Ghent Redefining Sacred Steel

AJ Ghent had no idea who the bearded white dude in the beanie hat was, even when the dude walked up and introduced himself.

“I didn’t have a clue who Zac Brown was,” says Ghent, whose eponymous band was dressed in its typical black and white formal attire, rolling into a midnight set of originals on a Thursday last summer when the Grammy-winning Brown entered the mostly-empty Dixie Tavern.

After the gig, Ghent and Brown hung out all night, talking plans. They didn’t leave the tavern until seven the next morning. “We clicked right away,” says Ghent. Since then, the AJ Ghent Band has opened for the Zac Brown Band across the country, introducing audiences to the evolution of an African-American musical gospel style, “sacred steel,” which was basically invented by Ghent’s great uncle, Willie Eason, grandfather, Henry Nelson, and father, Aubrey Ghent Sr.

“They’re like the kings of sacred steel, but I didn’t want be defined by what they’d done, or be stuck inside the box of a church environment,” says Ghent, 27, who moved to Atlanta from Fort Pierce, Fla., in early 2012, developing his chops and a regional following while playing with bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton, the influential Socratic chameleon of southern jam rock.

Now, when he isn’t conjuring James Brown on vocals, Ghent makes the custom 8-string lap steel guitar hanging from his neck sound like a spectral woman singing praise to heaven, often harmonizing with the vocals of his front-line band mates, wife MarLa Ghent and sister Tiffany Ghent Belle.

Will Groth (drums), Seth Watters (bass), and Gary Paulo (rhythm guitar/sax) bring rhythmic funk to the band’s sweaty, bluesy rock, and they’re all at work on the group’s debut album for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label.

“I’d like to create the energy of a live experience with a studio album,” says Ghent, for whom the live experience has changed. “I knew small clubs and pizza joints. Then we played the Georgia Dome with Zac, and it was like adjusting your ears to the sound of a million people screaming.”

They Are Economically Essential

This one appeared in the February 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. It’s about a new and growing body of research focused on “the essential economy.”

Simona frequently is the first or last person you see upon entering or leaving Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. She’s got short, black hair and large, dusky eyes, speaks broken English with a dense Eastern European accent, and when you notice her at all, she’s never more than a few paces from a cart loaded down with cleaning supplies.

“I can’t get much different work right now, so this is what I do,” she says while sweeping the lobby area near the parking lot elevators, just outside the Emergency Room waiting area. “Maybe later, when I have time to go for English class.”

She had a clerical job at an accounting firm back in her native Romania, but says her educational credentials don’t match up with the requirements of an American firm. So for the past five years, she’s helped support her growing family by working in CHOA’s environmental services department. It’s not the kind of work she and her husband dreamt of when they came to the U.S., but it’ll do for the time being, she says.

“It was old story. Everybody was talking about America because, you know, America is … America is energy. That’s why we came,” she says. “For right now, work is OK.”

Simona’s work, tedious as it may seem, is a critical component on the universal job ladder – the low rung, a small but foundational element in the overall American economic machine. She and her husband (he installs kitchen tile), and about one quarter of the Georgia workforce – nearly one million workers – are the focus of new research by The Essential Economy Council (TEEC), a nonprofit organization aiming to reframe the state and national immigration policy debate by broadening the focus.

Former state senator Sam Zamarripa, who co-founded TEEC and serves as its co-president with another former state senator, Dan Moody, coined the term The Essential Economy (TEE) to describe an occupational cluster that includes cooks, crop pickers, dishwashers, housekeepers, janitors, landscape crews, nursing home aides, poultry workers, stock clerks and so forth – low-wage, low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs that often are held by immigrant workers.

“This is a big, big part of our overall workforce. These jobs don’t go offshore, and there’s only so much you can do with technology. You can’t outsource these jobs,” says Zamarripa, who served in the state senate from 2003 to 2006 and runs his own private equity firm, Zamarripa Capital Inc.

Now he and the council want to use their ongoing research to enlighten elected officials and business leaders on the impact of TEE.

“Lawmakers should be thinking about this as hard as they do the Knowledge Economy,” Zamarripa says. “We’re talking about a structural part of our economy that has never been understood in a useful way.”

Zamarripa, a Democrat, was the first Hispanic person elected to the state senate. He co-founded and chaired the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and has been an outspoken advocate for immigrants in Georgia. But he says the work of TEEC isn’t really about immigration. When he says it, you can almost see him winking.

“There’s not a discussion in America that doesn’t come back to immigration. Education comes back to it. Healthcare comes back to it. Transportation, driver’s license, security,” he says. “So, is this discussion about immigration? No more than those other discussions.”

Zamarripa says he isn’t being sly or ironic.

“No, I’ve bent over backwards trying to think this through,” he says, “because I’m not interested in debating immigration.”

Basically, TEEC is changing the discussion without really changing the subject.

“The elephant in the room is the immigration question,” says Moody, a Repub-lican. “But immigration is going to affect all sorts of sectors in our economy, from top to bottom.

“We’re a bipartisan research organization. We don’t have a policy agenda. We don’t have legislation that we’ve drafted. What we want to do is provide good information about an important sector of our economy that has been largely overlooked and not really understood.”

Moody and Zamarripa insist that they’re not out to change or repeal current immigration policies – they just want lawmakers to think a little deeper before leaping into something like HB 87 again.

Demand and Supply

Karen Bremer spent 35 years owning or operating restaurants and knew the lay of the land well enough so that she could hit full stride, with clear intent, when she became executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA) in the summer of 2010.

“The whole immigration issue is the first thing I had to deal with when I started as executive director,” says Bremer, a founding member of GRA who serves on the TEEC board. “We were the first organization to speak out against the proposed legislation. I definitely feel like I have battle scars.”

In the spring of 2011, her fight clearly lost as the Georgia legislature was giving HB 87 an enthusiastic thumb’s up, Bremer wanted to understand the possible impacts on the restaurant workforce and long-term growth prospects.

She asked for counsel from someone she knew, Zamar-ripa, who came to realize that the workforce supply issues facing the restaurant industry went beyond immigration policy, went beyond restaurants into widespread realms, like agriculture and healthcare, for example. These issues include, among others, an aging workforce, the cost and time associated with increasing government regulations, changing aspirations of the available workforce, and the difficulty of the work itself.

Zamarripa says the aging population is the No. 1 threat to maintaining the Essential Economy, because younger generations aren’t coming forward to do the work. He lists immigration no higher than fourth.

But one of the council’s economic advisors, Tom Cunningham (vice president, senior economist and regional executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta), says, “Immigration is central in all of this. That’s kind of what it comes down to.”

And for the business and industry leaders who make up most of TEEC’s board, immigration is the reason they are involved.

“I’m interested [in the Essential Economy] because of the immigration topic, and specifically because HB 87 was put in place,” says Steve Simon, TEEC board member and a partner in Atlanta-based Fifth Group Restaurants. “There was already a workforce shortage before HB 87. In my opinion, the laws currently in place do more harm than good.”

There’s always a labor shortage in the restaurant industry. High turnover has been a chronic condition for decades. Apparently, low wages, meager benefits and long hours aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Still, about 10 percent of the total workforce (in Georgia and the U.S.) toils in the restaurant industry (374,000 people in Georgia, 12.9 million nationally). Nearly 30 percent of all workers in the $632-billion national restaurant industry are immigrants, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

“We can’t outsource washing dishes to China, we can’t outsource the hostess to India,” Bremer says.

One of the fastest-growing segments in the restaurant industry is contract feeding for medical facilities, retirement communities, assisted living facilities and other institutional settings – essential work for an aging population that is living longer.

“The restaurant industry is one of the most labor-intensive industries. There are many hands that go into putting that plate down in front of you,” Bremer says. “And the pool of workers is declining.”

Her fellow TEEC board member, Charles Hall, is seeing the same workforce issues affect his membership at the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, where he is the executive director. That’s why he’s thrown his hat in with the council.

“We’ve got to know how we’re going to fill these harvest worker jobs if U.S. citizens won’t fill them,” says Hall. “There aren’t many Georgians raising their kids to be cucumber pickers.

“So, if we’re not raising our kids to do this kind of work, whether it’s washing dishes, housekeeping in a nursing home or picking cucumbers in a field, we’ve got to figure out how to create policies that support growing [the Essential Economy]. The U.S. economy depends on it.”

Low Rung, High Impact

It’s a recurring theme, says Cunningham, the scramble to find workers to do the basic stuff that holds everything together.

“A lot of businesses just can’t find the workers they say they need, especially in the hospitality industry. If they can’t find the workers to support these hotels and resorts and restaurants, you’ve got a problem,” Cunningham says.

Cunningham, who travels the state visiting different groups and businesses on behalf of the Federal Reserve Bank, was struck by a recent conversation with a businessman in Brunswick.

“He told me that increasing the wage rate doesn’t even change their pool of applicants, a pool that shrank considerably with Georgia’s new immigration reform law,” Cunningham says.

“How we think about immigration and the economy in a deeper sense really matters,” he adds. “We’re not talking about high-skilled, high-wage stuff. It’s straightforward stuff, but if you don’t do these jobs, you’re really stuck. You can screw up the whole economy.”

The council claims the Essential Economy is exactly that – essential, to everything above it, like the Knowledge Economy (scientists, researchers, technicians and teachers), or skilled trade workers, specialized manufacturing workers and office workers. The agricultural, hospitality, construction, personal care and other workers in the Essential Economy are foundational to economic development, because no high-wage executive in the Knowledge Economy wants to move to a place where the hotels aren’t clean, the coffee is cold, hospital floors aren’t swept and the fruit rots on trees.

“The Essential Economy feeds our lifestyle. So if you don’t have it, you don’t have the amenities of the modern world,” Zamarripa says. “And the expectations around the Essential Economy worker are the same ones you have with your doctor.

“You want your coffee when you want it, you want the best treatment you can get, and you want it on time. You hold them all to the same standards. You don’t distinguish between the hourly wage earner and the person who has a degree from Johns Hopkins.”

That timely, hot cup of coffee, or that woman sweeping the hospital floor, or the guy washing dishes at the Olive Garden are all elements in an economic development campaign designed to grow something else.

“We often focus on the promise of the high-tech economy and focus our efforts on that singular goal without remembering that building a high-tech economy is a process,” says Jennifer Clark, associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy and an economic advisor to the council, whose work “underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding the labor market as a whole.”

Clark, whose field is regional economic development policy, says policymakers often fail to appreciate the contributions of the Essential Economy when trying to attract “the creative class.” She thinks in terms of pathways composed of “ladders that provide opportunities for people to pull themselves from the bottom rungs to the top.”

Strictly Business

The data compiled for The Essential Economy Council by Clark’s Georgia Tech colleague, economist Alfie Meek, as well as early data pulled together by Boston Consulting Group, defines the substantive bottom rung jobs. Those numbers were given to Juice Analytics, who went to work making the data presentation user-friendly.

Now, Joe Legislator will be able to log into the council’s research and see how many people work in The Essential Economy in his district and compare it with other counties and regions, based on job numbers and wages and occupational clusters.

It’s a massive amount of information, much of it assembled together for the first time, and it’s anybody’s guess how or if Joe Legislator will use it, but according to Meek’s data, about 25 percent of the workers in Georgia – almost one million people – work in these bottom-rung occupations.

“In other words,” Clark says, “this is a considerable employment sector and one that passes largely under the radar when policymakers propose economic development strategies intended to serve the state as a whole.”

Zamarripa and Moody have taken their message on the road, to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker of the House David Ralston, among others.

“The first order of business is just laying out the fact that there is this cluster of job sectors that have these characteristics, and it’s very big and it produces a lot of jobs, contributes a lot in wages and sales tax and GDP,” Zamarripa says.

When they visited Ralston, his reaction to their initial spiel was, “so what.”

Zamarripa explained further, showed off Juice Analytics’ work, the easily digested and organized information the council hopes legislators will use as a new tool for making constructive policy decisions.

He explained to Ralston that TEE work wasn’t going anywhere, that these jobs have to be done by people, and having enough people to do the work was both a challenge and also critical to maintaining an established American way of life. It sunk in.

“I’m very impressed with their research,” Ralston says. “They’ve looked in a comprehensive way at an important segment of our economy in Georgia, studied its characteristics and needs. I think it’s something that was long overdue.

“Any information that helps us understand the total economic landscape is useful and important, and I think it’ll be very helpful to the General Assembly.”

But Zamarripa does not believe the Gold Dome is a large enough toolbox. From the start, he’s had his mind on something bigger.

“I’ve always had national ambition with this work,” he says. “I think it’s creative, constructive, and I think it will help people make better decisions.”

The council raised about $800,000 through December, and the research so far has looked at the past and the present. Work continues on the Essential Economy forecast. Meanwhile, Zamarripa has pitched the Knight Foundation for support of a national study, and he hopes the council’s work will evolve into an ongoing research program with a permanent home at a university, maybe Georgia Tech.

Whatever becomes of this thing he started, Zamarripa still insists it’s not about immigrant people working on American soil – it’s economics, strictly business.

“The outcome of this work is not immigration reform,” he says. “The outcome of this work is an understanding of an economy that’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”

Solar Flare …

This appeared in the July 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. Its one that I would have included in the ‘Body of Work’ package, because it was pretty timely (at the time), and it’s pretty thorough. Hope you enjoy it.

It’s the sun, the sol of our solar system, to which everything that lives and moves, including the wind, owes its existence. Without the sun, there is no us, no Earth. You can’t miss it. It’s the biggest thing in the sky, the biggest thing for at least 24 trillion miles, and at 4.5 billion years old it is middle-aged and remains the most abundant source of power between here and Alpha Centauri, zapping our planet every minute with more energy than humanity can consume in a year.

The best thing is, the sun is free. Still, for most of those eons, capturing the sun’s energy for human consumption has been like picking crops with a catcher’s mitt.

But over the past few years, photovoltaic technology (“photo” for light, “voltaic” meaning electricity) has gotten way more efficient, and the previously prohibitive price has fallen dramatically, setting the stage for what’s happening now in Georgia: Solar deployment and interest are increasing dramatically.

“This is a very dynamic time for solar energy, and it demonstrates a pent-up demand and interest in solar energy for Georgia,” says Mark Bell, chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association (GSEA) and president of Atlanta-based Empower Energy Tech-nology. “There’s a great potential here for real, sustainable economic development.”

Technical colleges have expanded solar course offerings for would-be installers in anticipation of job growth, and the cost per kilowatt keeps diving down. Meanwhile, public demand, improved technology, corporate investment, government incentives, entrepreneurial nerve and some provocative proposed legislation drive the state’s sun-soaked prospects toward supernova.

“Solar power is the fastest-growing industry in the world, and it’s growing along in the same way the Internet did,” says John S. Quarterman, a Harvard-educated author and Internet pioneer who launched the first commercial online newsletter, among other things, and who lives in rural Lowndes County.

“Think back 20 years to 1993. How many people had heard of the Internet? And look at how far we’ve come. What I’m seeing with solar energy is the same kind of exponential growth. It’s clean energy that works, and it generates jobs.”

Quarterman writes about solar energy, environmental issues, agriculture, technology and a lot of other stuff, often with a local slant, on his various web sites (like, for Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange, and He believes Georgia has barely stuck its big toe into the solar pool at this point, but he’d prefer jumping in with both feet.

“We have a lot of sun in Georgia, especially South Georgia – a lot more than Germany, the world leader in solar energy, and a lot more than New Jersey,” Quarterman says, adding indignantly, “Why are we lagging behind New Jersey?”

He knows why. He’s making a point. New Jersey gets less sunlight than Georgia, but has way more solar capacity installed. In a study by Arizona State, Georgia ranked third among states that would benefit from generating and exporting solar energy and fifth among states that would benefit from solar deployment just for self-sufficiency.

New Jersey didn’t make either list, but it is third in the nation (first among Eastern states) in cumulative installed solar capacity with 971 megawatts and third in solar installations last year.

Georgia is 21st in cumulative installed capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), with 22 megawatts (enough to power 2,000 homes). That lumps us in with a bunch of states that get a lot less sunshine than Georgia, but it represents a four-fold increase since 2010.

By 2015, Georgia’s total solar capacity should multiply more than 10 times, thanks to the initiative of the mammoth public utility corporation usually cast as renewable energy’s staunchest opponent.

“We always look for cost-effective ways to add renewables to our portfolio, and when we move, we do it in a significant way,” says Ervan Hancock, manager of renewable and green strategies for Georgia Power, the investor-owned utility that is adding 210 megawatts of solar capacity over the next two years through its Advanced Solar Initiative (ASI). That’s in addition to the 61 megawatts that were already under contract in November, when the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the ASI.

Those 271 total megawatts of solar power would vault Georgia up to fifth place in solar installed capacity (just ahead of Colorado) if all the other states do nothing else. Don’t bet on that. It’s like Quarterman says. Solar is growing really fast, just not in Georgia, not quite.

In 2012, the U.S. solar industry grew by 76 percent, with more than 3,300 megawatts (or 3.3 gigawatts) of photovoltaic (PV) capacity. The industry supported 119,000 jobs in 2012 (a 13.2 percent increase over 2011), and total solar electric installations were valued at $11.5 billion. By comparison, according to SEIA, in 2012 there were 800 solar industry jobs in Georgia (41st in the nation, per capita), where about 90 companies invested $18 million to install residential and commercial solar energy systems.

But Georgia seems ready to catch plenty more rays. According to Hancock, Georgia Power’s ASI promises an investment of $750 million to $1 billion. And if an upstart Macon-based solar company gets its way when the state legislature convenes in 2014, Georgia could soon be thinking in terms of multiple gigawatts.

New Solar Rising

Robert Green says he was born with a wrench in his hand.

“Running backhoes and trenchers and building utility systems have been in my blood from the get-go,” says Green, who ran a Florida-based construction company that built utility infrastructure, just like his father before him.

He got into the solar game about six years ago and recently served as a lead consultant on Dublin High School’s 4,900-module PV system (provided by MAGE Solar, a German company with U.S. headquarters in Dublin), a 1.1-megawatt system financed through local development authority bonds.

Now Green and Shane Owl-Greason, his partner in Georgia Solar Utilities (GaSU, based in Macon), are trying to circumvent a 40-year-old law with new legislation that would create the state’s first regulated solar utility.

House Bill 657, the Rural Georgia Economic Recovery and Solar Resource Act of 2014, was introduced by Rep. Rusty Kidd late in the 2013 session. Its main thrust is “to authorize the Public Service Commission to establish a rural community solar initiative and oversee and manage a responsible expansion of solar energy in this state,” according to the bill’s language.

The idea grew out of GaSU’s frustration with Georgia Power’s (and other utility companies’, like the EMCs’) geographic monopoly, as prescribed under the 1973 Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act, which protects utilities from competition within their defined service areas.

“That territorial act is the biggest hurdle we have for deploying a real solar industry in Georgia,” says Quarter-man, who likes the fact that HB 657 focuses on rural solar development, but he doesn’t like the idea of another regulated utility monopoly, which is what the bill suggests.

It’s hard to find anyone who does like the idea of a new monopoly.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” says attorney Bobby Baker, who served on the PSC for 18 years and is now a partner at Freeman Mathis & Gary in Atlanta. “We don’t need a whole new comprehensive layer of regulatory restrictions on an industry that’s ready to take off.”

GaSU, of course, wants to be the community solar provider, a statewide utility with the aggregate buying power to get dirt-cheap corporate bond rates to finance solar installations. Their initial plan to build a $320-million, 80-megawatt solar farm near Georgia Power’s waning coal-fired Plant Branch in Milledgeville is part of a campaign to deploy two gigawatts (or 2 GW, or 2,000 MW) of solar capacity in Georgia by 2016.

“HB 657 has emerged as the conservative solar bill that satisfies the progressive mind,” says Owl-Greason. “It’ll provide rate reductions for Georgia consumers, but the ultimate goal is to clean up our energy production so future generations can enjoy the planet.”

The GaSU folks believe their solar energy system would pay for itself in 25 years and ultimately generate more than $7 billion in dividends for ratepayers and another $2 billion in profits (through grid access and distribution fees and so forth) for Georgia Power which, naturally, is skeptical (and which last year passed on GaSU’s plan for the big solar farm at Plant Branch).

“We are growing from 4.4 megawatts of solar to 271 megawatts in just a few years, within the existing regulatory construct and the legal territorial services construct, without a mandated RPS [renewable portfolio standards, which exist in most states], without putting additional pressure on customers’ rates,” Georgia Power’s Hancock says. “What we’re struggling with is, why is this bill necessary when we’re demonstrating significant growth without putting upward  pressure on rates and without putting pressure on the legislature?”

The answer probably depends on your definition of “significant growth” and your thoughts on the concept of free market competition.

For many renewable energy advocates, Georgia Power (and its parent, Southern Company) has been public enemy No. 1, mainly because of the utility’s historically heavy reliance on dirty coal and large investments in nuclear, its state and national lobbying power and its bottom-line shareholder interests.

But HB 657, a direct assault on Georgia Power’s traditional territory, has created an “enemy-of-my-enemy” situation, a strange bedfellows sort of thing, with the utility company and some of its staunchest foes standing on the same side as naysayers, albeit for different reasons.

“The bill absolutely is intended to benefit one company and one company only, and as such, does not comport well with the long-term best interests of electricity customers,” says Lee Peterson, an Atlanta-based attorney who has been a tax advisor in more than $2.4 billion of renewable energy projects, whose client list includes the U.S. Department of Energy and who is usually openly critical of Georgia Power and other big utilities.

“The biggest obstacle we have for solar energy is a regulated utility,” Peterson says. “So adding another one, as HB 657 suggests, to further suppress the free market is not what I’d call a good idea.”

Solar Sense

Some of the state’s leading solar industry advocates and practitioners are taking a wait-and-see attitude with HB 657.

“My goal, as an active industry participant and supporter, is to remove barriers that restrict solar energy,” says James Marlow, CEO of Atlanta-based Radiance Solar, one of the 2012 Top 100 Solar Contractors (according to Solar Power World), and one of the companies contracting with Georgia Power on ASI projects.

“That doesn’t mean I support every aspect of every bill. I support the idea of a community solar provider, but other than that, I’d rather not say anything else about this one until we move a little more down the road.”

GSEA also took a seat on the fence.

“Regarding the idea of a monopoly, or quasi-monopoly, I’m not sure we understand the implications of that and what it would do to pricing and competition,” Bell says. “We favor a market-based solution, but I think there’s still a discussion to be had.”

So the state’s leading solar advocacy group hasn’t taken a position on what might be the most significant solar legislation ever proposed in Georgia.

But it’s not like the GSEA hasn’t taken a stand before. In 2012, they spent the first part of the year fighting Georgia Power under the Gold Dome, and the last part in intense negotiations with the utility to help craft a better ASI.

During the legislative session, GSEA lobbied lawmakers to pass a bill supporting third-party financing, such as power purchase agreements (PPAs) – financing arrangements that solar advocates believe will open the floodgates for a new energy market, but which are also in violation of the 40-year-old Territorial Act.

Basically, a PPA allows property owners and tenants to lease PV equipment from a solar develop-er/operator (a third party, i.e., not the utility company) and pay him for the electricity (often at a rate lower than the utility’s) for a pre-determined amount of time, typically 10 to 20 years. At least 22 states have authorized PPAs, according to the U.S. De-partment of Energy.

“It’s like leasing a car or a photocopier – but you can’t lease solar panels because of artificial restrictions,” says Baker. “Makes no sense.”

Anyway, Georgia’s PPA bill, introduced year after year by State Sen. Buddy Carter, gets crushed year after year. (Carter, who recently announced his bid for Jack Kingston’s seat in Congress, expects someone else to carry the ball from now on.)

“So we fought hard for PPAs, and we got our butts kicked,” says GSEA’s communications director Julie Hairston. “But, even though we lost, we sort of won, because it elevated both the breadth and depth of the conversation about solar energy.”

Around the time GaSU was petitioning to become a new regulated utility, Georgia Power came forward with its 210-megawatt ASI (which was basically launched to replace a failed biomass project). Initially, the plan called for only 30 MW to be distributed solar (smaller installations, up to 1 MW, like on your roof or in your front yard), and the rest to be utility scale (large solar farms).

But GSEA’s leadership negotiated with Georgia Power to increase distributed solar capacity to 90 MW. This is important because more distributed generation means more jobs – a lot of smaller projects equals more employment opportunities around the state.

Even with the ASI, the billion-dollar investment (give or take a quarter mil) and the sharp and sudden climb in solar megawatts on its grid, not everyone is convinced that Georgia Power – or many shareholder utilities, for that matter – has really seen the light.

“Georgia Power is undoubtedly one of the best-run utilities in the country,” says Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., who applauded the ASI back in November, when he also encouraged GaSU to take its case to the state legislature (and the PSC approved by a 3-2 vote), which led to HB 657.

“That said, I’m also disappointed in Georgia Power’s long-term ap-proach in regards to renewables, especially solar energy. In this commissioner’s opinion, it isn’t aggressive enough.”

Which is why, in May, McDonald (and others, including GaSU and the Atlanta Tea Party) were pushing Georgia Power for more solar energy. Specifically, when the utility submitted its 20-year plan to the PSC earlier this year and it didn’t have any new provisions for solar energy, McDonald suggested Georgia Power include at least 500 megawatts of solar-generated electricity to the portfolio. (The PSC is sched-uled to vote on the plan this month.)

The reasoning is, for a mega-utility that generates 16,000 megawatts, 271 MW of solar is a pretty small number (less than 2 percent of the whole). But it’s just the beginning. Peterson believes Georgia Power’s solar surge is indicative of a utility industry, “caught with its pants down.

“They hung onto coal too long,” he says, “waited until the combination of fair market and free market mechanics and federal pollution regulations essentially proved to them they made the wrong bet, and they might have waited too long.“

In January, Edison Electric Institute (EEI, the association of shareholder-owned electric companies) released the report Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Stra-tegic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business, which warns its members of potential “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” because of “disruptive challenges” – such as renewable distributed energy resources, that growing number of rooftop arrays, and im-proved, affordable technologies that may inspire consumers to use the grid only for backup power, or leave it entirely.

“I think it confirms my belief that the electric utility industry is in the initial stages of a major transformation,” Baker says, one that will ultimately mean, “more independence for smaller electric customers.”

Jack Star, who has the perfect solar energy name, hasn’t seen the report yet, but he doesn’t really care at the moment, because time is running out and he sees millions of square feet of someone else’s opportunity around him, massive warehouse rooftops, perfect for solar arrays (like the 1.5 MW system IKEA installed at its distribution center near Savannah last year).

“Most commercial and industrial building owners don’t know there is a 50-percent first-year depreciation for installing solar panels, but that program is over at the end of this year, and given the current makeup and attitude of Congress, it probably won’t be renewed again,” says Star, a retired science journalist who launched an organization called Solar Champions, which he describes as “a small group of people enthusiastic about actually doing things.”

Star is a community activist with no interest in the economic benefits of renewable energy for himself. He’s in it for the good of the whole and sees solar as a win-win for the environment and the business community. He says that solar, and renewables in general, are inevitable, but the really big stuff is still a few years away.

Look out for 2016, “the first year of explosive growth of renewable distributed alternate energy,” says Star, who has always prided himself on being ahead of the story. “There are a number of technologies that are moving out of the lab phase and into demonstration-size facilities. It will take about 18 months to two years for them to shake out and be able to identify which will go into full commercial development.

“At that point, we’re off to the races.”

Shrinking the University System of Georgia

This story appeared in the July 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. It explains why and how the University System of Georgia consolidated, which created a ruckus in Augusta. One member of the Board of Regents told me, off the record, that the name change to Georgia Regents University (and how the name was changed) was a dumb move.

Back when Shirley Strum Kenny was transforming the State University of New York at Stony Brook into one of the nation’s top research institutions, she learned a lesson about the virtues of patience from renowned architect John Belle, who was working on one of the many campus improvement projects she was responsible for during her 15 years as president.

Belle had designed a spectacular new academic mall in the heart of the sprawling campus near the north shore of suburban Long Island. But he left one task unfinished, for a while – there were no designated paths crossing the spacious commons area.

Kenny explains that Belle wanted to see where the human traffic naturally strode. Only then could he pave some permanent paths that would meet the needs of the people the campus was supposed to be serving – you know, students, faculty and so forth.

In the six months she spent as interim president of Augusta State University, Kenny pondered Belle’s patient design methods while ASU fitfully endured a whirlwind, ambitious, often contentious consolidation with nearby Georgia Health Sciences University, in an effort to make the resulting Georgia Regents University (GRU) a top research institution, sort of like Stony Brook.

“Of all the consolidations that were done, this is by far the most challenging and complex, but it could have the biggest payoff,” says Kenny, hired out of retirement to be, in essence, a temporary caretaker.

“Birthing a research university is not easy,” she adds, stating what has become painfully obvious to the University System of Georgia (USG) and the consolidated GRU’s President Ricardo Azziz, among others. “It takes a lot of heavy lifting. It’s very exciting, but it really takes the commitment of the state if they’re going to bring it off.

“That could be tough, because the state government has a slash mentality, and you can’t build a research university on the cheap.”

When Kenny left her post, as planned, on January 10 of this year, ASU no longer existed, per se. In its place was GRU, one of four reorganized institutions to emerge from the USG’s historic plan to consolidate eight colleges and universities, inducing a new era in the state’s public higher education scheme.

The other consolidations: Macon State College and Middle Georgia College became Middle Georgia State College (MGSC), Waycross College and South Georgia College became South Georgia State College (SGSC), and Gainesville College merged with North Georgia College & State University (Dahlonega) to create the University of North Georgia (UNG).

It’s all part of living in “the new normal,” says Azziz, who was president of Georgia Health Sciences University before the merger.

Tax revenues have been down during years of recession, with repercussions. “State support has declined sharply, and increasingly we’ve seen cuts to other avenues of funding for academia,” Azziz says. “The goal of consolidation, as clearly stated, was to free up resources and become more efficient so that those resources could be redirected toward student education.

“We can’t just tax and put the cost on the backs of students. It’s important to find other, more cost effective ways to improve education,” he says. “We know a larger enterprise can be more cost effective – there are synergies related to size.”

And there are ramifications when you pave something too quickly, or when the public perceives it that way. Which is what has happened in Augusta, where many who identified with and supported ASU have likened the merger there to a hostile takeover.

“There’s been a lot of angst,” Azziz says.

USG leadership never said it would be easy. In fact, they didn’t say much at all until the decision to merge – and who to merge – was pretty much made.

“The consolidation of colleges and universities is a very tough thing to do, and very few are successful. Most of them crash and burn,” says USG Chancellor Hank Huckaby. “So when you do something like this, you do it cautiously.”

In other words – in Huckaby’s words, in fact – there were about 600 discreet decisions that had to be made concerning this significant reorganization of the state’s public university system.

“We didn’t consult with the institutions,” says Shelley Nickel, associate vice chancellor for planning and implementation. “The Board of Regents approved the eight we recommended for consolidation at their January [2012] meeting. A few days before that, the chancellor notified the presidents, to let them know the board was about to take action.”

She says that secrecy was important because, according to Nickel, “In other states, where there was more dialogue and discussion, consolidation didn’t go as well.”

Shifting Zeroes

Anyone who paid attention saw this coming, so it isn’t as if the potential for college and university mergers was a state secret. It’s been part of the “what if” discussion under the Gold Dome for years.

“The consolidation idea didn’t exactly come out of thin air,” Huckaby says.

He was on the job only a few months in September 2011 when he suggested to the regents that consolidation was worth serious consideration, given the economic realities and ongoing budget cuts. Since FY 2009 – because of declining tax revenues combined with the political unwillingness to raise tax rates – the state legislature has cut the USG budget by a cumulative 20 percent (more than $1 billion). The USG had some considering to do.

“The question kept popping up, ‘How can we reduce administrative costs and invest more in the education of our students?’ Strategic consolidation seemed like a good approach,” says Board of Regents Chair Dink NeSmith.

Huckaby and his staff presented their ideas, and the board voted unanimously in favor of the consolidation plan.

“We believe 31 institutions versus 35 will allow us to be better stewards of the resources available,” NeSmith says.

There was a precedent for consolidation close at hand that Huckaby admired. By the time the regents began discussing consolidation in earnest, the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), facing annual steep budget cuts of its own, had already merged 15 schools into seven (they’ve since merged two more tech colleges).

“Each of those [first 15] mergers saved us at least $500,000 in administrative overhead, and I know that’s true because they took $7.5 million out of my budget for that purpose,” says TCSG Commissioner Ron Jackson. “At the end of the day, we saved $7.5 million for the taxpayers of Georgia, and no student went underserved.

“We had some college name changes, which was of great concern in some communities, but we promised we wouldn’t be closing campuses, and we haven’t. Those communities still have their colleges.”

Same with the USG deal; they’re not closing campuses. But they did reduce overhead quickly when eight presidents became four. Huckaby estimates initial savings of $6 million to $8 million in administrative costs, money that is already expanding course offerings and degree programs (at UNG’s Gainesville campus, for example).

“The first mandate was to reduce overall operating costs to reinvest in academics,” Azziz says. “And we’ve already begun to do that by cutting the cost of administration and administrators. That represented about nine percent of the budget at ASU and five and half percent at GHSU before consolidation. Now, at GRU, it’s around four and a half percent.”

Huckaby says the money they save from cutting all of those assistant vice dean positions will help meet the academic goals being placed on the higher education system, such as Gov. Nathan Deal’s “Complete College Georgia” initiative, created to address the state’s needs for a well-trained, educated workforce.

The idea is to improve the rate of graduation (get students to earn their certificates or degrees on time) and produce an additional 250,000 graduates (combined, between both systems) by 2020 – doing more without the promise of more resources by robbing Peter to pay Paul or, as Azziz says, “shifting resources.”

In the short term, it’s tough to shift what you don’t have.

When word came to the college presidents from the USG office in January 2012 that the recommended eight institutions would be folded into four, there was a postscript: “We didn’t give the institutions any money for consolidation,” says Nickel. “They had to support that on their own, with their own resources.”

Once the plan was approved, consolidation committees were formed at each college, comprising faculty, staff, students, alumni and community representatives. And there were work groups, lots of them.

“We had 65 groups dealing with every issue you can imagine,” says Bonita Jacobs, president of UNG, who also says the timing of the regents’ vote in January 2012 was planned with a SACS deadline in mind.

“We had a lot of deadlines in order to meet the target date. SACS was the umbrella to everything we were doing. Accreditation is a cornerstone. If we have accreditation problems, we’re not doing our students any good.”

SACS (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accreditation agency), signed off on the mergers in December. The eight could become four. And this past January, just one year after the regents approved the mergers, the colleges began operating as consolidated units.

“Twelve months is a quick timeline for something of this magnitude,” says Virginia Carson, president of South Georgia State College (SGSC). “But my team has been amazingly resilient in the face of considerable demands.”

Merging Realities

As a new legislative session began and digressed, a vocal gaggle of politicians was giving an enthusiastic “hell, yeah” to a bill permitting guns on college campuses (it stalled) while four new-named institutions of higher learning grappled with real-world challenges, such as how to keep doing more with less, which has become kind of an unofficial slogan throughout the university system.

“We’re doing everything we ordinarily do as faculty and staff, with consolidation as a layer on top of that,” says Carson, who is based in Douglas. “Really good people are being asked to stretch considerably beyond their expected roles, and, you know, people get tired.”

At the four new combined colleges, faculty and staff are griping about the new email system, or they’re assuming new roles, meeting new students from other campuses, trying to plan five years ahead while the ground is moving beneath them. The IT guys are being run ragged while the presidents try to make all the pieces line up the way they’re supposed to.

There are new departments that didn’t exist before, as new degree programs are phased in across the miles; there are new student tuition and fee structures to implement and salaries and tenured positions to deal with.

“We’ve created one faculty now, so there’s got to be one pay structure, one tenure policy,” says Jacobs. “That will mean taking the money we have and trying to bring faculty and staff salaries to an equitable rate.”

UNG is now a wide-ranging institution of 15,000 students, the largest enrollment of the four consolidated colleges, with campuses in Cumming, Dahlonega, Oakwood and Watkinsville.

“We’re one university now with one mission, but we’re four different campuses with four different histories and cultures,” says Jacobs, who now helms a college with campuses that are 70 miles apart (Dahlonega to Watkinsville).

The smallest of the combo-colleges is SGSC, with 3,000 students spread over its two campuses, Douglas and Waycross, about 35 miles apart. The two schools that formed SGSC were traditionally two-year colleges. The new combined college will now offer bachelor’s degrees.

“You have to appreciate the concerns that some people in the communities have about changing the direction,” Carson says. “But in the main, I think almost everyone sees the value of increased educational opportunities.”

Over at the new Middle Georgia State College, John Black is balancing his role as interim president with the honey-do list back at his 100-year-old house in Augusta, where he was enjoying retirement when Huckaby came calling last summer.

Now he’s presiding as temporary trail boss for a school of 8,800 students on five campuses (Macon, Cochran, Dublin, Eastman and Warner Robins). The consolidation of so many parts has brought plenty of anxiety for employees, Black says, “but we’ve worked through that. I’m not going to tell you we’re all in agreement on every solution, but we’re a whole lot farther down the road than we were in July.”

The best news he’s had since last July might be the peace treaty between the two foundations that once supported two different colleges – they’ve successfully merged to form the Middle Georgia State College Foundation.

“Now there’s one instance of two different groups that not only got together and started walking in the same direction, but they’re actually holding hands,” says Black, who graduated high school in Macon, taught at Augusta State, and earned a Ph.D. in endocrinology from the Medical College of Georgia, which changed its name to Georgia Health Sciences University, which consolidated with Augusta State to become Georgia Regents University.

Open Letter

In January, just before her last day on the job, Shirley Kenny delivered the letter personally to Ricardo Azziz. She hadn’t even shown it to her secretary. It was something from her heart, she says, but straightforward, for his eyes only, confidential, not quite a manifesto, maybe a warning, and filled with her philosophy, advice and firm recommendations culled from decades as a college president and educator, written more in the tone of a considerate mentor than an accuser.

It didn’t really become an indictment until everyone else saw it.

“Ricardo accepted it very graciously. He thanked me for it, appreciated my insights and recommendations,” Kenny says. “The fact that it became public still astonishes me. That was never my intent. I was trying to be helpful, and I had been so careful.”

The Augusta Chronicle obtained the letter through an open records request, published it in print and online, and angry locals got angrier. Among other things, they’d been spitting razor blades over the name change since the previous summer.

According to Nickel, each consolidated institution was asked to submit three names to the regents, who in GRU’s case had to choose among University of Augusta, Georgia Arts and Sciences University, and Georgia Regents University (considered the least favorite by members of the name committee).

Azziz, who maybe isn’t helping his case with the locals, says, “I do think they picked the best name possible. It reflects the statewide entity that the university is. And it’s important to note that the regents removed the city name from every single consolidated school.”

Nonetheless, the name has been trouble. Regent University in Virginia has sued the USG over it. Huckaby says, “We don’t ever comment on any litigation,” then adds, “That’s the name the board approved.”

Besides, a new name had little to do with the USG’s goals in Augusta. Besides the whole “our main goal is to serve students better and more efficiently” stuff, they wanted to create a fourth research university (with Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Georgia State), this one focused, mostly, on the health sciences.

But the sudden transition of a medical college filled with grad students and a liberal arts college filled with undergrads into a research university means tuition hikes for the liberal arts crowd. A complex formula of rate increases is happening gradually over the next few years.

This probably isn’t the end of it, though. There will likely be more consolidations. Black thinks it’s inevitable, Huckaby can’t say when and Azziz says it’s an idea that’s here to stay.

“Georgia’s ahead of the curve on this issue,” says Azziz, who now presides over a university of 9,500 students, most of them from the former Augusta State. “This is the beginning of a national wave.”

A gathering of officials from other institutions from around the country – Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, etc. – met with USG leaders and presidents of the consolidated universities to study what’s happened here, because maybe they’d like to try it.

And the thing about stuff like this, fidgeting with college names and loyalties and traditions, is that even if the intentions are noble – and even if it works well – it’s bound to be a disruption, and it may even hurt in places. It’s supposed to. Nothing ventured and all that.

“Consolidation,” Azziz says, “can be a painful process.”

So maybe Azziz, an obstetrician and gynecologist, should acquaint himself with and adhere to, with hope, something Freeman Dyson once said. According to Dyson, a venerable big-shot scientist at Princeton, one of those research universities, “The pain of childbirth is not remembered — it’s the child that’s remembered.”

The Charter School Story

I’m pretty sure this one was submitted as part of the ‘Body of Work’ package, because it’s one the boss was particularly interested in. Nothing world-changing or spectacular here, but this is the story I think of when reading the AABP judge’s kind comments about my work, “… he writes a compelling narrative out of a topic that could’ve been a dry, talking-heads dispatch.” As my wife often says about her cooking, I hope this isn’t too dry. Her cooking isn’t, but she says it anyway … just wanted to put that out there.

Barbara Grimm couldn’t imagine sending her son Will to their Savannah neighborhood’s middle school, where the academic expectations were low and discipline was almost nonexistent – not the combination she was looking for.

Grimm, a teacher who left the classroom to raise her four kids, and her husband William, a guidance counselor, didn’t find many options for their academically gifted son. They considered private school, but the Grimms have always been staunch supporters of public schools.

“I heard about some parents who were trying to start a new charter middle school in Savannah. This was 1999, and the Georgia Charter School Act was only a year old. We didn’t know much about charter schools, but this sounded interesting,” she says.

So they joined the effort, heart and soul, putting in 250 volunteer hours to help launch the state’s first parent start-up public school in Georgia, Oglethorpe Charter School. And that’s just the first part of Grimm’s epic charter school journey.

She sent her three oldest children to Oglethorpe, and her youngest is there now, in the 8th grade. Grimm eventually returned to teaching in the Savannah-Chatham Public School System, and she didn’t like what she found.

“There were huge deficits in reading when I came back,” says Grimm, who then became principal at a small private school. Sometime during that two-year stint, she had her big light-bulb moment.

“I saw a strong academic foundation and literate students who were good writers and great communicators – stuff I wasn’t seeing in the public schools. Tuition at the private school was $6,000 per student, about the same amount that was being spent in public funding on poor kids in the city’s public school system.

“That’s when it really hit me, how unfair it was.”

She thought that kids in economically challenged inner-city neighborhoods deserved the same opportunities as kids in private schools. So she started Savannah Classical Academy, which opened its doors for the first time in August, one of the state’s newest charter schools.


The charter school concept has been steadily gathering converts in Georgia over the past 15 years. There are 314 charter schools (including 206 of them that are part of Georgia’s 16 charter systems) serving 225,800 students in the state (about 10 times what it was in 2000-2001).

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a contract with an authorizing body (the local school district or the state commission). They promise to raise student achievement and attain higher degrees of accountability, and in return they receive flexibility and freedom from many state and local rules.

The easy passage last November of an amendment creating a new state government office, the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia (SCSC), may boost the popularity of these publicly funded, privately run schools, which many Georgians apparently see as part of the solution to improve Georgia’s perpetually lagging public school system.

“The reason we pushed so hard for this amendment last year was to make charter schools available to more people,” says Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association (GCSA), the nonprofit state-wide lobbying group.

Opponents of the legislation, including teacher and administrator professional associations, saw the amendment and creation of the commission as unnecessary – local school boards already were empowered to approve charter school applications, and if the applications got a thumbs down there, applicants could turn to the state Board of Education.

Opponents also saw the piles of money coming from out-of-state sources, such as for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), Alice Walton (daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton) and Americans for Prosperity (the Tea Party group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers) and other donors who saw Georgia as either a potential business opportunity or a key battleground in the movement to give parents more choice in education.

“There are great schools and great teachers in Georgia’s public school system, but the aggregate statistics on educational performance in Georgia are what they are, and people are looking for better alternatives for their children,” says Charles Knapp, the former president of the University of Georgia (and current interim dean of its business college), who is chairing the new state commission.

“I don’t think charter schools are a blanket panacea for what ails public education in Georgia and America,” Knapp adds. “But if you look at educational performance in America relative to other countries that were once way behind us and are now in front of us, I’d say we’re going to need to try something else; and one of the things that will help, in certain circumstances, are charter schools.”

New Authority

The first charter school law in Georgia was passed 20 years ago. It allowed existing public schools to convert to charter status with local and state board approval. In 1998, the legislature passed the law allowing for the creation of startup charter schools.

In 2008, House Bill 881 created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a charter-authorizing body that could approve charter schools over the objections of local school boards. But in 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission unconstitutional, saying, in part, “no other constitutional provision authorizes any other governmental entity to compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education.”

The commission had already approved 16 charter schools by that time, including several online schools. Knapp, who served on that short-lived commission, says the commission only approved, “something like 20 percent of the petitions that came in front of us. They had to clearly show that their plan was going to offer a better educational opportunity.”

When the commission went away, those 16 state chartered schools fell under the direct authority of the state Board of Education (BOE).

But the commission wasn’t dead a year before state legislators, led by Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, early in the 2012 session introduced House Resolution 1162 (Amendment One). Local superintendents and school boards lined up against it, but the amendment passed easily in November (58 percent to 42 percent).

“The first month after it passed, we got something like 367 calls from parents all over the state, which was unprecedented,” Roberts says. “They were asking, ‘Where’s my charter school?’”

Like the previous commission, the SCSC has the authority to override a local school board’s decision. But it isn’t as if the new commission threw the doors open and invited all comers. This fall they’re considering 16 petitions for new charter schools, says SCSC Executive Director Bonnie Holliday, who previously ran the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

“About half of the petitions are from the Metro Atlanta area, as you might expect; but the other half are from around the state, places like Macon and Bibb County, the Augusta area, Savannah,” says Holliday, who manages a small government agency of five employees.

Interview panels – commission staff, commissioners, state and national education professionals and so forth – will do their digging and make a decision on which petitions to approve this month, and those schools passing muster will be eligible to open for the 2014-2015 school year.

“But if the state board of education feels we’ve made an inappropriate decision, they can overturn us with a simple majority,” Knapp says. “I served on the first commission, and this process, I believe, offers a more comprehensive review process.”

Systemic Change

Typically, charter schools operate under five-year contracts, after which the school’s performance is reviewed and the charter may or may not be renewed.

“Across the country, states have taken a parochial view of what needs to happen in the schoolhouse,” says Kenneth Zeff, chief strategy and innovation officer for the Fulton County School System (the largest charter system in the state). “So they’ve passed laws that tell you how many minutes students need to be in seats, laws about appropriate courses and what it means to be a teacher – all of those things are baked in state laws.

“At one point in time, they may have made sense; those laws were reactions to bad things happening in schools. But over time, as you can imagine, those things can become straightjackets, stifling innovation.”

Zeff joined the Fulton County system in August 2012 from Los Angeles, where he was chief operating officer for Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management company that served more than 10,000 students. In Fulton County, he’s the charter point person for a system of 95,000 students with a waiver from many state education laws.

Each of the schools in the Fulton County system will select governance councils and develop strategic plans, much like independent charter schools have done.

Fulton is a wildly diverse system with some of the state’s top-ranked schools in the affluent north part of the county and a swath of underperforming schools in the south, a more economically challenged area. So Zeff isn’t expecting a one-size-fits-all approach. That would defeat the purpose, he says.

“There will be different solutions in different schools. Some of our high-functioning schools want early release on Wednesdays, reducing institutional minutes so more students can work on self-directed projects,” he says. “Then we have schools that are struggling that want kids to come in on Saturday for core academics. If all of our schools wound up looking the same, we will have missed an opportunity.”

But, like every charter school, whether it is an independent entity or part of a charter system (again, 16 county or city systems in Georgia are chartered), the students will all be held to the same measures as traditional schools. They all have to take the standardized tests. They all have to demonstrate yearly progress. How they get there is where the flexibility and innovation come in. Teachers and schools have flexibility in how they deliver the curriculum. So far, the results have been mixed.

A national study by Stanford University four years ago looking at charter schools in 27 states (including Georgia) showed that many charter school students weren’t performing as well as their counterparts in traditional neighborhood public schools. According to the 2009 study, 37 percent of charter schools were rated worse than other local public schools. But Stanford revisited the study this year, and there’s been improvement – the figure fell to 31 percent.

The new study shows charter school students outpacing their peers in reading and performing at roughly the same level in math. The conclusion: slow and steady improvement, with students from poor families, black students and Hispanic students benefitting the most. The charter schools’ freedom to direct resources toward specific needs has had something to do with that.

Not surprisingly, Atlanta has been the heart of Georgia’s charter school movement, and one of the best success stories has unfolded in what was one of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods.

The halls are quiet at the Charles R. Drew Charter School a week before classes. It’s an unusual sound, the silence, because this is a school where the youngest students are encouraged to speak out.

“The kids here are encouraged to talk and interact. It’s part of our literacy foundation,” says Cynthia Kuhlman, who chairs the Drew Board of Directors. “Children in poverty are, on average, about 30 million words behind other children by the time they’re three years old. That’s a huge gap that we’d like to eliminate.”

They’re doing a good job of it. The kids who started in Drew’s pre-K literacy-focused program are now in fifth grade, and their scores last year in English and language exceeded state standards.

Drew is in the heart of the revamped East Lake neighborhood and serves a student population that is at least 85 percent African American; about 62 percent of the student body is on the free and reduced meal program. And Drew, the oldest charter school in the Atlanta Public School System (opened in 2000), is outperforming the state.

According to state DOE figures, Drew’s third graders (2011 figures) far exceeded the state performance in CRCT scores. Same thing with fourth, fifth, sixth and so on.

“A student who matriculates at Drew gets exposed to golf, swimming. Every third grader takes violin, and everybody gets exposed to a foreign language,” says Drew Principal Don Doran. “Because of our charter, we have a longer school day, a longer school year, and by the time a student has gone from kindergarten through eighth grade, he’s ended up having about two more years of instructional time.”

Charter schools are considered public schools of choice, and the kids in the nearby Villages of East Lake, the largest mixed-income apartment community in Atlanta, are choosing to go to Drew; and the Drew charter compels the school to take them.

Charter schools can’t, by law, screen applicants based on academics – they’re public schools. So local kids get first priority, and when there are more applicants than seats, a lottery is held. This year, according to Kuhlman, Drew received about 1,600 applications for 300 new slots.

Drew added ninth grade this year, but the first freshmen class will spend its first year of high school at a temporary campus (they’re using Kennedy Middle School for now), then move into the 200,000-square-foot Junior and Senior Academy taking shape across the street from the current elementary school campus – a $55-million project, part of a $73- million capital campaign.

It’s all part of a 10-year plan that will result in 600 high school students at Drew Charter, which used to be run entirely by a for-profit EMO, EdisonLearning (formerly called Edison Schools). The company provided pretty much everything, including curriculum, at first. But the EMO’s role has been phased down and now Edison is basically responsible for back office services.

“Edison did a really good job for Drew, and they were necessary at the start,” says Knapp, who served on the Drew board for a time. “But the best outcome is when the constituent groups – staff, faculty, board – build up their own capacity and the EMO phases out.”

There are some fine EMOs, Knapp says, such as the nonprofit KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), which operates some successful charter schools in Metro Atlanta. And there are some with a history of problems and poor performing schools.

“I’m not against for-profit EMOs. Some are excellent, some aren’t,” Knapp says. “When I served on the previous state charter school commission, we were always careful that the impetus for starting a school came from parents, local people interested in education. We never want EMOs to be the driver, and we turned down some petitions when we suspected that was the case.”

Works in Progress

Pataula Charter Academy serves five counties – Baker, Clay, Early, Ran-dolph and Calhoun (where Pataula is located, in the city of Edison). But the school’s demographics differ greatly from the traditional schools in the area, where most of the county systems serve a student population that is more than 90 percent African American (it’s 76 percent in Baker, 63 percent in Early). Pataula’s student body is only about 25 percent African American, according to Principal Kylie Holley.

And unlike Drew, which earned its charter through the local system, Pataula got state approval (from that first commission) when none of the five districts in its service area would approve the charter. Pataula not only drew students from the underperforming local public schools, but from local private schools.

So far, the growth of charter schools in Georgia hasn’t had a dramatic effect on the state’s private schools, according to Jeff Jackson, president of the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA), who doesn’t seem worried about his industry’s continuing viability.

“Independent schools have been around in Georgia for 200 years. We have about 74,500 students in 163 schools. One closed this year, one out of 163 [GISA schools],” Jackson says. “We are all about school choice, and our schools have to be worth what parents are paying. If we’re not, we’ll cease to exist, and we don’t see any signs of that.”

Charter schools are not compelled by law to offer transportation like their local public brethren, but Pataula does run limited bus service, picking up students at central locations, rather than door to door.

“We had to go to the state commission, so we don’t report to any of the local systems around here, and we don’t receive any local tax money,” Holley says. “We’re very rural around here, and all of the counties we serve only have one elementary, one middle and one high school, and they’re all small. We felt like, in order to be a sustainable school, we needed to branch out and serve a wider area.”

So far, so good, she says, regarding academic accountability.

“We’re consistently above the state average, especially in science and social studies,” Holley says.

The Pataula learning model, like Drew’s, is built on the project-based (or expeditionary) learning approach, which grew out of the Outward Bound outdoor education program. (Drew’s principal, Don Doran, worked in Outward Bound.)

Across the state from Pataula in the “Queen City,” the Savannah Classical Academy (SCA) is following a classic liberal arts model with a strong civics component and instruction in Latin, and they’re hoping to generate a school culture heavy on moral virtue, decorum, respect and discipline – the things that Barbara Grimm noticed were sorely missing when she returned to the public school classroom.

And they’re going to do it all on their own, without the aid (or expense) of an education and/or charter management organization.

“Our district is very anti-management company,” says Grimm.

They’ll use a vacant school district building this year, then move into a permanent home at the renovated St. Pius X Family Resource Center next August. They’ll start as a K-6 school this year and gradually become K-12, and they’ll be a Title I school from the start, serving an economically disadvantaged, mostly African American student body.

“We have some struggles ahead of us, but if we really want to make our city better, it begins with providing the same educational opportunities for all students,” says Grimm, who will keep her teaching job at another school so she can serve on the board at SCA. “I see this as a chance to be part of something that is truly transformative.”

Will Work for Food: Music makers making a living

This story was published in March 2013 (Georgia Trend magazine). Not sure if it was included in the ‘Body of Work’ category, but its one that I would’ve included, just because it was so much fun to work on.

There are blessed ancestral notes swimming in J Wunder’s blood, and they fly out in a blazing sonic frenzy, out through his fingers, through his steel guitar, diving into fortunate ears, into the hearts and souls of the people, spreading like a communicable cure, a sacramental journey at the speed of sound under the Harvest Moon.

“This is what it must have felt like to see Jimi Hendrix for the first time, before he got famous,” she says, a woman in the crowd, her hands cupped around my ear for clarity. I didn’t know her, but she was being sincere.

Several things occur to me as she blends back into her group. She definitely was born long after Hendrix died, her analogy was appropriate, and I’ll probably steal her line to describe what it was like that late September night at the Sautee Jamboree. Like seeing Hendrix.

The first people to see Hendrix, as we remember him, witnessed the big bang of the electric guitar universe, something unseen before; and those of us who have seen J Wunder (Aubrey Ghent Jr., who mostly goes by AJ Ghent) know that he is exploring uncharted places with his eight-string instrument.

Ghent is the modern version of something old, heir apparent in the first family of sacred steel, descended from the inventors of a genre he is now redefining. He’s a recent addition to Georgia’s rich, wide-ranging musical heritage, an artist-entrepreneur – an active participant in the state’s multi-billion-dollar music industry.

Georgia’s music industry has a total economic impact of about $3.8 billion, according to a study released last year by Georgia Music Partners (GMP), a nonprofit coalition that promotes the industry’s growth and interests. The study, based on 2009 figures, estimates there are tax and other revenues of about $314 million for state and local governments.

Some 20,000 people connected in some way to the music industry earn about $900 million, most of them people you’ve never heard of, artists and dreamers looking to make a living even as the global music industry struggles through an atonal chaos.

“Smart, creative people are always going to have something to do, and there are a zillion entrepreneurial opportunities out there,” says David Barbe, director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business Certificate Program.

“For example, there is a tremendous surge in music festivals. You can’t find a weekend on the calendar where there isn’t a music festival somewhere. And when you look at how much work, how many different jobs, go into putting one together, you see opportunities everywhere. Merchandising has taken off.

“Patterson Hood [of the Athens-based Drive-By Truckers] was quoted, ‘I’m not in the record business. I’m in the T-shirt business.’ It’s an overstatement and funny, but his point was, there’s a tremendous uptick in these ancillary music streams in music, even if the money isn’t primarily being made in selling plastic disks in plastic boxes any more.”

According to the economic study, revenues from recorded music (CDs, records) peaked at about $45 billion in 1997. The digital wave – music available by the click of a mouse – has helped pull the figure down sharply (it was $25 billion and sinking by 2007).

The technology is constantly evolving, creating a roving definition of what the music industry is. Old business models that dominated the 20th century, in which the labels, the publishers, the producers and the promoters held sway, are decomposing.

It’s A Living

The center of the emerging music model, according to the GMP report, is the artist.

That may still be news to practicing artists, most of them balancing their creative idealism with road-weary realism, striving for a measure of success in the business, however they describe success.

“Yeah, every year I tell myself, ‘Another year down, and you’re still not working at McDonald’s,’” says DeDe Vogt, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who earned a gold record playing bass for the Indigo Girls. She stays busy playing club gigs, working as a booking manager for Roxie Watson, an Atlanta-based all-female string band, and giving music lessons, “teaching 13-year-old boys the evils of rock and roll.”

She’s making a living doing what she loves, without having to schlep burgers, so it smells like success. Then again, it’s not as if she, or many of her fellow artists, has a real choice.

“It’s like there’s a gun at my back. I can’t escape it. I’ve got to do this. It isn’t a choice,” says Col. Bruce Hampton, who has been doing this for about 50 years and is the major influence in the improvisation-laced jam rock genre, a bandleader who has a decades-old reputation for showcasing world-class – often up-and-coming – artists who thrive in his surreal, free-form musical boot-camp. Then they move onto bigger gigs. Artists like Ghent, who is fronting Hampton’s current band project, Pharaoh’s Kitchen.

Hampton, the subject of a film documentary, Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton, hires great artists willing to take chances, musicians for whom playing is more of an addiction than a career choice.

“My dad has been in music since 1942,” UGA’s Barbe says. “And he has a saying: ‘Music is not a calling, it’s an affliction.’ There are so many great artists who have to find something other than being the next Mick Jagger to make a living. So they work in music stores, give lessons, stay involved in music any way they can, and it isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work and devotion.

“But it’s a tremendous feeling to realize your creative passion is paying your freight.”

Barbe has been paying his freight through creative work for decades, and in recent years has been teaching a new generation how to find work in the tunes business.

“We’re expanding in all directions, in the number of students and the breadth of our course offerings,” says Barbe, a songwriter, musician, producer and engineer who came to Athens in 1981 to study journalism, then got sucked into the Athens music scene.

“When I started with the music business program two years ago, we had about 125 seats filled in two classes. This semester, we’re at about 340 in six classes,” he says. “The program is thriving, the students are exciting, creative, interesting, and it’s my privilege to teach them.”

Barbe, a singer, guitarist and bassist, still performs and has paid dues as a solo artist and in a number of bands, including Sugar, Mercyland and Buzz Hungry. Early on, he got interested in the recording side and landed a job at John Keane’s studio, assisting on a number of projects, with bands like R.E.M. and Widespread Panic.

He opened his recording studio, Chase Park Transduction, with partners in 1997 and has recorded almost every Drive-By Truckers album and serves a Who’s Who client list. So Barbe brings deep real-world knowledge and experience to the teaching job, and he expects to keep rolling on both tracks.

“I will have a double-pronged career for a long time going forward,” he says. His fellow instructors in the UGA program – David Lowery and Tom Lewis – also work at Chase Park, which Barbe describes as “a grim-looking place from the outside, and we like it that way.”

They built it themselves, a bunch of artist entrepreneurs, in an innocuous warehouse by a water tower, “and the last thing we wanted was to make it look like we’re doing something interesting inside. The great studios of the world aren’t flashy. All the important stuff goes on inside, just like a human being.”

The UGA program offers well-rounded exposure to music business fundamentals, the economics and finance of music, entertainment law, marketing, production. Last summer, they placed 32 students in internships all over the country.

The program isn’t designed to make new artists, but anyone who wants to be an artist, says Barbe, “should understand how the money works.”

Hampton believes that any artist committed enough or crazy enough should be prepared for a potentially rough fiscal ride. “It’s a ruthless business, and most musicians I know will say, ‘Give me $40 and a taco, and I’ll do it.’ At some point, you’ve got to learn to say no.”

On the other hand, Hampton, Barbe and pretty much anyone who has paid their way with a guitar or a horn or a drum kit or their voice knows that sometimes you’ve got to take the taco and make the gig on time if you want to last.

“There’s a lot to be said for having a true desire to pursue your art, your life’s work, a lot to be said for who wants it the worst,” Barbe says. “If an artist doesn’t want to play on a Tuesday night in Columbus, don’t worry, somebody else will do it. The people that survive at this stuff are the people that have to do it.”

In other words, the people with guns at their backs.

Setting The Table

Terry Reeves Martin grew up in a musical family, singing the Gospel, her father a minister of music. She went to every concert she could – “when I saw The Allman Brothers for the first time, my eyes were opened, my heart was opened, my soul was opened,” she says.

She started booking gigs for a friend’s band, did some marketing and promotional work, and eventually left her job at the law firm of King and Spalding to start her own booking agency, Music Matters Entertainment. On a cool September evening, Martin was backstage at Chastain Park watching her latest project – the Capricorn Experience – take shape.

Classic Southern rockers like Wet Willie, Cowboy, Chuck Leavell and Randall Bramblett – stars from the old Capricorn Records’ lineup – were joined by Bruce Hampton and maybe 1,500 fans, not a great turnout.

“People don’t come out to the shows like they used to,” Martin says. “But as a fan, I stood back and thought, ‘Damn, I’d buy a $30 ticket to that show all day long.’”

The importance of touring and live shows has increased with the decline in revenues from recordings, and as Barbe observes, the number of festivals seems to keep growing. Poor economic conditions haven’t helped ticket sales, but the true disciples still work the landscape.

A few weeks after the Capricorn Experience, Martin was stage-side in Sautee, watching one of her clients, Tommy Talton, a brilliant guitarist with a soaring singing voice, who fronted Cowboy and has stayed busy recording and hitting the road for decades.

The Sautee Jamboree is seven years old and has become something of a mini music model – a small and diverse sampling of Southern sounds, featuring through the years artists like the Indigo Girls, Michelle Malone, Wet Willie, Hampton (in several incarnations), etc., on an outdoor stage in a Northeast Georgia mountain valley.

“This is absolutely one of the best events I go to every year – the second best music festival in Georgia,” says Martin, who insists that her event, the Hoopee Jam (May 3-4 in Norristown) is the best.

Sautee’s is a two-day festival with camping, an antidote to the mega-festivals that draw tens of thousands, nose to nose. A typical crowd in Sautee is under 500. Yet it manages to be communal without being overly commercial – the shakedown is pretty small, a few artists selling their wares, some T-shirts, CDs and band merchandise, beer, coffee, grilled food. There are probably hundreds like it across the country.

The 2012 Jamboree had its typical mix of regional and national touring artists, like Yarn, an alt-bluegrass band out of Brooklyn with a loyal following called the Yarmy; The Corduroy Road, an Athens-based Americana outfit, and AJ Ghent, plus some well-travelled musicians with deep roots in American music, like Talton, Caroline Aiken, The Mosiers Brothers, Hamp-ton and the headliner, Grammy-winner Peter Rowan. Most of them are paying their freight through creative work, but some still have to hold down other jobs.

“We’ve been in and out of music full time or part time for a number of years,” says Drew Carman, lead singer, banjo and guitar player for The Corduroy Road. He designs cemeteries in his spare time as owner of a landscape architect company. Lead guitarist Matt Dyson is a welder. Bass player Elijah NeeSmith and fiddler Russell McCumber work at a Montessori school, and drummer Garrett Chism works in an outdoor center.

“The goal is always to play full time,” Carman says. “It’s a huge challenge to be working in a band while also working 40 hours a week at a day job.”

The band is getting plenty of gigs lately, good airplay on roots music radio, losing a lot of sleep. Carman isn’t sure how long they can keep up the pace.

Meanwhile, AJ Ghent seems to be finding his. But he was born into a music life.

His great uncle, Willie Eason, bas-ically invented the sacred steel style in the Pentecostal church, blowing away congregants and audiences 70 years ago when he took a Hawaiian-music staple, the steel guitar, and made it sound like a woman’s unearthly voice singing praise to heaven. Ghent’s grandfather, Henry Nelson, took the art form a step beyond, spreading the word for 50 years, teaching or inspiring some of the greatest virtuosos, like Robert Randolph (the most famous steel player today).

Nelson’s son, Aubrey Ghent (AJ’s father) has preserved the Gospel tradition for a wide audience. And now there’s AJ, who moved to Atlanta earlier this year from his family’s Florida home.

“I felt like it was my turn, to take what my great uncle and grandfather and father have done and develop my own style, to stretch it a little bit,” says Ghent. “This all comes down from my family’s influence – my playing and my singing. But I guess it’s only natural for me to do my own thing. I don’t want to be like everyone else.”

He isn’t. Ghent is part Gospel, rap, rock, rhythm and blues, and some forms without a name. He’s still only 26, but he’s also got ageless chops, and plays his steel guitar not on his lap, but hanging from his neck.

“No one else is doing what he does. He has to be seen to be believed,” says Hampton.

Last spring, after the world premiere of Basically Frightened at the Atlanta Film Festival, Hampton brought father and son, Aubrey and AJ, to the same stage for the first time, at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta.

Hampton is revered by other musicians, who consider him a guru, Obi-Wan Kenobi with a guitar and a booming voice. He’s fostered some great players in his bands (like Aquarium Rescue Unit, a seminal fusion of rock, jazz, bluegrass and something else that had its heyday 20 years ago), musicians who have gone on to join the Allman Brothers or Widespread Panic or embarked on successful solo careers.

This year, he won a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities, thanks to the support of other musicians like Jeff Mosier (singer, banjo player, formerly with the Aquarium Rescue Unit), and industry advocates like Lisa Love, director of music marketing and development for the state, who served on the selection committee.

“Bruce is one of the most influential musicians in Georgia,” says Love. “You can see it in the documentary, all of those artists, how he freed their minds, gave them permission. He’s impacted a lot of people.”

And scared a few. The point is, Hampton has played with almost everyone, but he’s never seen anything like the Ghents.

“They’re the best in the world,” he says, always trusting the hyperbole of the moment over mere cold, dead facts. “I know a lot of great players who don’t play with empathy. They don’t bring anything to the table. It’s not that they’re empty, but you know, give me a loaf of bread on the table.

“The Ghents bring the table, the whole table. And AJ – good God. Yeah, he is gonna be the next Hendrix.”

Hushed Tones: Deal’s Kitchen Cabinet Advisers

This was is a simple feature story about Gov. Nathan Deal’s closest advisers. Lots of research, some interesting sources. Boom, boom, done. There’s a story behind the story, but that’s another story. So, here’s this story as it ran in November 2013:


Nathan Deal was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat, then got elected and re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, then switched parties in the middle of his second Congressional term, then got re-elected seven times as a Republican, then left national politics to become governor of Georgia.

From the Gold Dome to Capitol Hill to the Governor’s Mansion, from Democrat to Republican, through up and down economies, through different administrations, through more than 30 years of rough and tumble politics, including charges of questionable ethics, two things in Deal’s political career have remained constant. The first one is, he never loses an election. The other one is Philip Wilheit, who offers a contradiction to the first one.

“He lost one election that I know of when he tried to be president of the Gainesville Jaycees,” says Wilheit, Deal’s longtime friend and campaign chairman, the moneyman behind all of those victories.

“I like to kid Nathan, ‘That’s the one campaign I didn’t head up for you, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you lost,’” adds the president and CEO of Gainesville-based Wilheit Packaging and Marketing Images. “I enjoy reminding him of that on occasion.”

Deal lost his 1970 bid to lead the local civic organization, but hasn’t lost an election with Wilheit at his side or in the background, raising money and making influential friends, creating allies and building a well-stocked war chest.

“He headed my campaign effort, the financial effort, when I first ran for state senate in 1980, and he’s held that role ever since,” Gov. Deal says.

While Deal has held one elected position or another for the past 33 years, Wilheit hasn’t shown any interest in running for office.

“I prefer working in the background,” says Wilheit, one of the head chefs in Deal’s “kitchen cabinet,” a group of influential advisers who have the governor’s ear but don’t hold any actual office, although Wilheit does serve on the Board of Regents and will soon take over as its chairman.

It was a previous Regents chairman, late Gainesville attorney James “Bubba” Dunlap, who gave Wilheit some of the best political advice he’s received.

“He told me one time, ‘You don’t want to be the king, you want to be the kingmaker. They behead the king on occasion.’ I heard that 25 years ago, and I haven’t forgotten it,” Wilheit says. “I’m very comfortable in my role. I like being the kingmaker.”

Kingmakers and partisan favors and appointments are as old as politics. But the American “kitchen cabinet” – the concept of elected leaders showing favoritism to or taking advice from a trusted circle of friends and confidants – became famous, or infamous, with President Andrew Jackson, who met with his unofficial advisers in the White House kitchen; these men reportedly had more influence on the president than the regular cabinet.

Pretty much every president or governor you can think of has had an inner circle of trusted friends and associates who have had some measure of influence. Often, these associates are guys like Wilheit, or T. Rogers Wade (who led Deal’s transition team following his gubernatorial victory in the 2010 election), who don’t run for office, but have access to it.

“These are people with an interest in politics who may not have the time or temperament to do what’s necessary to get elected,” says longtime University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “But they stand on the sidelines and contribute from there.”

Playing Favorites

Kings have been surrounding themselves with unelected, unofficial purveyors of wisdom since there have been kings.

“The problems start when you reward them with favors,” says Georgia State University political science professor Daniel Franklin.

Then again, favoritism – placing friends, business partners and trusted associates on influential boards, at the head of government agencies, or otherwise keeping them close – is a natural circumstance in the political ecosystem, sort of like carbon in the atmosphere. The phrase “spoils system” – coined during Andrew Jackson’s administration – or “patronage system,” comes to mind.

And like most of his predecessors, Deal has put some friends in high places, including Wilheit (Board of Regents) and Philip Wilheit Jr. (on the board of the Department of Natural Resources). He put two pals on the influential Georgia Ports Authority board of directors, former Gainesville business partner Ken Cronan and Hall County business leader Jim Walters, and put Cronan’s son, Kacy, on the Department of Public Safety’s board.

The patronage system works all over the country, but this idea of a chief executive stacking boards and commissions, or creating whole new government entities and avenues of influence, has particular historic significance in Georgia, according to GSU’s Franklin.

“In southern states, the reaction to Reconstruction was to decentralize the power of the executive,” he says.  “Consequently, in Georgia the governor doesn’t select his own cabinet; constitutional officers – the insurance commissioner, attorney general, state school superintendent and so forth – are elected.

“So strong governors who are emasculated by the constitution have tried to find ways to informally get around constitutional limits on their executive power,” says Franklin.

Sometimes that happens through forming new agencies. In 1999, Gov. Roy Barnes created the Office of Consumers’ Insurance Advocate, which, according to Barnes’ critics, was a way to circumvent the powers of the elected insurance commissioner John Oxendine. Last year, under Gov. Deal, saw the creation, through amendment, of the State Charter Schools Commission – a new agency that was opposed by elected State School Superintendent John Barge (who plans to challenge Deal for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2014).

Critics called the commission an unnecessary layer of government bureaucracy, because the state school board already had authority to consider charter school petitions. But Deal and his allies wound up with a key victory in the school choice movement with resounding passage of the amendment.

It was, according to Franklin, “Deal trying to gain some control over what is one of the largest parts of the state budget, public education. It runs parallel to what presidents and governors have been doing for years, finding a way around constitutional limits.”

That’s politics, or part of it anyway, and it has deep roots in the American tradition of partisan manipulation. But Franklin believes it’s probably more basic than that.

“It has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans and everything to do with executive officers and legislatures,” Franklin says. “The Georgia governor has a powerful legislative sense. He has the line item veto. He can let bills sit on his desk and pick and choose the things he likes and doesn’t like.”

Franklin wasn’t talking specifically about Deal, but the current Georgia governor has earned some points among observers for his legislative sense, including a willingness, on occasion, to work with the opposition party. In particular, there was the bipartisan effort (with Democratic State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the House minority leader, taking a lead role) in negotiations over the HOPE scholarship. Cuts were made, but the program was preserved. During his announcement of the new measures Deal was flanked by Democrats, including Abrams.

“Politics is politics, and he governs with a Republican philosophy, but it doesn’t preclude him from having good ideas and an open mind; and if you have legislators who feel they have been heard and treated with respect, that will carry you a long way,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat who previously served in the legislature as a state senator.

“The most powerful and effective attribute I’ve seen in this governor is, he really does listen. He hears matters out to their conclusion before making a judgment.”

It helps, Reeds adds, to have people worth listening to.

Background Players

Wade says he’s always had a deep and abiding respect for anyone willing to put himself out there and run for office. It’s just not for him.

“I’m interested in how things get done, but I’ve never wanted to run for anything at all. I have had lots of friends, though, who were misguided enough to run for public office,” he quips.

Wade says he’s never talked anyone into or out of running for office. Either way, he’s been one of the more influential political strategists and behind-the-scenes players in Georgia for decades.

“He’s one of the most seasoned political veterans in the state. He probably knows the workings of Capitol Hill better than anyone,” says Clyde Tuggle, chief of public affairs for The Coca-Cola Company.

“One of the big secrets of his success has been he’s always avoided the limelight, never really sought to take credit or grab attention,” says Buddy Darden, a former Democratic Congressman who has known Wade for 40 years. “He’s about the best inside political player I’ve ever known, very laid back and never imposes himself on anyone.”

According to Darden, Wade has had close ties to “every major administration in Georgia since the mid ‘70s.” That would include, of course, his stint as chief of staff for the late Sen. Herman Talmadge, who early on gave Wade some useful advice on advising.

“The senator looked me straight in the eye when I first went to work for him and said, ‘If you and I agree on everything, one of us is not necessary. Guess which one?’ So, we disagreed on things and we agreed on things,” Wade says. “It was OK to say what you had to say.”

In other words, Talmadge didn’t want a yes man. All of the kings, the presidents, the senators, the governors, the congressman and the CEOs – really, anyone who calls himself the boss – the same thing. They don’t want a yes man. How many of them actually mean it is probably worth a study by a think tank.

“No, I think you always need somebody other than a yes man, and I can assure you, with my advisers, if they don’t agree with me about something, they let me know, and I respect that,” says Deal.

He not only respects it. He needs it, just like anyone holding executive office, anyone with responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the public – how to protect it, or spend its money, provide services and so forth.

“Diversity of opinion leads to strong decision making,” says Reed, another Democrat who has had photo ops with the governor – both strongly support expanding the Port of Savannah. “Only through argument and debate do you have the opportunity to find where the truth is, and I think this governor has individuals around him who provide that. They just keep their debates confidential.”

Some of Deal’s top advisers, guys who led his transition team, were interviewed for this story. But the guy who is closest to the governor, the top adviser who holds an official position in Deal’s administration, Chief of Staff Chris Riley, would not be interviewed. Wilheit, for one, isn’t surprised.

“He likes to stay below the radar, feels he can be most effective that way. Good luck reaching him,” Wilheit says, chuckling.

Riley, who was Deal’s congressional chief of staff, too, also managed his campaign for governor and piloted the campaign team’s plane. Like Wilheit, Riley is one of Deal’s Gainesville gang.

“He went to high school with some of my children, worked with me at an early age putting up signs, worked his way up through the Congressional office organization, and I’ve relied on him for years,” says Deal, who nonetheless selected four older heads to lead his transition team after winning election in November 2010 – Wade, Wilheit, Pete Robinson (former state representative, now one of Georgia’s most influential lobbyists as chairman of Troutman Sanders Strategies), and John Watson, Sonny Perdue’s former chief of staff.

He’s known Wade, Wilheit and Robinson for decades and says that familiarity made their selection as leaders to help organize his administration an easy decision.

“Knowing someone for a long time, as I have these individuals, builds trust,” Deal says. “I have a lot of confidence in these people, and it played out as one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

With Wade serving as chairman and the three other men as co-chairs, they spent more than two months interviewing agency and department heads and employees, picking brains, picking leaders and just basically fleshing out Deal’s agenda for the new administration.

Each brought specific talents and backgrounds that made them voices worth hearing for Deal.

For Robinson, it’s his inside-out institutional knowledge of the legislative process, having served as a member of both the Georgia house and senate as a Democrat, and more important, his work as a lobbyist and his connections to a powerful client list, including Coca-Cola, General Electric, Microsoft, Aflac, Southern Company and Citigroup.

Wilheit, of course, has known Deal for more than 40 years. Beyond their mutual respect, though, Wilheit is a former chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and his packaging business has connections across the state. So during the campaign, he could pick up the phone and call a pal in Valdosta or Savannah, and they would set up a meeting with potential donors.

“I’ve made a lot of friends around the state, and Nathan was an easy sell,” says Wilheit, who has been selling Deal for more than 30 years. In 1979, Deal called Wilheit and asked for his help the next year in a run for the state senate, and Wilheit has been raising money and heading that part of Deal’s campaigning ever since.

Wade brought his unsurpassed experience as a confidant of some of Georgia’s most powerful leaders, including Talmadge, Sam Nunn, Johnny Isakson; his experience as a lobbyist; his experience (and resulting connections) as a founding member of Leadership Georgia; not to mention the 15 years he spent as president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. (He also serves on the Board of Regents and is executive director of the Governor’s Defense Initiative.)

The word that keeps coming up in conversation with Wade is “compromise.” It’s at the heart of any reasonable and effective policy making, he says, remembering the early days of Leadership Georgia, more than 40 years ago.

“At that time, the battle cry was about the two Georgias – Atlanta and everybody else,” he says. “But you know, there’s probably six or seven of them, and Leadership Georgia helped show the people from Buckhead and the people of Ludowici that they have some of the same problems and some of the same reasons to work them out, and one group didn’t have horns and pointy tails, and the other didn’t have pitchforks,” Wade says. “That group helped break down a lot of barriers around the state.”

Wade saw a similar spirit of compromise in Washington, something missing today, he says.

“There seems to be an inability to talk across party lines and ideologies, and that wasn’t always true. You could fuss and fight on the floor of the Senate, argue in committee meetings, but when the bell rang, you could also sit down over supper with the person you disagreed with and reach a compromise. You realized and respected that there were smart people in either party.”

The smartest person in the room, oftentimes, was Wade, who has what Darden calls, “an extraordinary degree of wisdom on how to handle any situation.

“Everybody can survive in total prosperity when everything is going right, but weathering a storm, handling a crisis – that’s Rogers. And he’s unparalleled in his range of contacts and the quality of his advice,” Darden says.

“I frequently sought his advice on political matters when I was in Congress, and we didn’t always agree, but generally speaking, he turned out to be right most of the time.”

For his part, whether working in the background or whispering in the ear of leadership, Wade says there is no pride in authorship – it doesn’t matter who gets credit for the idea, as long as the idea is good and it becomes policy. And he isn’t keeping score on when he’s been right and some congressman or senator or governor has been wrong. Not publicly anyway, and not yet.

“When things don’t go the way you want them to, you might as well forget it and move on,” he says. “Besides, there haven’t been enough funerals yet in this state for me to start pointing fingers at what might have gone wrong and with who.

“Sometimes, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.”