“And the sand all alive, all alive, as the hatched sea-turtles made their dash for the sea, while the birds hovered and swooped to attack and hovered and—swooped to attack.”
Watching our new mayor and commissioners sworn in, I couldn’t help remembering Tennessee Williams’ searing words from Town & Gown’s 2018 production of Suddenly Last Summer.
Like the sea-turtle hatchlings, our mayor and commission are surrounded by hostile forces. The Georgia connection to our national government is former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, now secretary of agriculture, who secured President Trump’s endorsement of our new Athenian Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who modeled himself on Trump in his campaign and managed only 30 percent of the vote in his hometown.
Our Republican congressman, Jody Hice, rarely sets foot in Athens and is inimical to everything represented by our new local government. Our Republican state senators, Frank Ginn and the governor’s brother-in-law, Bill Cowsert, routinely decline to pursue any legislative initiatives requested by our mayor and commission. Our new Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines, the protegée of former Mayor Nancy Denson, is so far to the right that he can’t even get off the Loop if it requires a left turn. Our other new Republican Rep. Marcus Wiedower is focused on Republican Oconee County.
Only Democratic state Rep. Spencer Frye is favorably inclined toward our new government, and he, of course, is in the minority in our Republican state legislature.
So, our new mayor and commissioners, who were elected with a mandate for progressive government, will need to be resourceful and focused as they address local problems while surrounded by a hostile political environment.
That’s nothing new. Forty years of newspaper coverage here in Athens makes clear that efforts to extend government support to the people have always met resistance within and without. Those who have been most successful in extending the reach of government toward inclusion have been those whose candidacy and election grew out of immersion in our community. Forty years ago, Athens was ruled by a business establishment and the government they approved. Hard-fought changes were won by people whose involvement in the community showed them the need for more diverse and inclusive representation in our government. The 1990 election of the government that unified Athens and Clarke County was a watershed, when the people of Athens wrested leadership of the new government away from the business establishment. That is when Athens-Clarke County began to take progressive government seriously. It happened because the new political energy came out of the neighborhoods, where people began to stand up for themselves and knock on their neighbors’ doors to discuss the issues that mattered to them.
That’s what’s impressive and hopeful about our new local government, in spite of the hostility from the Trumpian Republican establishment that surrounds us. Our new mayor and commissioners and their allies already on the commission know what is required to continue making Athens-Clarke County responsive to the needs of all our citizens.
It won’t be easy. Change inevitably upsets the established order and the people who are invested in it—and that includes a lot of people within Athens-Clarke County, as well as all those around us.
We’re in for some exciting times. We have a government that, in spite of resistance, is pledged to do something about poverty and income inequities, transportation, affordable housing, discrimination, deportation, bail bonds, even education. All this must be accomplished through an effective transition from campaigning to governing, with the compromises and realism that democracy demands.
Our mayor and commission must now learn to work together, to become a team that forges common goals while tolerating diversity of ideas and methods. They’re new and inexperienced in their roles, running the gauntlet of resistance and hostility from forces that want them to fail. Here’s wishing them (and us) a successful and effective dash toward a better Athens, while our enemies swoop and attack.
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