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.