Looking up Longfellow Street: How a Little Engine That Could made news in southwest Georgia

By the time this article is published, the runoff elections in Georgia to determine the control of the US Senate will likely have been decided. Regardless of the outcome, there is an important story to be told: How is it that southwest Georgia counties led voter turnout in these runoffs? The following are my observations on what has been happening in Randolph, Quitman, and Stewart counties.

When the runoffs began, Bobby Jenkins was the chair of the Randolph County Democratic Party Committee, the only such committee of the three counties that was the focus of this local turnout effort. Only a few weeks later, Jenkins was leading a team that has built voter turnout that is already 73.6 percent of the November general election turnout. Randolph County is leading (ranging from first place to twelfth, depending on the hour) all the other 158 Georgia counties’ turnouts, whose average late last week was 63.9 percent of the November turnout. (These numbers change hourly.)

Jenkins is a retired public schools superintendent and church deacon who has become the engineer on The Little Engine That Could. The success began with his connection to Maude Bruce, the chair of the NAACP in Ellenville, NY, who sent Thomas Brown to Randolph County. Brown is a retired schoolteacher who volunteered in Philadelphia for the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote campaign in November where he learned the sophisticated use of data management and Covid-safe door-to-door canvassing protocols. Energized by the success in Philadelphia and understanding the importance of the Georgia runoffs, Brown sought direction from Bruce and was referred to Jenkins.

At the end of November, Brown jumped into his car, drove to Cuthbert, the county seat of Randolph, got a hotel room and went to work, as a field director. He has self-financed his weeks in Randolph. In concert, he and Jenkins mapped out a strategy focused on canvassing and began recruiting, training, and supervising local Democrats for door-to-door voter contact. The numbers prove that the Jenkins/Brown team is making history.

Brown needed help with the data system that canvassers use on their cell phones and contacted a data management expert, Kitty Cox, of Newton, Massachusetts, who had been volunteering with the Georgia State Democratic Party during the general election campaign. She has been focused on southwest Georgia ever since. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Cox went to college in Atlanta, and landed at first on Adams Street in Dorchester after earning a graduate degree at MIT 40 years ago. After all these years she still refers to everyone as “y’all.”

She has been massaging the numbers out of Georgia, calling on everyone she knows for donations, helping with strategy and chairing team meetings on Zoom. Knowing my passion for, and experience in, electoral campaigns, she called me from her home and asked me to “consult” virtually from Dorchester about the campaign in the three counties and I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. I began working seven days a week on fundraising, communications and strategy.

Along with leading the state in early voter turnout, Jenkins’s organization has now grown into the two adjacent counties, Quitman and Stewart (currently vying with Randolph for first place in the state). What began as an operation without money or infrastructure now has a field director, a data manager, a finance director, an on-line donor account, and backers from 13 states and the District of Columbia. A dozen trained local canvassers have been recruited, like grandmother Carolyn Baker, college student Derrick Gorsuch, and high school football coach Wes Murphy. The locals are supplemented by canvassers from Florida and Alabama.

Says Jenkins: “No one expected that we could achieve so much success in our corner of Georgia’s Black Belt, least of all me. But we have found out that we have like-minded friends all over the country who will support us when we do the work on the ground. Bringing together all of these people is what some have called ‘a Christmas miracle’ and we intend to continue to build our Democratic infrastructure after Jan. 5 and create a model for other counties in this part of the state.

“Poor, rural, majority African American parts of the South have been written off by the political class in both parties. We intend to wake the Black sleeping giant by showing what can be done by determined local folks.”

In addition to the political junkie “fun” I feel in being in this fight, it has been my honor to join with some exceptional people who are bringing about change that has been overdue for 155 years.