Moving Beyond Partisan Politics Starts at the Local Level

November 12, 2018

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
Georgia has just come through what many would consider to be the most divisive governor’s race that our state has ever witnessed and as of the writing of this column the final outcome has yet to be fully determined. I know and like both Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp and by no means consider either of the two to be bad people. Unfortunately, the tenor and tone of this campaign season seems to be emblematic of the toxic partisan politics which are currently sweeping our nation. In my personal opinion races like these do not put our state in a good light, and in the long run are not good for either of our two major political parties. At a time when our state and our nation need to come together, hyper-partisan political campaigns have ramped up the rhetoric to where candidates campaigning on issues of policy takes a backseat to mudslinging, name calling and fear mongering. However, in spite of all this I see signs of hope throughout Georgia at the grassroots level.

During my time in office I had the great pleasure of serving on the boards of the Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia Forward where I remain an active board member. Both positions helped me to get to know and to work with great people of all political persuasions from all over the state who are dedicated to public service and to improving the lives of their fellow Georgians. As both are nonpartisan organizations they each focus on working together across party lines to address the needs of cities and of our state as a whole, which I believe is now more important than ever given our current political climate. I’m also proud of the work the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia is doing to help local governments at the county level throughout the state. Once again, a nonpartisan organization with a mission “to enhance the role, stature and responsiveness of county government in Georgia” as opposed to advancing any partisan political agenda.

As we celebrate Veterans Day I am reminded of and inspired by our nation’s military values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. I’m proud that Augusta is home to Fort Gordon as the remarkable bond between our community and our nation’s men, women and families who have volunteered to protect our nation’s freedom through their military service is on display daily. I consider myself blessed to have been raised by a World War II veteran who flew B-17 bombers. He instilled in me the values he learned through his military service which I kept at the forefront of my mind during my time as a public servant.

In 2005, the first year I ran for office, I attended a church leadership retreat. During the retreat our moderator made a point that stuck with me for my nine years in office and shaped my focus in governing. Describing church politics he pointed out that 3% of the congregation are against everything and they’re very vocal. At the opposite end of the spectrum are 3% who are for everything and they’re very vocal as well. Then there are the 12% that are “against but” and the 12% that are “for but.” Added together these groups comprise a total of 30% with the other 70% being the silent majority who simply want to see the church grow and prosper. He concluded by saying that if you’re governing to the vocal minority on either side, you’re more than likely not doing what is right for the vast majority of the people in the congregation. With this in mind, I always governed to the 70% and by doing so was able to win three elections with an average of 62% of the vote while running against multiple opponents in every election. I hope this will someday serve as a case study in that at the local level you can be successful while not governing to the extremes.

During these turbulent political times, where our nation seems to be hopelessly divided along partisan lines, I firmly believe that if things are going to change, the change must begin at the local level. I also believe that in Georgia, we are extremely blessed that local races are nonpartisan. I’ve often shared with people that in nine years in office, I never had a citizen who contacted me about an issue ask me what my political affiliation was. At the local level, it’s simply about elected officials being responsive and meeting immediate needs. Some may be large, some may be small, but those serving at the local level understand that each need must be equally valued and met as there is an accountability that must be served living alongside those we serve.

In a state and nation desperately in need of healing and unity, those serving at the local level are truly on the front lines of bringing our nation together, one city and one community at a time. In the wake of what has been a bitter political battle, I believe Georgia has the potential to rise above partisan politics and work together to build a better future for our citizens. If ever there has been a time for local governments to take a leadership role in bringing our state together by continuing to work together to build stronger communities throughout our state, the time is now.

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