Since December, I have known I would be leaving Leesburg soon. For a while, I thought I would be going to Macon, where my job was at the time. The job was great, but the city was not.
That changed about a month ago when I decided to look for another job. Within a month, I had found another job with a very cool sounding title – Nuclear Software Engineer – in Aiken, SC. Aiken is a much better town than Macon, and I’m very much looking forward to living in the Central Savannah River Area.
Looking back on my time in Leesburg, I have no regrets. I came to the town because my then fiancee, now wife, was a native of Lee County, having grown up barely a half a mile outside the Leesburg City Limits and was living her dream – teaching at Lee County High.
As with any new environment, I started out quietly, trying to observe more than talk. To this day, I still remember the first time I had a political encounter in Leesburg. It was the summer of 2008, and some guy named Jim Quinn showed up at my door asking for my vote in his run for mayor. I didn’t know anything about the politics of the city at the time, but when it came time to vote, his was the only name I knew and thus he got my vote.
A few months later, I started a blog that came to be known as SWGAPolitics.com, which we just shut down less than a month ago. At first, it was primarily focused on looking at the legislative record of the various SWGA legislators.
In March and April of 2009, I began to use SWGAPolitics.com in a more local role, using it to coordinate news of the brand new (at the time) Tax Day Tea Party events in both Albany and Leesburg. Indeed, I was listed as a co-organizer of the Leesburg event.
In the summer of 2009, I made one of the biggest mistakes I made in SWGAPolitics.com’s history – I added a man as an author on the site who turned out to be a liar and a lunatic. When his lies were brought to my attention, I gave him a chance to come clean. He did not, and I removed him from SWGAPolitics.com, vowing never to affiliate myself with any group which he was a part of – a vow I have kept.
It was due to this situation that I first began talking to Ed Duffy and Rick Muggridge – the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners. In August of 2009, I began attending every meeting of the Board and writing about them, as well as live tweeting them on my twitter account. In September of 2009, I began doing the same with the Leesburg City Council meetings.
Also that September, I learned that the Leesburg City Council was having elections that November, and that there was expected to be no opposition to any of the Councilmen. This was and is completely unacceptable to me, and so I decided within about 24 hrs that I would run. I challenged Richard Bush and ran a campaign centered on being a newer, younger voice that was at the same time more politically knowledgeable than my opponent. That was a great learning experience for me, one I will never forget even though I lost handily 70-20 – out of nearly 1500 registered voters.
As that campaign began, I did something I had never done before – I videotaped the meeting of Lee County leaders and the brand newly-appointed State Transportation Planning Director Todd Long. Not only did I videotape this meeting, but I also put that tape on YouTube so all could see for themselves exactly what was said, absent even my own commentary.
The next meeting I taped was the December 2009 meeting of the Lee County Board of Commissioners. For Christmas that year, I got a tripod for my camera, and with it I began videotaping every meeting I went to.
After the November loss to Mr. Bush, I had intended from the very moment I learned the results to try again. In April 2010, Steve Kitchens – the man I was considering challenging in my next run, though this is the first time I’ve publicly said that – resigned from the Council, setting up a Special Election that turned out to be in September. I hadn’t intended on running again so soon, but neither could I pass up the opportunity. So I ran, and from what I have been told some people began recruiting opposition for me – Rhonda Futch was apparently at least their second choice.
I ran a much better campaign the second time. I learned from my mistakes from the first time in relying on newspaper ads, and I made it a point to actively knock on doors and call people. I solicited and received campaign donations, and was able to thus get several dozen yard signs, which I worked to get out at strategic points for visibility. I also made a few mistakes on this campaign, going off message late in the game and not responding in the press as I should have.
As a final note on that campaign, I want to point out a couple of things:
1) I still believe I was by FAR the better choice. (And seriously, why would anyone run any campaign if they didn’t believe that to their very core?) That said, Ms. Futch has managed to surprise me on a couple of occassions, and she may yet turn out to be a force for – if not good, at least not as bad as I had feared.
2) I want to thank all roughly 120 or so voters from that 2010 campaign, as well as the 90 voters from the 2009 campaign. Those that voted for me made the right choice for Leesburg – and those that voted for my opponents unknowingly (even I didn’t realize it at the time) made the right choice for me personally. It was because of those nearly 200 votes against me that I was in the position I was in last month in being able to leave SWGA, and for that you have my sincere gratitude.
While I’m on that particular topic, I want to address one criticism I’ve heard through the grapevine in the past few weeks. It has been said that I somehow do not love Leesburg because I have chosen to leave it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leesburg will always hold a very dear place in my heart. It is my wife’s hometown, the town we lived in for most of the first four years of our marriage, and the place where I came into my own as a man. Moving changes none of that.
Back to the videotaping: There are those who like it, and those who don’t. By and large the ones who don’t like it feel this way because either a) they can’t control it (as some have said rather directly in meetings I taped) or b) because they didn’t want the public to know what was said – something that fortunately none were brave enough to outright admit to. However, it did have those who at least appreciated it, saying that it made them at least be more careful in how they presented things. In all honesty, that was exactly one of the secondary goals of that project. The primary goal being simply to give those who – for whatever reason – could not make the meetings a chance to at least have a complete and accurate record of exactly what happened gavel to gavel, absent any news media limitations or comments. In that goal, the videotaping was a success the moment I put the first tape on youtube.
Some final thoughts:
First, there are going to be three seats on the Council open for election this November. There needs to be a minimum of 6 candidates. As of the last time I filed, the filing fee itself is only $54 to run. Beyond that, it is possible to win with little money spent – simply knock on every door and call every single person in Leesburg. Money makes things a bit easier, but I’m pretty sure I outspent my opponents in both of my races – and we see where that got me.
Second, Leesburg has 1500 or so registered voters. While I am somewhat pleased that I managed to drive turnout higher for a special election than for a general election, the turnout figures in both of my races was absolutely pathetic. Take pride in your town, Leesburg. Even if you’re not going to go to Council meetings, at least get out there and vote. Letting not even 10% of the voters make your decision for you is not democracy – it is oligarchy, and one you can change!
Third, people need to step up and fill the void I am leaving. I am no one special – anyone can do what I was doing, and probably even more effectively than I was. Videotaping the meetings and putting them on youtube requires only about 4 hrs of your time in any month (for just Leesburg City Council meetings) and is not a difficult process. The software is dirt cheap – the programs I use were $60 and you get a wide range of audio/ video tools combined. All it requires is a dedication to serving your town and working to make it better.
Fourth, my wish for Leesburg and Lee County: Learn to have your own identity. Don’t be content with being the bedroom community for Albany – make Albany the bedroom community for you! Having lived in both Dougherty and Lee, I can say without equivocation that Lee is by FAR superior, so start acting like it! Don’t let businesses such as Kohl’s, Best Buy, and others locate within a mile of the border in Dougherty County – get them to move within a mile of the border in LEE County! The corollary to this to get active in ALL aspects of your community – religion seems to be very active, but community service such as Rivers Alive and the Butterfly Kisses build need your help. Politics needs your involvement – even as simply a concerned citizen. Spread the message of Lee County as an attractive destination for both people and businesses to move far and wide. Take both ownership and pride in your town! Don’t just sit back in anonymous forums such as commenting online, the Soapbox, and the Sqawkbox and bitch – put your name to your work, take a stand, and DO SOMETHING to fix the problems you see!
Finally, I want to thank the friends I’ve made along the way – Jim Quinn (Leesburg Mayor/ publisher of Lee County Ledger), Carlton Fletcher (Lee County reporter/ metro editor for Albany Herald), Jana Barnello (formerly of WFXL), Romney Smith (WFXL), Casey Moore (Leesburg City Manager), and Veronica Johnson (Lee County Elections Supervisor) in particular. These are some of the best reporters/ officials in not just Lee County, but in my experience living all over Georgia, some of the best in the State.
Fare thee well, Leesburg.