Torpy at Large: When activists eye a prize they once despised

DeKalb do-gooder gets Statehouse seat, but Cobb crusader must take another crack at it

Government has increasingly been held in low regard in recent years. Often with good reason.

And public officials are left shooing away like gnats the constant stream of self-appointed do-gooders, watchdogs and gadflies who sit in the front rows at public meetings and point out the failings, doublespeak and inconsistencies of those in power.

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Sometimes, those reform-minded folks get the bug and decide they can do more on the inside than they can looking in. So they run for office.

Two of metro Atlanta’s most ardent public reformers gave it a shot this time around. They had different results.

First, there’s Viola Davis, who maybe can take the “Unhappy” out of her repertoire.

Davis is a dogged DeKalb County activist and vocal outsider who has long headed the group Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter (yes, it is singular). But now, she will be an insider, having defeated state Rep. Earnest “Coach” Williams in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Davis has been a fixture at County Commission meetings and other governmental events in DeKalb since at least 2003, when the county cited her for posting a banner outside her home stating her dissatisfaction: Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter, it said.

It turns out there were lots more taxpayers and voters who shared her sentiment and they coalesced around her. Members of the group have had a front seat at the ongoing horror show that has been DeKalb government.

A few miles northwest is Tom Cheek, a man who has worn out Cobb County officials on spending and transparency issues. He also got the political bug this year.

In 2012, Cheek’s son died in a fire. Later, he successfully pushed Cobb to overhaul the medical examiner’s office because he felt it botched the investigation.

Cobb County activist Tom Cheek during an ethics board hearing in Marietta on November 20, 2014. 

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Two years later, then-Commission Chairman Tim Lee announced that he, through top-secret negotiations with the Atlanta Braves, had managed to bring the team to Cobb. The plan was to spend nearly $400 million in taxpayer money to help build a ballpark for the team.

While most everyone thinks baseball is grand, many residents were unenthused that public money was being showered on Liberty Media, a company worth billions. Others didn’t like the rushed, secretive manner in which it all went down.

Cheek, who works in the computer field, became the face of the opposition, coming to meetings arrayed with facts, figures and criticisms. Lee's squad hit back hard, calling the mild-mannered critic malicious, vendetta-driven, bitter, a demagogue, hidden-agenda-oriented, disingenuous, desperate and petty.

I'd wager that Cheek with his slingshot was the person most responsible for regime change during Cobb's 2016 elections, crystallizing the arguments that turned Chairman Lee into ex-Chairman Lee.

Tim Lee (right) shakes hands with his lawyer Ben Mathis after an ethics complaint case against Lee was dismissed during a hearing in November 2014. Cobb County resident Tom Cheek filed the complaint against Lee, who was County Commission chairman at the time. 

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This year, Cheek, after watching Cobb fall into a deficit, decided to run against Commissioner Joann Birrell, one of Lee's acolytes on the board. Cheek cast himself as a sensible conservative outsider who was needed to keep the county from running into the ditch.

However, it was no longer 2016 and Cobb voters had already gotten their pound of flesh from Lee’s rear end.

Besides, no one was really that mad at Commission Birrell. She is liked by the Chamber of Commerce types who write campaign checks, never says anything too stupid, and is largely seen — by friends and foes alike — as a “nice lady.”

Beating the taciturn, sour Lee was one thing. Defeating a Nice Lady who smiles and cuts ribbons is another.

Cheek lost in the Republican primary 58 to 42 percent.

Viola Davis with her DeKalb County water bill for $503.57, demanding answers along with other local residents about excessively high water bills during a town hall meeting on Nov. 10, 2016, in Decatur. 

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Viola Davis, who is an Army veteran and a nurse, said she made a “last-minute decision” to run this year because Rep. Williams, after several requests, failed to file a bill concerning medical errors.

“It’s not the best way to make a decision, but I was just fed up,” she recalls. “I said, ‘If you don’t file this, I’m going to run against you.’”

He didn’t, so she did.

I’ve known Davis for years, and it’s amazing the amount of time and effort she can pour into her obsession. She has obtained tens of thousands of pages of public records through open records requests, and thousands more from discouraged and angry public employees who don’t like what’s going on. Then she works to get the word out.

In essence, she likes to turn over rocks and watch the creatures run for cover.

Now, people weren’t especially mad at Coach Williams. The retired educator is himself a friendly enough fellow. It’s just DeKalb voters were a bit testy this time around. Rep. Howard Mosby, the head of the DeKalb delegation, got beat 2-1, and veteran state Sen. Steve Henson survived by a hair.

Davis attributes her victory to name recognition. She ran unsuccessfully for office three times in the 2000s and has carved out an image for herself speaking truth to power at commission meetings. Somehow, it was like she was an incumbent.

(Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have the same name as one of America’s greatest actresses — the one with an Oscar, two Tonys and an Emmy, the latter for knowing “How to Get Away With Murder.”)

Viola Davis addresses members of the DeKalb County School District Board on February 11, 2013. JOHNNY CRAWFORD / AJC FILE

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The incoming legislator says she doesn’t worry about being co-opted by becoming state Rep. Viola Davis.

"I am an outsider," she said. "I want to set a new standard."

Ethics and transparency are her two main issues. Being a Democrat at the GOP-controlled Capitol will make it harder. But it hasn’t stopped her before.

Meanwhile, Cheek thought he’d wake up smarting the next morning because of his defeat.

Instead, he was thinking about the new Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce, the guy Cheek pushed hard for in 2016 when he defeated Tim Lee. Boyce had reportedly just appeared in front of chamber types practicing how to field questions for upcoming town hall meetings that will address the county budget.

It looks like Boyce is going to have to ask for a tax increase. And Cheek most likely is going to speak against that.

“The lesson I’ve learned from all this,” he said, “is I gotta keep plugging away.”