Michael Thurmond’s biggest challenge won’t be with DeKalb voters

As a government reformer launches a bid to become county CEO, state lawmakers threaten to eliminate the job altogether
Michael Thurmond and his daughter

Max Blau

A few minutes before noon on Saturday, about 100 DeKalb County residents packed into a nondescript reception room in the Comfort Suites just off I-285 in Tucker. Underneath red, white, and blue balloons, residents made small talk and nibbled on cheese cubes as “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang blared over the PA system. The ’70s tunes eventually gave way to children chanting the phrase “I Like Mike.” Michael Thurmond then took to the stage, grabbed the microphone, and formally kicked off his campaign for DeKalb CEO.

“There are those who have written us off, there are those who say we will never come back, there are those who say the government can never be repaired, there are those tell us to give up and move away,” Thurmond said. “But if [preacher] T.D. Jakes were here, he would say: ‘The devil is…’”

“A LIAR,” the crowd shouted back.

The job Thurmond now seeks is one that would require him to rebuild trust in a county plagued with corruption. The past year has seen former officials such as CEO Burrell Ellis, Commissioner Elaine Boyer, and Zoning Board of Appeals member Jerry Clark all bundled off to jail. Interim CEO Lee May, who hired investigators Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde last March to conduct an open-ended investigation, dismissed them five months later—after which they famously slammed the county government as “rotten to the core.” DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James is still considering potential indictments following a lengthy federal investigation.

While residents have grown wary of their broken government—a sentiment that’s helped fuel the cityhood movement—Thurmond insists he’s equipped to lead DeKalb’s comeback. He has spent most of the past three decades in public service: six years in the Georgia Senate, three as head of the Division of Family and Children Services, and 12 as state labor commissioner. After an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in 2010, he became known as “Mr. Fixit” for helping DeKalb County Schools right ship after the system nearly lost its accreditation. When May bowed out of the CEO race this month, Thurmond became the presumptive frontrunner for the job.

However, Thurmond’s biggest challenge won’t be convincing voters. It’ll be stopping state lawmakers from abolishing the CEO position. State Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, has proposed restructuring the government with an elected county chairman, an appointed county manager, and eight commissioners. His plan would go into effect in 2021. State Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican, has filed a similar measure that would include one less commission seat and begin in 2019. There is also a third effort to establish a commission to study both governance models.

“I think the world of Michael,” Millar told us. “If I was a Democrat, I’d vote for him.” But Millar believes the problem lies with the principle of giving too much power to a single individual. The CEO position was born in 1985 in part to give then-chairman Manuel Maloof more authority. While DeKalb thrived under Maloof’s leadership, the things haven’t gone so well after he left office in 1992.

“We created this position for a benevolent despot and that’s fine,” Millar says. “You don’t create a position for one person. You want to create a structure that makes sense in the long-term. We didn’t [change it] before. Shame on us if we do [nothing] again.”

Though he concedes his bill is “not a panacea,” Millar says it’s far better than the current system. Even if lawmakers approve the measure and residents vote for it in November, Thurmond or an opponent would still get a shot to turn things around until 2019. At that point, the CEO could run for chairman to continue those reforms. If his bill moves forward, Holcomb says, the effort to distribute power among more officials would help get DeKalb back on track. The creation of a county manager position would create a check-and-balance that would instill much-needed accountability for elected officials, he said.

“We’re moving responsibilities around in a way that I think will better serve the county,” Holcomb said. “Mike has a good reputation of coming in to fix things. What I’m proposing, in some ways, goes hand in glove with his ability to make change. I don’t see them as being at odds.”

What does Thurmond think of the efforts to do away with the job he’s campaigning for? You guessed it: He’s not a fan. After his stump speech, Thurmond called for a “more holistic” review of the county charter. More importantly, he says, DeKalb needs reform now rather than in two or four years. From where he stands, waiting is not an option, even if he winds up out of a job earlier than expected.

“The problem may or may not be the CEO’s position.” Thurmond said. “But either way, if I’m elected, I’m going to work until someone tells me we’ve created a new form of government. These challenges can’t wait.”