A victory for the adults in the room
Sunday, August 10, 2008, 12:27 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Very rarely are you allowed to watch a man shed one reputation and slide into another.
Eldrin Bell has been a bodyguard to Maynard Jackson. A detective, an Atlanta police chief. A bon vivant playboy, piano bar crooner, and the occasional acquaintance — though never the ally — of shady characters.
But at the age of 73, he has assumed a new identity. You may now refer to Bell as the wizened politician who pulled Clayton County from the brink. With the help of a few Republicans.
“I wanted to be the adult in the room,” he said after the votes were counted.
In last week’s Democratic runoff, the chairman of the Clayton County commission led a biracial ticket that beat back Bell’s opponent and ousted both a district attorney and a sheriff.
In a county with a collapsing school system, this was a vote against incompetence and megalomania.
The district attorney, Jewel Scott, lacked criminal experience and had let miscreants slip through her fingers. Victor Hill is the sheriff who fired white deputies after his 2004 election, and lined the roof with snipers as they were escorted out.
Bell’s opponent, Lee Scott, was husband to the district attorney and strategist for the sheriff. All three are black, as is Bell.
Defeat of the Scott faction was far from a sure thing. Over the last eight years, Clayton County’s African-American voting population has zoomed from 45 percent to 69 percent — an explosion of black suburbia.
Even this spring, racial appeals by the Scott faction had Bell worried that he would be a one-term wonder.
But in politics, if you’re losing the game, you don’t bow out. You change the game.
Bell went old school, and built an Atlanta-style, black-and-white coalition.
He formed a kitchen cabinet that included: James Comerford, an attorney with connections to Gov. Sonny Perdue and U.S. Rep. Tom Price; Janie Griffin, whose husband Jerry heads the Association County Commissioners of Georgia; and Forrest H. Johnson, who coordinated black homeowner associations.
Bell enlisted white business leaders for financial backing.
He formed an alliance with Tracy Graham-Lawson, a white juvenile court judge who entered the district attorney’s race; and with Kem Kimbrough, an African-American staff attorney for the ACCG, who ran for sheriff.
“We felt if they would vote for me, they would vote for Tracy,” Bell said. “And if they would vote for Tracy, they would vote for Kimbrough.”
Significantly, Bell fired his strategy team and called in the Republican firm of Landmark Communications, headed by Mark Rountree, to run a campaign in what may be the most Democratic county in Georgia.
“[Rountree] became very interested in where we were trying to go,” Bell said. (Rountree handled the Bell campaign. Landmark cohort Gabriel Sterling served as Kimbrough’s advisor.)
Bell is an ordained minister now, more introspective than he once was. The old Eldrin made a brief comeback in the last weeks of the campaign — Bell suffered a flashburn on his thumb while firing a monster, .50-caliber revolver on the farm of a strip club owner.
“I didn’t solve 80 percent of my homicides when I was a detective by knowing priests,” Bell said. Ah, just like old times.
In the end, the incident did him no harm. Clayton County was determined to escape the spoils system that had descended upon it.
Bell and his friends were the only adults in the room.