By Dan Lorentz
To help me better understand my new hometown, I asked Emanuel a few basic questions about the landscape of local politics here in Athens.
I’m glad I asked him my questions when I did. In September, Emanuel will mark his fourth—and, it turns out, final—year as city editor for the weekly paper. This fall he will be transitioning out of local journalism and into environmental advocacy and watershed protection.
Q. Every community seems to have a set of durable conflicts that shape local politics. What are the key conflicts in Athens? Who are the major players?
A. Certainly there's the longstanding issue of town-gown relations—both cooperation and conflict—in all its permutations. The multitude of permutations means that town-gown conflict can take shape through any number of issues, from homeowner-renter/student conflict. For example, the single-family zoning issues and the rental registration ordinance, early in Heidi's [Athens-Clarke Co. Mayor Heidi Davison] first term), to conflict over the growth of the university (where did that new parking deck at the intramural fields come from?!).
In the end, of course, all the town-gown stuff basically boils down to economics—pretty paradoxical economics. The smallest county in the state has a lot of state-owned land that's off the tax rolls, although not all the UGA Real Estate Foundation's land is off the rolls, [UGA director of community relations] Pat Allen pointed out to me once. But then again, would Athens even be here if not for UGA?
This economic angle leads straight into a more cultural dimension of the same thing: the resentment that many locals feel toward students, despite the obvious relationship that, for example, [Flagpole Magazine publisher] Pete McCommons hit on in a Pub Notes column at this time of year, two years ago: "This is where Athens gets really strange. It's why we're here, really, as much as the students. You may not personally brighten at the prospect of liquored-up red hordes, but you benefit from them. They bring you money, whether directly or indirectly, and their cash helps keep Athens weird and also reminds us why we want it so."
Another key conflict, while not nearly as old as that one, is growth. In terms of the sprawl angle, this conflict is maybe just a decade or two old, but it's still a defining one—in part because Athens has tried to take a different approach to the issue from the rest of north Georgia.
Of course, "growth" to some means general economic growth, not just land development, so then you get into economic development issues like NBAF [the proposed National Bio- and Agro- Defense Facility] or even the Enron (!) thing several years ago. [Enron thing=the controversy that erupted in 2001 about Athens-Clarke Co.'s efforts to encourage Enron to build and operate a 560 megawatt natural gas power plant in the county.] The major players are: environmental/land use advocates, economic development/Chamber of Commerce folks, local government (on both sides of the equation).
There's also the not-really-all-that-often discussed matrix of race issues, with poverty issues intersecting heavily. There's Athens/Oconee Co. stuff, with so many upper-middle-class Clarke Co. workers living in Oconee.
Let's close for now with the intra-government conflict between Athens-Clarke Co. (ACC) elected officials (and their constituents) and ACC staff. Since, under the ACC charter, the manager's office holds a lot of power and the mayor is basically assigned the task of herding cats on the commission (okay, along with some other things), many people see this as an ongoing friction that's important. It is, but sometimes I think this friction is overstated.
Q. There will be a few major stories about the upcoming 2010 mayoral election in Athens. What will they be? Speculate. [Note: I asked this question just before Spencer Fyre, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Athens, announced he was setting-up an exploratory committee to raise funds for a possible run for mayor.]
A. Well, it'll depend who's running, won't it?
It's fair to say that Charlie Maddox and Nancy Denson appear be trying to line up support very early, but I tend to think there will be at least another fairly serious candidate or two before it's all said and done. Sorry, but at present I don't see either of the college students who are running as serious candidates.
If we assume that there's an additional candidate (or candidates?) on the left end of things, then I think we've got a story along these contours: What's next for the whole general liberal-progressive agenda which has taken hold in Athens over the past decade? The commission has changed character almost completely in 10 years, and while there might be a few seats up for grabs in 2010, outside of District 7 [seat currently held by Commissioner Kathy Hoard] it's hard to see the general bent of the commission changing much.
But it has taken several years (a) for the mayor and commission to fully turn over, and (b) for the body then to find its footing and learn how to advance a progressive agenda in the most efficient ways.
So, I think it's already an open question about where we're headed as a sorta-working-on-progressive city, and it makes sense to me that that concern would be crystallized in the mayor's race. But I'll admit it's my own bias to see that as a big issue.
But there's also economic development. All candidates will have to be thinking about it. A relevant question: What have various folks learned from the NBAF thing?
Just one more issue: charter review. I don't know and can't say how it will come up in the election, but it's supposed to happen soon thereafter, if I understand correctly. Periodic review of the ACC charter is built into the document itself; open questions may well pertain to the form of government here. Could get interesting.
Q. A little history lesson, please. How has the commission changed almost completely in 10 years? What drove the change?
A. In a nutshell, it's just that the mayor and commission, as a body, has shifted toward a strong predominance of liberal-progressive political perspectives. You can see the contrast most starkly in seats like District 5, where David Lynn replaced the late Hugh Logan, and in the mayor's seat, where Heidi replaced Doc Eldridge. Even if most folks around here were called Democrats back then (and Doc was, in case you don't know), they were traditional centrist/conservative "Democrats" (or good old boys, as some would say). I don't want to overstate it—after all, Gwen O'Looney was mayor before Doc, and if Gwen wasn't a break with tradition...
Basically, you now have folks in elected office here who value environmental protection, neighborhood protection, who are socially liberal and who seem to be interested in promoting the kinds of things a progressive city promotes, from bike lanes to partner benefits to vigorous recycling and on down the line. I guess that's fairly obvious to a newcomer, but just remember that we are a smallish Southern town, so—like anywhere—things haven't always been this way!
What drove the change? I don't know—maybe the townies and the liberal profs and their kids all just finally built up enough critical mass to win elections? Maybe certain issues—like land use/ sprawl/ growth—catalyzed political change? I wasn't around back then (er, okay, I technically was around starting in the very late '90s, but I was in college, and NOT paying attention to this stuff), so I have to say I really wouldn't know.
There's probably a lot in what I've written above that long-timers here could and would correct or finesse!
Q. Who cares the most about the outcome of the 2010 mayoral election? Which people? Which constituencies or interest groups are hungriest to win?
A. I'm not sure I know yet. I've already made clear here, I think, that I tend to think from the liberal-progressive (and enviro) perspective, and I think that that whole crowd will be very interested in holding onto their gains of the last few election cycles while also laying a foundation to continue moving their agenda forward. So I think those folks are hungry to win for those reasons.
Is the Chamber of Commerce/ Republican crowd hungry to win back City Hall? Maybe, but we're not really seeing it yet. And if they are, they might need to find a stronger candidate than what they've got. Who knows: maybe they will find someone else.
Meanwhile, for some people there's probably a very real question of how much the mayor's race matters, on account of our form of government. It will matter, though, to enough people, at least as much as past unified government mayoral elections have: after all, you could say that change is still underway here, and has only begun but is not fully accomplished. And you need a mayor to direct that change, most likely.
So personally, I see the race in those terms: the folks who want to see a truly progressive city here probably feel the need to keep working hard and lay the groundwork for continued progressive change. This may be a narrow perspective on my part, but hey: it's early yet. It may well be that a lot of people will express their preference for a moderate political position (or conservative, for some), but I don't see them as "hungriest." That's just me!
Q. Local government officials have recognized and are dealing with a host of challenges facing the community. Are they missing anything? What challenges aren’t getting the attention they should?
A. I tend to give our local officials a lot of credit on this front. I'd be tempted to say that air quality doesn't get quite the depth of attention it really needs, but then again it was a topic at this month's Mayor & Commission work session (see John Huie's story in Flagpole), and apparently ACC Environmental Coordinator Dick Field made the argument there that we've done a lot to improve the situation already.
To take another example from last week's Flagpole, homelessness is a growing problem, which everyone's aware of, but I think it's fair to say that the problem is outstripping the "solution infrastructure" at present.
That's not really the kind of thing you're asking for, I realize, but I'd guess (purely a guess) that you could say the same about a lot of social-service issues right now. For instance, it seems like out-of-school opportunities for middle- and high-schoolers are light here compared to bigger cities, but I've heard folks recently talking about getting those kids into work readiness stuff and other programs.
That's the thing about Athens: most stuff is probably on the radar, but a whole lot of stuff probably also needs attention in more depth. But I'm probably missing something!
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This interview was conducted via email. The text published here is an ever so slightly condensed and edited version of the actual exchange, and has been reviewed by the interview subject.