It really should have come as no surprise to Athenians when Billy and Will Morris, who own the media conglomerate that owns the Banner-Herald, jumped on the Trump bandwagon in the closing days of the campaign and endorsed him in our local daily. The Morrises have a lot in common with Trump. They, too, declared bankruptcy, and they, too, stiffed their creditors—to the tune of $200 million.
It really should have come as no surprise to Billy and Will when Athens-Clarke County voters rejected Trump by a 72 percent vote. The Morrises used to routinely endorse Republican candidates here in spite of our community’s overwhelmingly Democratic majorities. In recent years, the Banner-Herald has not endorsed any candidates, a stance attributed to its local publisher’s fear of offending advertisers. However his advertisers feel about the paper’s owners’ endorsement, it surely offended a large segment of his readers. And it emphasized the absentee ownership of the Banner-Herald, which has been run as a cash cow to prop up the over-extended Morris fortunes, decimating the resources and personnel of our daily newspaper.
And indeed the Banner-Herald personnel, who were completely ignored, as usual, by the Morris endorsement, are the only reason the daily has continued to function. The paper is staffed by professional journalists who know and love Athens and have covered it in spite of the predations of the Morrises, whose former glory here is represented by the grand edifice where the Banner-Herald staff now huddle in a corner. Through their work, the journalists still represent Athens; through their endorsement, their owners still do not.
Perhaps the Morrises will benefit from their last-minute swerve toward Trump here and in their Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville papers. But what of us in Athens? Where does the Trump victory leave us? Surrounded, if you look at the numbers: Trump carried our neighbor counties—Jackson 80 percent, Madison 77 percent, Oglethorpe 70 percent and Oconee 68 percent. Trump of course carried Georgia, too.
We have always congratulated ourselves on being a blue island in a red sea, but how did we get that way, and what does the Trump victory mean for our future?
It didn’t just happen that we are a largely liberal community open to ideas and willing to put government to work for the benefit of all our citizens—even when our government is not entirely willing. Athens not so long ago was governed by a conservative city council and county commission, but people got to work to change that situation. Good candidates came forward to run for office, and people got organized to support them and work for them. We elected women and blacks and liberals to the county commission and also to the city council. The real change came when the council and the commission were combined. It took everything our liberal community could muster to elect a liberal mayor, but we did it. Other elections followed to replace some of the more conservative commissioners and mayors later.
For a while, we had a liberal-leaning mayor and commission. Then the election of the present mayor with strong Republican support brought our government to the kind of standstill we see in Washington, abetted by some commissioners who had opposed her election but quickly decided that their chances of succeeding her would be greatly enhanced by going along with her.
So, where does the Trump ascendancy leave us in Athens? We can count on very little assistance from the national and state governments, and we dread what their economic policies will do again to our country. We can have little impact on their policies, but we can make a difference here in Athens-Clarke County.
We do not have to suffer a mayor and commissioners who do not share our vision. In the next few years we can elect some new commissioners and a new mayor, but it will take organization and resources. It will take focus and commitment. It will take cooperation; it will take the hard work of getting out and knocking on doors, making phone calls and licking envelopes. And it will take good candidates.
The Trump tsunami shows us that we can’t sit back and congratulate ourselves that we are not like our neighbors. The truth is that we have a lot of unfinished business right here in Athens, starting with those citizens who cannot make a decent living, including many at the university. What we can do here, and what we must do here is recommit ourselves to making Athens a community where government respects our diversity and provides the services we need. It takes work, but we must cultivate our garden.
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