By Joel Hall
With the exit of State Rep. Wade Starr (D-Fayetteville) from the House District 78 seat, several political newcomers have stepped in to take his place.
As the July 15 primary draws near, the once crowded race has dwindled into a competition among four candidates, each of whom believes he or she has the right set of skills to benefit the district.
The candidates are: Glenn Baker, a retired distribution controller for Georgia Power Company; Jonathan Newton, public information officer for the Clayton County Sheriff's Department; Shegale Crute Ralph, a private, strategic planning consultant; and John T. Walker, Jr., director of engagement for Clayton County Public Schools. All are Democrats and seeking elected office for the first time.
Baker, 61, is a lifelong resident of Clayton Count. He recently retired from Georgia Power after 35 years of service. He has been actively involved with United Way and Central Atlanta Progress (a non-profit, Atlanta booster group that supports downtown redevelopment efforts.)
Graduating from DeKalb College (now Georgia Perimeter College) with a two-year degree in recreation management, Baker is a past vice president of Arts Clayton, past president of the Clayton Festival Ballet, and a past board member of the Clayton County Cancer Society. As an involved parent, he once served on the Parent Teacher Association advisory board of Jonesboro Middle School, and also as president of the school's booster club.
He believes he can help Clayton County "rise out the ashes." He has the endorsement of the Clayton County Education Association (CCEA).
"My time will not be divided ... my entire focus will be on the district and what can be done for the county," said Baker. "I believe in the people of this county. I believe we will be successful ... I want to be a part of that."
Baker views himself as an excellent communicator and a "team player," who can work effectively with other members of the Clayton County delegation in addressing issues impacting the area. His main concerns are pushing forth legislation which will help maintain the school system's accreditation, improve transportation, and create transparency between citizens and the government.
"This county still means a lot to a lot of people," said Baker. "Do I have all the answers, absolutely not. But I know one thing, I will listen to people and find out the answers."
Jonathan Newton, 35, holds a key position in the Sheriff's Department, serving under Sheriff Victor Hill. As the department's public information officer, Newton serves as a spokesperson for the department and is responsible for maintaining the Sheriff's Department web site, facilitating all communication with media outlets, and handling Hill's monthly newsletter, "The Sheriff's Star."
In addition to past experience as a high school graphic arts teacher in Augusta,
he has a background in graphic design, and he has published "The Clayton Progress," a newspaper featuring "good things happening in Clayton County." Newton said the most-recent issue was published last summer.
"In reality, I've pushed a 12th grade education as far as it can go," said Newton, a resident of Clayton since Jan. 2006. He attended Augusta State University for a semester and completed a two-year theology program at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs.
Newton said he was inspired to run because he saw the need "for effective leadership" that would "put the people first" before personal agendas.
"We've haven't had the type of leadership that really goes out and presents the needs of the citizens," said Newton. "Every piece of legislature that I will sponsor will be designed to put the people first. Nothing is going to be done with my pen for special interests or lobbyists, or people who don't have the best interest of the people at heart."
Newton believes Clayton County is an area that is "primed for growth" and wants to work in the House to create economic incentives to attract "higher-paying, attractive jobs" to the area.
"A lot of people have to go to Atlanta, or past Atlanta to get high paying jobs," said Newton. "We have a lot of square footage in Clayton County. Everything doesn't need to be in downtown Atlanta. I would like to see some of that development here."
Newton also wants to draft legislation to create stricter checks and balances for members of the Clayton County school board.
"Every teacher inside the school system is reviewed annually," said Newton. "If they're not holding to the standards, their contract is not renewed. [School board members] need to be reviewed just like teachers and our principals are."
Newton says that Sheriff Hill -- who held the House District 81 seat from 2002-2004, is giving him his full endorsement. Despite having alienated many county officials, Hill maintains a strong base of community support.
Newton hopes to draw from that base, as well as Hill's experience.
"One of the things that sets me apart is that I am in the presence of one of the best public servants (Hill) that Clayton County has ever seen," said Newton. "If you have a lifeline, or you are able to talk to somebody who has been there ... that's what gives me an edge in terms of experience."
Shegale Crute Ralph, 40, says she is "not a political newcomer," even though this is her first bid for public office.
As a three-year board member of the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), and an active member of Clayton County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Ralph has worked with local legislators to bring state and federal dollars to those programs.
Ralph is a private strategic consultant, and she has worked with local municipalities to help them achieve their long-term goals. In September, she will participate in the Atlanta Regional Commission's (ARC) 2008 Regional Leadership Institute.
"The citizens won't have to start from scratch by electing me, because I do know my way around the Capitol," said Ralph. "The advantage for me is that I have a mutual respect for all of the elected officials. I'm not affiliated with anybody. That gives me an advantage because the citizens don't need to worry whether or not I can work with that elected official, or this legislator."
A Clayton resident for 12 years, Ralph majored in business at the University of Kansas, but stopped one year short of a degree in order to start a family. She is the mother of two children and the former wife of county commissioner, Wole Ralph.
"I've always worked twice as hard to compensate for [the absence of a degree]," said Ralph. She said she has "the best knowledge of existing legislation and where it will go" out of all of the candidates. She vows to work hard to mend the "disconnect" between elected officials and the needs of the citizens.
Ralph said she is deeply concerned with moving forward on legislation concerning the commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy, as well as House Bill 1302, which gives the Clayton County delegation the ability to create a Board of Ethics for the Clayton County School Board.
"There has been over $100 million earmarked specifically for the rail line," said Ralph. "The plan is there and the governor has finally gotten on board with it. We have got to move past the debate about transportation and get to work."
John T. Walker, Jr., 42, has been endorsed by Wade Starr and the Clayton County Education Association. Walker oversees safety, security, emergency preparedness at all schools in the county.
He holds a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, and once served as a three-term president of the Parole Association of Georgia -- advocates at the Georgia General Assembly for equal pay and treatment of parole officers. He believes he is "on the front lines of the issues facing our youth" in Clayton County.
Despite having no prior experience as an elected official, Walker was one of 35 national applicants selected to participate in the 2001 National Institute of Corrections Executive Excellence Program. The program prepares public safety officials to serve as heads of large agencies.
"I've worked directly with the Clayton County delegation in the past because of my work at the Capitol [with the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles], so I'm not a stranger to the delegation," said Walker. "I don't have to go up to the state [Capitol] and develop new relationships and friendships."
In addition to having close working relationships with the Clayton County Juvenile Court, Clayton County Emergency Management, and the law enforcement community, Walker has also worked with the Parks and Recreation Department for 10 years as a basketball coach.
Walker said he would like to draft legislation which would require convicted gang members to register with the state -- much the way sexual predators are required to register.
"Crime is increasing, not just in Clayton County, but in America, and a lot of it can be traced back to gang members," said Walker. "We need to be able to track those people."
Walker said he will also work to create stricter gun laws, including legislation which would add an additional five years to the sentence of any person twice convicted of a gun-related crime.
He also wants to press the state to "fully fund" Georgia schools and create initiatives to "intervene in the lives of young people at an early age."
"We should assign a social worker for every school, not every four or five schools. We need to have a behavior-intervention specialist at every school, not every four or five schools. Right now, we don't have the support system in place in the state for kids to succeed, because we don't fully fund education."