari Simama was two weeks away from a devastating failure.

For 42 years, he’d flown ever higher above his humble roots in a home without an indoor toilet. He was first in his family to go to college, let alone to earn a doctorate; he was running a cable TV operation by age 29, and, in 1987, he won election to the Atlanta City Council.

During a well-publicized six-year stint at City Hall, Simama campaigned for ethics reform and extracted concessions from contractors for a jobs program. He also squeezed money from the Georgia Dome to spur development in his district west of downtown. He enjoyed a reputation as a young progressive, and he thought the momentum would carry him to the council presidency.

But for the first time in his life, he says, he didn’t get something that he worked for and wanted badly. The loss of that 1993 election ended his political career.

“When you lose something you want for the first time,” Simama said recently, “it can be devastating.”

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Today, Simama, 58, is back in power, though he’s a power behind the curtain. DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis recently tapped him to run a big swath of county government. Simama’s title is deputy chief operating officer over development, and he is in charge of several agencies that focus on economic growth, construction and job creation. During this recession, few positions could have as much influence on the future quality of life for residents in and around DeKalb.

After his loss in city politics, Simama, who has a doctorate in political science and history from Emory University, returned to the academic fold. He taught about race and the Internet at Georgia Tech until politics pulled him back to the city. In 1997, he helped Bill Campbell, an old ally at City Hall, win re-election as mayor. Campbell then hired him as the city’s director of marketing and communications. A couple of years later, Campbell put him in charge of an $8.1 million technology initiative. The program, which was funded through a franchise agreement, taught residents to use computers while giving them access to the Internet. Simama remained in the job after Shirley Franklin became mayor, but eventually he moved to South Carolina to work as vice president of community development for Benedict College.

Simama says that experience — he managed public relations and new construction projects — plus his time at City Hall prepared him for his new role. It’s a crucial moment. Foreclosures are eroding neighborhoods, and construction sites are sitting idle.

Meanwhile, the county is overhauling its zoning code to embrace a new, pedestrian-centric concept of growth. Simama says his goal is to make DeKalb “more development-friendly” while helping the disenfranchised.

His father washed cars for a living, and his mother was a domestic and a hospital clerk. They lived in a home without plumbing and then a public housing project, and only one of his seven siblings made it through college, he says. “I think about it all the time because the people I try to help are people like many people in my family.”

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