Why DeKalb’s CEO chose to skip the Senate race and run for re-election

Plain old political calculus surely played a role, too.

But Michael Thurmond says a sewer spill and some sage advice helped cement his decision not to run for U.S. Senate and to instead seek another term as DeKalb County CEO.

Thurmond, 67, announced his intentions Thursday, a few days shy of next week’s formal qualifying period. He had been mulling a run for the Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Kelly Loeffler — a prospect that likely lost some appeal when Rev. Raphael Warnock, the prominent pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, jumped in on the Democratic side of things.

In the end, though, Thurmond said he just felt called to stay in DeKalb. The 9.2-million-gallon sewer spill that the county reported earlier in the week — the largest in more than a decade — was another pungent reminder that there’s still plenty of work ahead.

“I want to fix stuff. That’s my thing,” Thurmond said. “I want to see streets paved, and I want to see water bills go out more accurately, and I want to see sewer water stay in the pipes.”

Previous iterations of Thurmond's career have included stints as a state lawmaker, labor commissioner and the superintendent of DeKalb County schools. He took over as DeKalb's chief executive in Jan. 2017, inheriting a county government swallowed for decades by corruption and mismanagement.

Thurmond’s tenure has hardly been free of drama. There have been allegations of wrongdoing in the county’s Department of Watershed Management, as well as in its purchasing and contracting office. Long-standing water billing and sewer system issues remain works in progress.

Thurmond, though, hasn’t been afraid to tackle unsexy issues like infrastructure. And he has a reputation for steadying the ship.

He recently got a unanimous commission vote on his proposed county budget — a rare feat in DeKalb.

“He’s gonna deal with the issues head on,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson, who has been in office since 2002. “He’s not one of those leaders that’s gonna duck and dodge and do the rope-a-dope.”

John Jackson, chair of the DeKalb Democratic Party, said he doubts there will be any serious challengers to Thurmond’s re-election push.

“Like every CEO there’s going to be some issues,” Jackson said. “But I think overall DeKalb County seems to be pretty confident in him.”

Thurmond is confident in himself too. He said his influence has helped other folks in DeKalb see the power of working together, and that he wants to stick around to “institutionalize” the progress that has been made.

His decision to pursue re-election was about finishing the job, he said. Conversations with a triumvirate of former senators didn’t hurt either.

Thurmond said he discussed his 2020 decision with Sam Nunn, Saxby Chambliss and Joe Lieberman (whose son, Matt, remains in the race for the Loeffler-held seat).

Thurmond considers all of the former senators to be friends and said each of them told him the same thing: “If you’re really interested in getting things done and helping people, the United States Senate may not be the place you want to be.”

DeKalb County elections

The CEO position is just one of several high-profile DeKalb County offices that will appear on ballots this year. Others include:

  • Commission District 1 (currently held by Nancy Jester)
  • Commission District 4 (currently held by Steve Bradshaw)
  • Commission District 5 (currently held by Mereda Davis Johnson)
  • Commission District 6 (currently held by Kathie Gannon, who is retiring)
  • Sheriff (special election and regular election)
  • District attorney
  • Tax commissioner
  • Solicitor
  • Several judge positions