|A Community Champion|
|Written by Valerie J. Morgan|
Commissioner Larry Johnson lauded for a decade of service
At 5’6, Larry Johnson is not very tall in stature. Last month, however, he was celebrated as one of DeKalb County’s giants.
From residents like Ann Brown, who heads the Belvedere Civic Club in South DeKalb, to Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal, Johnson was praised for serving 10 years as a DeKalb County Commissioner.
Several describe the 44-year-old as a community servant with a giant heart for the people.
A diverse group of well-wishers turned out for a sold-out banquet honoring Johnson at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Decatur.
Gov. Deal, Congressman Hank Johnson and National Association of Counties President Chris Rodgers sent letters of congratulations. Video-taped tributes came from several politicians including State Rep. Howard Mosby, former DeKalb CEO Liane Levetan, and Commissioners Sharon Sutton Barnes, Elaine Boyer and Lee May.
“He is always standing with the community,” said activist Ann Brown. “He is the hardest-working elected official that I know.”
Johnson worked closely with Brown to help revitalize Memorial Drive through his “Renaissance” project.
A new Wal-Mart, Sun Trust Bank and several other businesses were opened, creating jobs and boosting economic development in South DeKalb.
Growing up poor in Chicago
Johnson has made it a priority to form long-lasting relationships with residents like Brown, remaining engaged with the community.
This year alone, he attended nearly 300 community events.
With a background in public health, Johnson has focused on initiatives such as Let’s Move DeKalb, launched in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s nationwide push for people to exercise more and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Johnson started “DeKalb Walks…For the Health of It,” promoting walking as DeKalb’s official exercise.
County residents have taken over 1 million steps since the project was started in 2006.
Johnson also has held several events to provide resources to small businesses, and he has put smiles on the faces of thousands of needy kids through his Tree of Love program, which annually provides Christmas gifts to them. This year, he said he is planning to double his effort from serving 400 to 800 kids.
Johnson knows firsthand what it’s like to be disadvantaged. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, and winters were especially hard.
“I went to school smelling like kerosene because the lamps were all we had to keep warm. The kids would make fun of how my clothes smelled,” Johnson said.
But Johnson didn’t let his circumstances hold him back: His mom was 17, his dad was 13 when he was born.
His grandmother helped raise him and a teacher who believed in him helped him to go off to college, where he worked his way through. Along the way, he met and married TaNisha and they raised a daughter who is now a senior in college.
“Larry is humble. He’s a man of great faith and he is a giver. It’s one of the reasons I have stood beside him and supported him as a community servant,” said TaNisha Johnson.
Sen. Ron Ramsey, who presented Johnson with a proclamation at the banquet, summed up Johnson this way: “You are a man for the people to be revered for your service.”
A staunch advocate
Johnson cut his teeth as a community organizer in the early 1990s, working for The Atlanta Project under President Jimmy Carter.
“Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter was my advisor. She was very genuine. I worked with constituents to solve a variety of community issues. That’s when I knew I was called to do something.”
Johnson went on to build coalitions with John Evans, who now heads the DeKalb NAACP, and community activist Vivian Moore and others.
Through the South DeKalb Pedestrian Coalition, they saw the successful passage in 1994 of Georgia’s Pedestrian Week, observed the third week in October.
The next year, a law was passed giving pedestrians the right-of-way in crosswalks. That worked prepared Johnson for his political career in DeKalb.
DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis called Johnson a “keeper of the light in the community.” The two county leaders, sometimes at odds with one another, had opposing views on the TSPLOST referendum, which was rejected by voters this summer. Johnson, who serves as presiding officer of the board of commissioners, fought against the penny sales tax because no money was proposed to provide transit rail for the South DeKalb community he serves. Ellis supported the measure namely to get some projects done, rather than lose the funding.
Johnson’s staunch advocacy for his community is one of his greatest assets, said State Rep. Karla Drennen, whose area includes District 3, the south-central area that Johnson represents in DeKalb.
“Of all the commissioners I know, Larry represents the essence of public service,” said Drennen. “He’s there when you need him and he even shows up when you don’t need him. He makes the world a better place.”
Judge Panos recalled Johnson’s ability to listen and learn during their early days together on the campaign trail.
They were in South DeKalb passing out literature on Mount Patmos Baptist Church’s campus without permission and got to meet Pastor Raleigh Rucker, who lectured them.
Johnson lost his first bid for office in a six-way race in 2000 that included Hank Johnson, who won, and two other Johnsons.
Larry Johnson threw his support behind Hank Johnson and went to work part time for him. Larry honed his skills as a community advocate under Hank, who went on to become Congressman.
Lou walker encouraged to run.
In 2002, Larry Johnson won a newly-carved out commission district and became the youngest on the board at age 33.
In 2006 and 2010, he was re-elected to a second and third term after running unopposed. He said he plans to run again when his term ends in 2014.
“God has given me a tremendous gift, which is being able to serve others,” Johnson said. I want to continue serving by linking people to resources, leveraging public/private partnerships and empowering people to gain information that will make their lives and community better.”