Not many elected officials get to be in office for 16 years before a challenger steps forward – but that is a feat that DeKalb District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson managed to pull off until this year.
Johnson, a likable person with a loyal base of supporters, was elected to office in 2002. He is being challenged by Felton Wright, a 45-year District 3 resident.
Wright, who retired from AT&T in 2014 after 32 years, is a community advocate and a political newcomer. He said he used to attend Board of Commissioners meetings regularly but quit going a year ago, disgusted by its unresponsiveness to citizens' complaints.
He said he is running to unseat Johnson because he doesn’t like the direction the district is headed. He points to crime, litter, gentrification and untidy street curbs.
Johnson, who hosts events for youth, seniors and small business owners, sees things differently. He likes to say “the renaissance is underway” in District 3 and touts his engagement in the district, pointing to walks he organizes and events to encourage people to become active and healthy. He also hosts cleanups around the district, and points to new sidewalks and businesses that have located to the area during his tenure.
Johnson and Wright are vying for the Democratic nomination in the May 22 primaries. There is no Republican candidate on the November ballot, so the primary winner will become the commissioner. Early voting is underway through May 18. The polls are open on election day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Johnson said that when he joined the board, District 3 – which stretches from Wesley Chapel Road to Ellenwood to Eastlake and includes East Atlanta neighborhoods like Edgewood and Kirkwood – had no sidewalks.
District 3 is also home to some of the county's most economically challenged neighborhoods.
“A lot of folks were walking on the dirt and high grass,” he told voters at the CrossRoadsNews May 7 Forum at First Afrikan Church in Lithonia.
“I helped put sidewalks in district, helped put the focus on wellness. We renovated community centers, put air conditioning in the Midway Recreation Center, built a new [intergenerational] center on Columbia Drive.”
But even as Johnson reeled off his accomplishments, Wright pointed to the proliferation of code violations, litter, and potholes in his Rosewood community, off McAfee Road, and others. He says Johnson’s office and the county haven’t been unresponsive to citizens.
“It takes six months to a year to get anything done,” he told voters at the forum. “I am running because I want to clean it up.”
Wright said he wants to work with the courts and the juvenile detention centers to reduce crime in the district.
“It has gotten out of hand,” he said.
Wright also says he doesn’t like the way the county handles criminals.
“People as young as 18 years old get locked up and go home the same day,” he said. “That needs to stop.”
He also worries about gentrification.
“I’ve spoken to several people and I do not want to see seniors taxed out of their homes,” he said.
Johnson points to the county’s first SPLOST and what it will do for District 3.
“We now have $100 million coming to the district, we’re going to pave all our roads, not just patch potholes, we’re going to do some great things in our community and do some maintenance into our parks to make a difference,” he said. “I want to help our seniors, I want to help our young people and everybody in between because I’m here to make a difference."
Wright said the county’s shortcoming with sanitation is a symptom of bigger issues.
“It’s not just a sanitation problem,” he said. “It’s inefficiency across the board within different departments.”
Johnson counters that the county’s sanitation department is a strong department.
“[It’s] one of the best services we have,” he said. “We shouldn’t denigrate that department because they’re doing all they can.”
In the past, Johnson himself has expressed frustration with county services in the district. In January 2017, he said he was "sick and tired" of calling the county about signs on posts and other issues in his district.
At that time too, Johnson expressed interest in incorporating District 3 into “The City of Prosperity.”
Responding to a question from the audience about cityhood at the May 7 forum, he said he believes in unincorporated DeKalb.
“I believe it’s strong,” he said. “All of the new cities grew because unincorporated DeKalb allowed that to happen.”
Wright said that District 3 residents should be allowed to vote on cityhood, but he added that if the commissioners in office are doing their job, residents don’t really need cityhood.
“You would just be paying extra dollars,” he told the audience of just over 100 people.
If elected, Wright said he will get people who are sentenced to do community service and those convicted of minor offenses to pick up litter and edge the curbs.
While Johnson is a likable fellow, Wright said, the district is suffering.
“Older people and old ladies like him, but he doesn’t do anything,” Wright said.
If he is elected, Wright said he will work hard and follow up when citizens call.
"Trash is bringing the county down," he said. "When I watch the news, I cringe a little when they say DeKalb. Most of the crimes are in South DeKalb. If elected, I will clean the streets, pick up litter, ticket offenders and use the revenues to clean up the place."
Johnson said voters should keep him as their commissioner.
“My experience and engagement counts," he said. "I’m building tradition not resting on one.”