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Editorial: No more business as usual at the polls
Tuesday’s election shows a year after Trump's rise, local voters still want new directions, fresh leadership
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Mary and Paul Johnson cast their ballots during Election Day at Clermont Town Hall in Clermont on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

A year ago, the tsunami of all American election upsets threw out the playbook of how to win a presidential race and swept into office the most unconventional of unconventional candidates. The last year has proven the unorthodox approach Donald Trump brought to a campaign was only the precursor to what he’s done once in office.

Trump’s electoral victory was a backhanded slap at the establishment leadership of both parties who had led the nation into legislative gridlock, run up trillions in national debt and provided little relief for working-class folks coming out of either side’s big top. Whether he delivers on all his promises is a work in progress, but the message was clear: Business as usual isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Fast-forward a year to Tuesday’s elections in North Georgia, where the results made it clear that general mood for change still carries over from last November in many areas. In municipal elections across the region, some longtime incumbents found themselves on the losing end after years or decades in office.

  • In Lula, businessman Jim Grier took 66 percent of the vote to oust four-term mayor Milton Turner.
  • In Oakwood, Councilman Sam Evans, in office since 1998, was defeated by Stephen Hendrix, who earned 66.7 percent of the vote.
  • In Flowery Branch, newcomer Amy Farah, an assistant professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, defeated incumbent Monica Beatty for the Post 5 seat on the City Council with 67.6 percent of the vote.
  • In Forsyth County, Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt was sent from office after 47 years in a loss to newcomer Troy Brumbalow.
  • And in Dawson County, two political neophytes, Mark French and Stephen Tolson, ousted incumbents to win city council seats.

Bucking that tide, a few incumbents held their posts, notably longtime Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann and mayors James Nix of Clermont and Mike Miller of Flowery Branch.

National pundits already are analyzing Democratic victories for governorships in New Jersey and Virginia as a repudiation of the Trump Administration and Republican leadership. And maybe in some of those cases, that’s true.

It’s worth noting municipal elections draw slim turnouts and hardly amount to landslide mandates for anyone. But same discontent with government that fueled Trump’s rise might be playing out in local races as well, and could affect next year’s midterm contests for Congress, governor and other state offices.

Trump, with his vow to drain the swamp, promised “change.” It’s hard to look at Tuesday’s local results and not think change is still a high priority for voters, at least for those who were motivated to cast ballots.

Local politics generally is less about partisan issues and more about competence and effectiveness. Though many of the incumbents who lost Tuesday served well for many years, many voters seemed to want fresh blood and a new approach to governing.

In particular, city and county residents want government to manage growth effectively, with an eye toward the future and not just grab for short-term gains. Some metro Atlanta counties didn’t do this over the years — Gwinnett comes first to mind — and saw their countrysides swamped by big-box stores, strip malls and office buildings.

There’s a level of commercial growth that’s beneficial to balance a county’s tax digest and ease homeowners’ burden, plus provide ready jobs close by. But that balance needs to be carefully managed to avoid runaway sprawl that spoils the natural beauty that lures people to an area.

In the smaller towns particularly, growth can be viewed by some as more of a threat than a benefit. Tuesday in Clermont, 63 percent of voters in a small turnout rejected a nonbinding referendum to allow alcohol sales in the city. Though some votes may have been cast because of an aversion to booze, many other residents simply don’t want the influx of visitors, tourists and traffic such sales might bring.

Some outsiders may consider this backward thinking, but when you look at the ugly, vacant storefronts left in some growth-friendly communities, perhaps Clermont is onto something. Not everyone is eager to sacrifice their quiet, calm hamlets for economic gain. And, remember, it’s their town; they get to decide what it should be, what services should be offered and how their tax money should be spent.

This is a lesson all mayors and council members elected last week should remember as they take office: You were elected to work for residents of your town, not the other way around. They will decide if and how growth will come, and your policies and actions should reflect that. Stay engaged, keep listening and don’t give in too easily to the allure of developers’ sweet talking unless residents are on board. Voters are tired of politicians who put monied interests over their own.

Those who do it right may earn constituents’ trust and stay in office for awhile. Those who don’t will suffer the same fate as the incumbents they unseated Tuesday. Yet the paradox here is that the “outside mavericks” running against the establishment become “insiders” themselves as soon as they take office, and the target gets painted on their backs. Right now, that describes American politics in a nutshell.

Whatever one thinks of Trump or the major parties’ agendas, it’s clear the government “of, by and for” the people too often has left “the people” out of the equation in favor of special interests, big money and political ambition. Recent elections indicate the people who take part are anxious to insert themselves back into the mix. Perhaps more will join the party in elections to come and make an even bigger difference.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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