DeKalb and the Willie Mosley Problem

I ran into Willie Mosley a few days ago at a Democratic Party meeting in Decatur, and it became immediately clear that something had gone terribly wrong.

Mosley is a perennial failed candidate, and for good reason. He never finished college. He does not appear to be a man with tremendous financial means. He has none of the training and experience necessary to manage a large budget. He has limited management experience all around, aside perhaps from his time as a logistics sergeant in the Army. While he has served as an appointee on boards around town, I can find no evidence of those boards doing much. And – in my cynical personal opinion – he lacks the personal communication skills necessary to move a jaded electorate from skepticism to hope.

That last opinion tended to be reinforced by the grammatical errors and spelling mistakes leaping from Mosley’s home-made Wix campaign site.  I scrolled through it on my smartphone while listening to him speak of his undying commitment to the education of our youth. (He took the front page down for repairs after I talked to him about it.)

I don’t doubt that Mosley’s a nice enough fellow, and as a fellow veteran I can understand his desire to serve. But there’s no good reason a guy like this should be anywhere near the leadership dais for a troubled school system with a $1.3 billion budget.

And yet, there he stood, shaking hands. Eager. Earnest. Hopeful. Terrifying.

Years from now, we may look back to Mark Elgart’s now-famous warning at the SACS school accreditation meeting as the catalyst that galvanized the public and halted the mess. “The challenge is for the community to pay close attention to those who opt to participate in that election process, to ensure whoever is elected can continue what you have started … It is the community’s opportunity and responsibility to elect a board that can continue the journey you’ve started.”

That it’s Elgart making pronouncements from on high – an unelected outsider and a white guy from Cobb County – breeds resentment for a majority-black constituency, of course. Ignoring the obvious blowback would be dumb.

But he’s right.

Electing competent leaders isn’t about satisfying Elgart’s opaque standards. It’s about satisfying the very measurable standards set by the market, which has been voting with its feet and its wallet. Democrats – because that’s who usually get elected in DeKalb County — need candidate recruitment. We need a system to support highly-qualified candidates with cash, media attention and ground troops when those candidates emerge. And we need it before qualifying closes in March.

We need old-school ward-level political organizing around one theme – crisis response. And candidates like Mosley are the crisis.

It’s not that I expect folks like Mosley to win, of course. It’s that I should be able to write them completely off … and I can’t. Does that sound harsh? Sure. The circumstances call for harsh. If DeKalb buries its head in the sand and elects unvetted semi-qualified candidates to office in the next round, we may not recover from our self-inflicted damage.

One third of the sitting school board members in 2012 did not possess a college degree. At least one – Jay Cunningham – had a significant felony conviction before serving on the board. The board’s poor oversight skills led to nepotism, waste and corruption that has yet to be uprooted by the current board. And yet, despite being removed by the governor to avert the loss of DeKalb’s school accreditation, Cunningham plans to campaign again for his old seat.

Can Cunningham win? I have no idea. Will someone else like Mosley win? I have no idea. Will Dr. Michael Erwin, a notable biologist and Navy veteran appointed to the board in District 3, or Thad Mayfield, a businessman and education activist well regarded by school board watchers and appointed in Cunningham’s place, stand for election to this seat in south DeKalb? I have no idea. I can’t even say if Erwin has announced his intentions, because the man doesn’t have a candidate website or Facebook page, hasn’t filed disclosures with the state and doesn’t have a campaign committee to raise money, three months before the election.

Which is to say, he appears to have no idea how to run a race, if he’s running at all.

We know at least one of Gov. Nathan Deal’s appointees, John Coleman, will not be running to hold his seat. Were I a betting man, I would assume that leaves a clear field for the hyper-involved Stan Jester – husband of replaced school board member and current state school superintendent candidate Nancy Jester – to take his place.

What of the rest? Three months before Election Day, I have no idea.

“When the Governor was looking to replace six of the board members, over 400 people came out of the woodwork to ‘apply,’” the proprietor of DeKalb School Watch blog wrote a week ago. “However, when it comes to actually doing the old-fashioned, American thing – running for office by submitting your name, paying your fee, putting out signs, answering questions, debating the other candidates and knocking on doors — well, let’s just say that’s not looking to be quite as appealing to those 400. That’s really, really disappointing.”

When I say that something has gone terribly wrong, this is what I’m talking about.

Of the 400 or so people who expressed an interest in serving on the board, a panel culled the ineligible and the unsuitable and whittled it down to 55 highly-qualified people. Now, we can talk about the propriety of the process, or whether that panel was truly disinterested. But if someone made it to the interview, they can say that panel thought they were better qualified than 86 percent of the people who wanted the job.

Where are these people now? Guys like Mosley should be looking at a face-off against a pack of candidates with Erwin’s credentials, and deciding that election season is a great time to work on needlepoint and bass fishing instead.

Is there some smoke-filled room around here somewhere, to which I have not been invited, solving this problem quietly? I sincerely doubt it. After running around a bit with the political set here, I’m skeptical that anyone is quite that organized. There be no powers-that-be.

I’m trying not to panic.

But I’d like to see what passes for the civic leaders of this community – the chamber of commerce set, our assorted religious potentates, the homeowner’s association presidents, PTA chiefs, and everyone else looking on in horror — get together in a room somewhere, say “never again,” and back a slate of bland, honest, electable-yet-apolitical technocrats with their cash and cachet.

The great myth of DeKalb’s current political crisis is that it’s the result of a corrupt machine. There is no machine. That’s what’s wrong.



  1. Ghost of William F. Buckley says:

    Just because ‘The Machine’ is not visible doesn’t make it any less real.

    DeKalb operates in a miasma of confusion, perpetuated by institutional players, folks that have been in “The Machine” a long time. These players know that by keeping people focused on “Blueprints,” “Strategies for a New DeKalb,” etc. the barely engaged public will overlook today’s problems with hope for a better tomorrow.

    The School Board position ought to come with Hazard Pay and is probably one of the most contentious political offices. A School Board job requires management of a huge budget that necessitates business and management acumen, the ability to resist temptation to place family in jobs, and powerful group dynamic skills.

    House Bill 486 offers an alternative to folks who see the utter futility in DeKalb’s huge school district.

  2. Jon Lester says:

    Not finishing college and living on modest means shouldn’t necessarily be disqualifying factors for seeking office, but the rest of your critique would suggest that there are other reasons why Willie Mosley is no Harry Truman.

    • George Chidi says:

      Again, I’m not trying to impugn his character. And you’re right: under normal circumstances a lack of a college degree and modest financial accomplishment aren’t in and of themselves disqualifying, as long at there’s evidence of broader leadership.

      But we need the best of the best to emerge as leaders now. And the best of the best will have distinguished themselves in ways that are immediately obvious. This isn’t about Mosley, himself. It’s about a system that can do no better than this.

  3. drjay says:

    i can totally understand being willing to submit your name for, essentially, a job interview and having a willingness to serve, but not wanting to go through the rigors of a campaign. i’ve run for office a couple of times and enjoyed it less and less everytime..

  4. ryanhawk says:

    Good government idealism dies hard. If only everything were different … good government would solve all of our problems.

  5. Dave Bearse says:

    It seems to be largely under the radar that the entire 7 member DeKalb Board (currently 9, remember the huff after poorly thought out legislation changing the board from 9 to 7 two years ago?) will be elected or re-elected in May.

    The success of the two-thirds majority appointed board with respect to SACS probation was a brief topic in the Q&A after a Michael Thurmond lead remarks at a Northlake Kiwanis Club meeting I attended last meet. I’d been meaning to suggest on an open thread a PP staff person post on the merits of elected versus appointed local boards, and the extent of appointed local boards or board members in Georgia.

    • drjay says:

      well i get why they are elected, they have the power to tax, any body that has the power to tax should be elected in my opinion–if they were appointed, they should only be able to recommend a millage rate and some other entity like a county commission or city council would then have to vote on budget and millage…

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Good point with respect to taxation. Could the board be limited to policy and oversight, and taxation power vested elsewhere? Maybe directly with the electorate?

        • Nick Chester says:

          I think it would be an interesting conversation but you would have to have a full conversation about what LBOE’s are supposed to be doing in the first place. As I understand it, in most states with appointed Boards their governance structure is also different. I agree with drjay about the power to tax belonging in the hands of elected officials, but you also have to think about the ability to approve contracts, budgets, etc.

  6. objective says:

    Thanks for the post, George; I’m glad this issue is on the radar.
    I haven’t commented on PP in a long while, but this issue is hard for me to resist, as a former candidate for county office and one of those who was interviewed for the School Board appointments.
    My experience has perhaps led me to understand DeKalb’s electoral processes a bit differently.
    I don’t know if “machine” captures the reality of it, but there are at least networks of resources which have assisted many successful candidates, not all of them bad 🙂
    It wouldn’t take much imagination, for example, to see that Burrell Ellis has a different network of support than Robert James.
    And interpersonal relations being what they are, you’re sure to get some candidates with lackluster qualifications but good personal connections acheive electoral success because a collaborative network supports them. But this is no different than maybe- anywhere- I’d hazard to guess. Not even different when it comes to appointments, or really any job whatsoever.

    In the end, I think money is the biggest barrier to any political entry. Money can get you beyond the need for specific, networked individuals. And it would allow Mr. Mosley to manage a team of campaign logistics experts, one that could design the web pages properly. So, long comment short- money is the problem and nullifying its grip is the solution. Maybe you’d like to collaborate on a network to solve the problem 😕

    • George Chidi says:

      I would, actually. I’ve been talking with a group of young, idealistic Democrats in DeKalb about this. We know the status quo is completely unacceptable. But the generational gap is hard to overcome in some places, and the financial issue is harder in others.

      I’ve long said that the demographics will make Democrats competitive … but only if they can show they have people who can govern, all questions of ideology aside.

      When I was in the Army, you didn’t ask to be a drill sergeant so much as you were selected for the job because you showed you were better than the rest. (Oddly enough, I’d like to see school teachers hired out of industry like this, but that’s another conversation.) Here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to play Nick Fury for a while, and do nothing but recruit from outside of the existing political order, and run a slate of young, technologically-savvy candidates — clean records, professional backgrounds, recruited for character, intelligence and presentability — and present them as a slate.

      The idea is to have a group of people the public can identify as change agents, and as a recruiting “class” of sorts, with the explicit goals of turning around the governance of the county and creating a farm team for when the state’s demographics make Democratic candidates competitive in statewide races … and in local races for the state house and senate.

      Scott Holcomb and Dar’shun Kendrick come to mind as examples. Holcomb — an Iraq military veteran and corporate lawyer — is the prime example of the power of candidate quality changing the political dynamics of a district. And Kendrick — a lawyer with an MBA who in this regard has similar credentials to the dean of Georgia Tech’s business school — representing a working-class district in DeKalb and Gwinnett, is exactly the kind of farm team candidate for higher office that the party should be grooming.

      But the party isn’t grooming anything. When someone like Holcomb shows up in a race it’s the dumbest luck, when his appearance should be utterly purposeful.

      I want to find ten of each, connect them with cash, find people better than I to help them manage the electoral ground game that makes the idea of service in elected office so distasteful to highly-qualified people and market the whole lot as the 2020 bench.

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