Election supervisor Lowanna Vaughn displays a storeroom full of new voting machines that are supposed to make elections run more smoothly in Georgia. And they may, when poll workers and voters get used to them. But maybe not this year, she worries.
It's election year and already the frosty air of January smells of blood.
In Dade, that is. Anybody around here who thinks national politics is rougher than the small-town variety was vacationing in Bali in 2012, or possibly spent the whole year in a coma. Small towns may have a peaceful rep but please remember it was in a tiny mountain village that Mussolini was shot against a wall. Yes, the nation's capital is where presidents are elected and impeached, and these are interesting processes to follow on television. But locally is where we live life up close and personal, and the grocery store is where you may get bonked with grapefruits by neighbors voting the other way.
Readers who follow the local news will have noticed no year is entirely bereft of local elections. In 2019 we had off-year city elections, and in 2018 we had midterms in which two each of the county commission and board of election seats were up for election. But it is in presidential election years such as this one that the vast majority of elected jobs in Dade County are up for grabs, including all the top ones, and 2020 is already shaping up to be a doozy.
Last big election year, 2016, was uncharacteristically tame in Dade, with incumbents mostly carrying the day. But that may have had something to do with the fact that many ran unopposed. As we head into 2020, candidates are already emerging to challenge the established power structure. Would you like to be one of them?
Why not? These are pretty good jobs, with respectable salaries--qualifying fees listed at right represent 3 percent of base pay--and you can work close to home. Most jobs--including two judgeships--require no specialized training, only a high school diploma ("or its equivalent," adds the Georgia Secretary of State's guidelines).
Well, think about it. Here, meanwhile, is a list of the open slots. Salaries listed are extrapolated from the 3 percent fee.
County Executive (Starting salary $65,500)
Want to run a small county at the center of the universe? Here's your chance. The competition may be a little stiff, though: Not only is 12-year incumbent Ted Rumley seeking reelection, local businessman and uber-community guy Nathan Wooten, who masterminds and/or bankrolls local events the Small Business Expo at Christmas and Dade's July 4 bash in the summer, announced in June 2019 his bid to unseat Rumley.
Rumley faced two challengers in 2016 but routed them without breaking a sweat, garnering more votes than both put together in the spring Republican primary. This year, though, is looking starkly different.
Photo: Rumley at a victory party in 2016, when he easily beat two contenders. This year looks like a harder fight.
Wooten (right) is running an organized and persistent campaign, with weekly-or-better messages to the public, lists of priorities and promises, and a constant and vocal presence on Facebook. Rumley has been less visible.
The county boss, who has always prided himself on keeping his door open and answering his phone, seems allergic to social media but has so far done little to get his message across in a more old-fashioned way, either. Even public meetings he announced last year, intended to get voters' input on projects for SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax, which they must decide this year whether or not to renew) remain unscheduled while the citizens remain unconsulted and the county boss remains in his office, (presumably answering his phone, with the door open).
If conferring with department heads on how to divvy up SPLOST proceeds without conferring with the voters on what they'd like the tax spent on--or why they should vote for it--seems a little autocratic, Rumley has also racked up resentment at his unilateral push to build a reservoir on Lookout Creek and, more lately, his unannounced insertion of a chicken house restriction in the county's landmark zoning ordinance, after a citizens committee painstakingly drafted it and before the public had clapped eyes on it.
But who knows? Wooten may have accumulated some local disapproval as well during his past stints chairing the local school board, then the Industrial Development Authority, and Rumley has been an enormously popular leader during most of his tenure. So it looks like a tough fight.
On the other hand, prospective candidates, the field's still wide open. Official qualifying does not open until March, and the job requirements are only county residency, a high school degree (or equivalent), a minimum age of 21 and no history of crime involving "moral torpitude" (unless it was at least 10 years ago).
County Sheriff (Starting salary $53,880)
Requirements for Dade's top cop are a little stiffer. In addition to the age (25) and years of local residency (two), the Georgia SOS guidelines require a criminal background check and they talk rather sternly about what constitutes a disqualifying criminal past. Forget it if you've ever copped a plea to tax evasion or committed involuntary manslaughter, even if you were subsequently pardoned.
Photo: Ray Cross has held the office since defeating incumbent Sheriff Patrick Cannon and former Sheriff Phillip Street in 2012.
Furthermore, in addition to being a registered Georgia and county voter, the guidelines specify each candidate for sheriff must be "a registered peace officer or a certified peace officer." Then, confusingly, the rules require anybody who's not one at election "to complete satisfactorily the requirements for certification within six months after such person takes office." Go ask a lawyer!
In practice, though, candidates for sheriff in Dade County do not walk in off the streets but typically have long and impressive records in law enforcement. And also judging by history, when there are two or more strong candidates for the office, as in 2012, small-town politics can get heated and neighborly relations at the grocery store pretty nasty. The 2012 election, with three serious contenders slugging it out without gloves on, was the perfect example while the 2016 election was the exception that proved the rule. (In 2016, incumbent Ray Cross and challenger Danny Ellis campaigned as cordially as if dancing a minuet.)
What kind of election year will 2020 be for the sheriff's race, milquetoast or raw and bloody? The jury's still out. Nobody has yet stepped forward to challenge Ray Cross--but no fat ladies have sung yet, either.
Tax Commissioner (Starting Salary: $46,408)
Do you enjoy working with numbers? How about angry taxpayers who don't want to, well, pay their taxes? If so, you may want to try to be Dade County's next tax commissioner.
Again, the qualifications are not unreasonable. You have to be 25 or over and a Dade County resident for two years. There's an additional stipulation in the Georgia SOS rules--"No person shall be nominated or elected who has been adjudged a 'subversive person,' as defined in the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1953"--but The Planet looked that up and if you haven't tried to overthrow the federal or state government lately you ought to be OK.
Your major stumbling block may be the popular sitting tax commissioner, Jane Moreland, who has held the position since she was first elected to it in 1984. She often runs unopposed and as such is the one high officeholder in Dade who has managed to remain a Democrat amid the general stampede to the GOP in the last decade.
Interviewed in June on the occasion of her 40th anniversary with the county government--before the 1984 election, she had worked in the court clerk's office--Commissioner Moreland hadn't decided yet whether to retire or seek reelection this year. Asked last week, her daughter, Angie Galloway, said Mom was still on the fence.
Which brings us to your next possible obstacle: Ms. Galloway is her mother's longtime deputy commissioner and as such seems better positioned than most to run for the slot should Commissioner Moreland decide to stop down. But don't despair, prospective candidates--you can always run for....
Superior Court Clerk (Starting Salary: $46,408)
This is a highly responsible job, involved with the smooth running of the court system, but again, the only specified qualifications are residency, minimum age of 25 and a high school diploma (or equivalent). In practice, though, deputies to the preceding court clerk have a decided edge not just performing the job but in getting the voters to vote them into it. The current court clerk, Kathy Page, won her job in 2004 after the retirement of her boss, Sarah Moore, who in turn had worked under the preceding clerk, Betty Rogers.
But that line of succession is by no means assured. In 2004 Ms. Page won by four votes over a competitor in the Republican primary, then went on to face a Democratic candidate in the fall. In 2012, there were no fewer than three candidates for the seat in the Republican primary, and the fighting was fierce. In 2016--well, again, 2016 was a ho-hum year for local politics. Nobody ran against the incumbent..
Probate Judge: (Starting Salary: $46,408)
This is another example of a position where it's enormously helpful to have learned the trade via on-the-job training. Probate judges handle complex legal issues and in counties with populations over 90,000 candidates for the office must have been practicing law at least seven years. In Dade? Two years' residence, at least 25, high school diploma, no moral torpitude, blah blah blah.
The current occupant of the probate seat in Dade is Kerri Bray Carter, who learned the job as the assistant of longtime incumbent Jan Ellison. Judge Carter also ran unopposed in 2016.
An interesting point about the two county-level judgeships--probate and magistrate--is that they are the only Dade positions you can run for as a nonpartisan candidate. Somehow it is deemed proper to be a nonpartisan judge while it is still obligatory to declare oneself a Republican or Democratic court clerk or coroner.
Another point worth mentioning here is that although the judgeships are nonpartisan, they are decided during the primary election. So Dade voters will vote for the judgeships on May 19.
Magistrate Judge: (Starting Salary) $46,408
Get yourself elected to this plum posish and you can preside gravely over preliminary evidence in interesting criminal cases, then routinely bind them over to a higher court without the headache of determining guilt or innocence. Magistrate judges also preside over evictions, wage garnishments and general civil actions where the amount of the controversy does not exceed $15,000.
What are the requirements? It's open to any Dade resident of 25 and over with an winning personality for the voters and a high school diploma (or equivalent). So if you enjoy sitting in judgment over others but you don't want to sweat it out all those years in law school, this is the job for you.
There's the usual clause about moral torpitude but click the above photo of the incumbent, Joel McCormick, to read a news article about testimony from a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent describing the sitting magistrate's pivotal role in a $40 million land fraud in Rising Fawn.
McCormick won the magistrate's seat in 2008, just previous to the collapse of the pyramid scheme at the Preserve at Rising Fawn. He and his business associates attracted intense scrutiny from the FBI and two were found guilty of fraud at a federal trial in 2013. They were sentenced to prison in 2014, one for 10 years. But in 2016, McCormick ran for reelection unopposed.
Coroner (Starting Pay: $2940)
That doesn't sound like much money but it's a part-time job--you only go on duty when someone not in a hospital needs to be pronounced dead--and actually competition is expected to be fairly fierce for it this year. The job has been held since June by Courtney Gross, who ran unsuccessfully for it in 2016 against Johnny Gray, who had held the job for 29 years. (At left they are depicted during a candidate debate.) Gray resigned abruptly for health reasons this summer and Ms. Gross was appointed to serve out his unexpired term. This year she must run against any challengers to retain the position.
Coroners in Dade must be over 25 and have resided in Dade for two years. Education-wise, it's the same old high school diploma (or equivalent), though coroners are required to take specialized training within a certain time of winning election. In practice, most candidates have some degree of medical training. Johnny Gray was a paramedic and Ms. Gross a nurse practitioner.
Johnny Gray ran most of his elections as a Democrat but finally switched parties after Dade went overwhelmingly Republican in the 2000s, and after campaign after campaign of having to discuss the difference between a Republican coroner and a Democratic coroner.
District Commissioner Starting Salary: $4000
Again, it's a part-time job. Is it satisfying? Dealing with the public can be contentious, but as a district commissioner on the county commission you will deal with democracy at perhaps its most immediate and direct level. Potholes in roads, operating hours at the dump, the smell of chicken houses, you'll hear about all of those. What can you do about 'em? County commissions have enormous power over the way that ordinary people live life day to day.
Can citizens put a chicken house on their property? Can they pull a trailer into their front yard? Can they get one to their front yard, given the condition of the roads? When the job's over, can they grab a beer with a buddy at a local watering hole? County commissioners have a big say over all of that. Read about their trials and tribs in these pages--there's never a dull moment.
The times, they are a-changing, even in rural Dade County, and the commission is changing, too. Even in singularly tepid election year 2016 two seats on the commission changed butts and the other two may well be up for new derrieres after this election, too. Both Robert Goff of District 3 and Allan Bradford of District 4 are up for reelection. Neither has announced intentions yet, but Jerry Henegar, formerly of the Trenton City Commission, has already stepped up to challenge Goff for District 3.
Any other takers? Besides adulthood and high school diploma (or equivalent), you must also reside within the district you wish to represent.
School Board Member Starting Salary: $600
The county school system has been cited often as the county's largest employer. That huge workforce is under the supervision of the school superintendent, and the superintendent in turn is under the supervision of the elected board of education.
So maybe it's the power that makes it worthwhile to serve on the school board? It's not the money. Like the county's other boards, the BOE pays members $50 a meeting. But for school board members, that doesn't always come out as much per hour. Besides the routine business of administering the schools, they sit in endless executive sessions to manage the aforementioned huge workforce.
Besides that, school board members are governed by strict meeting rules as to what they can say and when they can say it. A "May I comment?" is as often as not met with a stern "no," and in meetings board members are forbidden to respond to or in fact react to comments by the public.
All that said, if you still want to be on the school board, here's your opportunity: Seats 3 and 4, which is to say Trenton/Rising Fawn and Lookout Mountain, as well as the at-large position, are all up for reelection. Patrick Hickey has announced his candidacy for the at-large seat but The Planet has had no other announcements thus far.
And in the larger world....
In the court system, District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin must face the voters if he wishes to keep his position. Superior Court Judges Brian House and Kristina Cook Graham are also up for reelection. Margie Cameron in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit office says the qualifying fee for that is around $3500, but go to the Georgia Secretary of State's website to read qualifications for those jobs, folks--The Planet understands some specialized training is required.
Meanwhile, Dade's new voice in the Georgia House of Representatives is being challenged by Georgia's old voice in the Georgia House of Representatives as two-term Rep. John Deffenbaugh (left) tries to retake the seat usurped in 2016 by Colton Moore. Moore first announced he would try to keep his place in the statehouse, then hinted he might instead aim higher, for the U.S. Congressional seat to be abandoned by Tom Graves this year. For the Georgia Senate, Todd Noblitt has emerged to challenge incumbent Jeff Mullis. And then there's that little business of who will sit in the White House come 2021...
But these are job descriptions best obtained, and campaigns followed, in other publications than your friendly neighborhood Planet. The Dade races, though, The Planet will follow like a bloodhound--be they 2012 wild or 2016 mild--and faithfully report same to its esteemed readers.