Opinion: When power changes hands – not just in D.C., but in Cobb and Gwinnett, too

Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce (left) and District 4 Commissioner Lisa Cupid faced off during a debate Wednesday, just days after the start of early voting. AJC FILE PHOTOS
Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce (left) and District 4 Commissioner Lisa Cupid faced off during a debate Wednesday, just days after the start of early voting. AJC FILE PHOTOS

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

In the last few days, you’ve heard quite a bit about a certain individual who has refused to accept the outcome of an election, and so has made it more difficult for the victor to begin the complicated process of taking command of the largest part of the U.S. government.

The situation is not yet serious, but could become so.

But there are also important handoffs happening closer to home, and they bear watching, too. On the first Tuesday of this month, voters approved significant shifts of power in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Both are economic powerhouses.

The top leaders in both counties are currently white and Republican. Come January, they will be Black and Democrat. On Nov. 3, Nicole Love Hendrickson defeated Republican David Post, 58% to 42%, for the chairmanship of the Gwinnett County Commission. (Incumbent Charlotte Nash declined a bid for re-election.)

In Cobb, Democrat Lisa Cupid, already representing the southwest portion of the county on the commission, defeated incumbent Chairman Mike Boyce, 53% to 47%. All members of the next Cobb County Commission will be women. Democrats will hold the majority.

Because Cupid defeated an incumbent, the situation in Cobb is probably more sensitive.

But Boyce has not barricaded himself inside his Marietta office. “I came from the military. We always had a change of command. That’s how I see this — no different,” Boyce told me. “She knows very well that she only has to ask, and I’ll be there as much as I can.”

The two have yet to have their first post-election one-on-one.

“Leading up to this election hasn’t been easy for either one of us. We both serve on the board together,” Cupid said. “I’m glad he’s taken that approach. We haven’t sat down to think about what a transition would look like yet, but he’s laid a foundation for it to be positive.”

This is the unfolding of the future of metro Atlanta. Like the city of Atlanta and many smaller municipalities, the counties of Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb, Rockdale, Clayton, Douglas and Henry will all be led by people of color next year.

And so we have witnessed many of these transitions before. Not all have come off cleanly. Call it “the deep state” if you must, but institutional bureaucratic knowledge — the key to effectiveness in local government — is something to be respected. Not revered, not worshipped, but respected.

DeKalb County is the cautionary tale. Some 18 months ago, CEO Michael Thurmond analyzed his county’s missteps in a piece for The Journal-Constitution.

“Black voting power mushroomed, and a racially charged power struggle erupted over control of the county government. Hanging in the balance were the spoils of political power — influence, jobs and contracts,” Thurmond wrote.

Disaffected county employees headed for the exits.

“Mass turnover exposed the absence of a discreet but critical fail-safe. Written standard operating procedures were all but nonexistent. Dekalb had emerged as an urbanized juggernaut, but county departments were mired in post-World War II operational mindsets,” he wrote.

But Cobb and Gwinnett counties are not DeKalb.

Keith Mason’s political career stretches back decades. He was Gov. Zell Miller’s chief of staff, and now serves as an informal adviser to a rising Democratic party in his native Gwinnett County.

“Gwinnett County is a diverse county. It’s not like DeKalb County. It’s not like Clayton County. It has historically built on its diversity as a strength,” Mason said. “The only thing new is that its public leadership is not white.”

The same can be said of Cobb. Numbers do make a difference. Black residents make up 54% of DeKalb County’s population. In Clayton County, the figure is 68%. Those kinds of numbers can be demographic mandates.

But to Mason’s point, in Gwinnett, no demographic group constitutes a majority of the population. In Cobb, the population is 56% white and roughly 30% Black.

If anything, the political futures of Cobb and Gwinnett may be headed in the same direction as the city of Atlanta. Biracial or multi-racial coalitions could determine who wins and who loses elections.

Another advantage Cobb and Gwinnett have: Both Cupid and Hendrickson are experienced participants in the governments they’re about to head up. And neither will be replacing a political ideologue. Both Boyce and Nash have been pragmatic leaders who have distanced themselves from the extremes of Republican politics.

Pragmatism and bureaucratic continuity aren’t the only secrets to a successful hand-off. “The real challenge is going to be getting the civic and business community to support the new leadership of county officials — keeping that unity of purpose,” Mason said. “The business community of metro Atlanta has to adapt.”

Late last month, Georgia Power — the most powerful corporate player in the state — named a new chief executive who will take over next year. Chris Womack will be the first Black person to hold the top post in the company’s century-long history.

Mason called that “a good sign”— evidence that a major corporate player is setting an example that others are likely to follow.

Cupid agreed. “The business community has to come to terms with leaders of color — they need to be comfortable,” she said. “I think that’s a very real conversation that needs to be had.”

In Cobb, Cupid said, she’d like to see more minorities become part of the county’s business leadership. “It will take patience. We all have nuances,” she said.

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