May 2024 ElectionNewsPub Notes

Local Republicans Will Never ‘Get’ Athens

Model Cities built the new bridge over the North Oconee River at the foot of East Broad Street. On hand for the Sept. 2, 1971 ribbon-cutting were (l-r) City Councilmen Luther Bond and Lee Guest, Mayor Julius Bishop, Model Cities board member Jessie Barnett (who pushed them into building the bridge), City Councilmen Ed Turner, Paul Oeland, Dwain Chambers and David Seagraves. [Courtesy of Barbara Barnett]

The dogwoods blooming along Prince Avenue this time of year always remind me of former Mayor Julius Bishop, a most unlikely official to approve the planting of such a decorative frivolity. Bishop was a fiscal, political, social and religious conservative. He would make current local Republicans look like Bernie Sanders.

But unlike current Republicans, Bishop—a strong mayor by government structure and by temperament—was a practical man who didn’t let ideology interfere with business. When the Lyndon Johnson administration offered Athens inclusion in the new Model Cities program in 1968, Bishop approved it in spite of its requirements for the participation of the citizens affected by the program, primarily the citizens of the woefully underserved East Athens. Poverty had been neglected there, East Athens was cut off from downtown by an ancient, narrow iron trestle, and city services were practically non-existent: paved streets, sidewalks, sewerage, medical care, recreation and education. Model Cities offered the money for infrastructure and required that residents be in on the planning. East Athens was transformed, and a whole generation of citizens learned how to make government work for them.

Model Cities was particularly fortuitous following the federal government’s previous Urban Renewal program, which destroyed so-called “blighted” neighborhoods (such as Linnentown) and forced many of the refugees into East Athens, where adequate accommodations were already scarce.

Businessmen mayors succeeded Bishop until the unification of the county and city governments in 1990 brought the surprise election of city councilwoman Gwen O’Looney, who pledged to work full-time on the half-time mayor’s salary, and did. Her powers were curtailed as the price for the county agreeing to unification, but her energy made up for it. To the surprise of the conservative businessmen who had pushed for unification, the new government proved more progressive than anticipated. Through the years, with lapses back to the old business-driven model, eventually the mayor’s office became a full-time position, and voters elected the progressive Kelly Girtz and a supporting cast of commissioners, while local Republicans veered even further to the right.

We know where that veer has taken our Republicans, throwing them further out of touch with “Cool Town,” the Athens of music, art, crafts and local businesses, welcoming to people of all orientations and ethnicities. It is this Athens that was so viciously attacked, along with our mayor, by local and national Republicans, led by “our” congressman, Mike Collins, willing to parlay the tragic murder of a local woman into a political attack on Athens and all it stands for.

This attack, of course, came after “our” Republican legislators got rid of our three most progressive commissioners by redistricting them out of their own districts and into districts not up for election.

So here we go again. The Republicans are running an inexperienced businessman against Melissa Link, who after her commission seat was abolished, ran again for a vacancy in her new District 2 and got back on the commission. They’re running a disgraced candidate for District 6, whose chief campaign tactic so far is to sic her bully-boy lawyers on a reporter covering her campaign. And, oh yes, Mama Sid.

This is not to say that these Republican-backed candidates don’t have the capacity for growth and for gaining greater understanding of our town as they campaign to govern it. But they will get no guidance from local Republicans in general, who seem as close-minded as their national party and bent on tearing down Athens rather than admitting what a great town we have.

Just as our very democracy is on the national ballot, so, next month, is our democracy at home, where “our” Republican state senators and representatives have gutted our local government, and their local Republican allies hope to further strangle the life out of our town, though even those very Republicans can probably enjoy the dogwoods.