Walking the county with Larry Johnson (S3E10)

When you get your start in politics and your mentor is the former first lady and her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, as you will hear in my conversation, you get a good start. Listen to the conversation with DeKalb County commissioner Larry Johnson and you will also hear how he walks the county and meets the people.


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Larry Johnson: Good government is to me is always been we for and by the people on how do we connect the grass roots and the grass tops together. To help them solve their problems is not just government by themselves can do it. I tell people all the time is always us working together. There’s going to soar because who knows best your neighborhood and you might go.

My job is I’m not trying to hide anything from you. I want you to be the best. I want you, the community, to be strong. So you just tell me what’s going on and let me connect you with the right resources, and we’re going to follow it through.

You know, mental health, physical health, all those things I encompass in on you being successful. All the money in the world can help you if you don’t have your mind right and your health together.

David Martin: Welcome to The Good Government Show. I’m Dave Martin. And on this episode, you going to listen to a conversation with Larry Johnson, a county commissioner from DeKalb County in Decatur, Georgia, and that’s a suburb of the city of Atlanta. Larry is also the immediate past president of the National Association of Counties. We met up with Larry at the NACO legislative conference in Washington.

And you’ll hear that, among other things, Larry stays in motion. He walks every week. He pretty much walks the county. In fact, Larry made walking the official exercise of DeKalb County as an outgrowth of his dedication to walking. Larry got sidewalks put in around the county, and that makes walking easier for everybody in the county. Health issues are at the heart of Larry’s service to DeKalb and to the nation.

As a member of NACO’s Health Steering Committee, Larry works on national policy level issues like health care delivery, financing, indigent care, health care for the uninsured, Medicaid, Medicare, long term care, local public health programs, mental health issues and substantive views and development disabilities. That’s a full list of responsibilities. He also created a prescription discount drug card. This helps cover up to 20% of the uncovered costs of prescription drugs.

But Larry came to this service through a very impressive mentor, the former first lady, Rosalyn Carter. So I think that first lady and her husband, of course, former President Jimmy Carter, helping you as you begin your career in public service. Now, I can’t imagine a better role model, and neither can Larry. So my conversation, Larry Johnson of DeKalb County, Georgia, comes right up after this short break.

The good government show is sponsored by NACO. That’s the National Association of Counties. County Government is actually the oldest form of government in the United States, and it touches more people directly. Roads, highways, hospitals, schools, recycling law enforcement, water and sewers. In most of the country, those services are maintained by the county. That’s county government. Naco is a nationwide organization that represents all 3069 counties across the U.S. Naco helps county government work better together to things like sharing best practices.

Because when county government works well, well, that’s just good government. Welcome to the good government show and thank you.

Larry Johnson: Man. I’m excited my first time on.

David Martin: And today we’re having a conversation with Larry Johnson. Yes, sir. So, Larry, if you could introduce yourself, tell us where you from, what your title is and what you do.

Larry Johnson: I’m the Cobb County commissioner. I’m in Decatur, Georgia. I’ve been a commissioner for 20 years, and I represent the Southwest to cab side in the part of Atlanta in my district about 150,000 residents, great residents in our community, and a large enough focus as mine has been around infrastructure and wellness and so we’ve been trying to make it happen for the residents of the camp.

David Martin: So 20 years? Yes, sir. What made you start doing this, man?

Larry Johnson: It’s a long story.

David Martin: Time is up. I guess we have all the time. It was there is no set time for the show.

Larry Johnson: I first work for President Carter at the Atlanta Project. His wife.

David Martin: Right. Relatively young.

Larry Johnson: Man. Yeah. I don’t know about that, but Rosanne Carter was my advisor and advisor. The Yale girl. You couldn’t land a bit of a better person. And then I started looking at the infrastructure needs in my area. We didn’t have sidewalks, and so we were walking on the grass and dirt. And so I started all this really trying to make a difference.

And I didn’t want to serve. Now, just trying to find a way to help the folks in our community.

David Martin: How old were you at that point?

Larry Johnson: I was, Oh, God, I just got out of college and were like 27, 28.

David Martin: Okay. All right.

Larry Johnson: And so and I started doing pedestrian safety work and we got the first law passed in 1995, giving pedestrians the right of way and crosswalks that little sign you see in the middle become the George you see seal sign in the middle of the crosswalk.

David Martin: And have.

Larry Johnson: That you. No, no. We finally got it done in 1995 and that was part of me building the coalition of residents in South to care. I’m trying to make things better and not knowing. Then I will go work for President Carter and be over what you call Atlanta project. And I focus on early learning, education, immunization. And then Michael Jackson came to town.

It was when he was big.

David Martin: And so it was big. Yeah.

Larry Johnson: Yeah, he was always big. Yes, he’s always bigger, you know. But he was just he just hit that big one out, you know, the moonwalk and all of that.

David Martin: Right.

Larry Johnson: And so it was all about connecting the community to resources and trying to leverage what we have, because the power was always in the community. It never into it, never into the elected folks. But how do we get the we the people to make a difference in our community?

David Martin: Now? I have to I have to ask, okay, you worked with former President Jimmy Carter. Yes. What’s he like? What’s what was he saying? Personal side? Well, to work with and deal with, I remember.

Larry Johnson: He sponsored the program is a program around empowerment. And so we periodically we got a chance to see him. But what you saw on the on our side, you saw on the inside, he was just everyday people. And his wife was the same way. He really down to earth. And they made a difference in my life and a great impression because he just showed you you don’t have to have the title to serve.

Yeah, you can still make a difference without.

David Martin: The next president. He’s probably set an example that.

Larry Johnson: Yes.

David Martin: Many can’t live up to.

Larry Johnson: No, it’s been great. And that’s what inspired me. And in getting at such a young age to have somebody like that.

David Martin: Like a president.

Larry Johnson: Yeah, big. And it’s why I.

David Martin: Got first.

Larry Johnson: Lady, you know, Rosalynn Carter was my advisor, and, you know, her focus was mental health. And look what we talk about now. Mental health is now everybody’s focusing on. And she was doing it 20, 30 years ago right. When it wasn’t popular. And so it’s just amazing to see the work that we do and the changes we have to make in our community is still relevant today.

It was all about the people for.

David Martin: Them and what President Mrs. Carter say. You might want to think about this differently. That’s right. That’s right. You’re pretty much.

Larry Johnson: Do you have to do it? You have to do it. But they always did it under the lens of how do you keep the community involved, engaged. It wasn’t about top down. It was involving the grass roots and the grass tops to make things happen.

David Martin: I’m sorry. My Georgia geography is not near as good as yours. I know he’s from Plain Lanes.

Larry Johnson: I’m in Decatur, Right.

David Martin: Ah, they are in same area.

Larry Johnson: El Paso. No, no, this is downstairs about three or 4 hours away from. From Decatur. And it’s what is what you call South Georgia. Okay, well, if that’s.

David Martin: So, what’s going on? Indicator nowadays?

Larry Johnson: What’s going on in Decatur? We’re focusing on coming out of this pandemic. You know, we’re still in it, but we just completed giving about 5000 boxes of food away last week for Black History Month. Okay. Then I did something similar like that a week ago, two weeks before that. We do on COVID shots where we give out $100 gift cards as well as food baskets.

And the CAB has been doing that for a while. And we did over 90 tons of food to date and served a lot of our families in the community. And now post-COVID. We’re telling people it’s going to be worse than being in coal because we’re dealing with mental health, more poverty. You’re dealing with food insecurity and you’re dealing with housing issues.

David Martin: And that’s a lot to tackle.

Larry Johnson: Oh, yeah. But see, counties have been doing it for years. Remember Corbett unmuted us. We were, you know, how you be on Zoom and you be talking and nobody can hear you and then you on mute. Hey, I’m back. Right? So now COVID has shown that the counties are where rubber meets the road and what we do around food insecurity, mental health, public safety, all those things that we’ve been shouting about that we need to have funding to hit the road because we will win where the rubber meets the road.

See, I got to go to the gas station, go to the grocery store, I go to Dollar General, go to Macy’s. I’m seeing everyday people.

David Martin: All these people come up to you and stop you.

Larry Johnson: You have a town hall meeting is me.

David Martin: But we have a problem here.

Larry Johnson: You just can’t get your ice cream when you first get there has to be melted by the time you leave. So you have walk in town? Oh, yeah. You have walking town hall meetings?

David Martin: Yeah, In.

Larry Johnson: The grocery store. I started in my community to around wellness and walking to our home instead of being in the building again with the residents, we walk around the commune and get exercise at the same time.

David Martin: How much do you walk?

Larry Johnson: 25 miles a week.

David Martin: You walk 25 miles a week?

Larry Johnson: Yes, sir.

David Martin: All around your.

Larry Johnson: Area? Yes, in my area. Just look in. Observe. And just to clear your mind, you get mental health is not just for the people you serve. It’s about yourself, too, If you ask you.

David Martin: Because you look, you’re. You’re a snappy dresser. If I say so, sir. I know you got a suit on and a bow tie here.

Larry Johnson: I just look.

David Martin: Good. Now, is that what you walk around in or. No.

Larry Johnson: I get my jogging clothes on. I get my shoes, all of them take those. Right. And then I have my phone out on Tuesday and take a picture, some litter or a pothole and send it in. And it’s all about just connecting with the folks and also getting in your exercising.

David Martin: Now, you mentioned this earlier. I wanted to ask you about this before we started recording. I understand you’re building a new walking trail.

Larry Johnson: Well, we built it already is eight years old and I’m finally getting it extended to be is going to be 3.4. And I got $3.5 million from Senator Warnock and Congressman Hank Johnson about four weeks ago to basically connect the final connection for my trail. I’ve got a trail that goes from Moreland Avenue. When you come to indicate I must show you this all the way to Stonecrest 22 miles where you can bike it right and walk it and in it’s going to go past President Obama school, first school to be named at the President Obama’s.

David Martin: Trail.

Larry Johnson: Is called Michelle Obama trail.

David Martin: Okay.

Larry Johnson: And they got to go to pass to the president obama school and pass the Martin Luther King high School, the first high school in Georgia to be named at the Martin Luther King. And it goes right up the stone crest 22 miles.

David Martin: And can you do it? Have you done it all in one day?

Larry Johnson: Do it all one day now. Okay. Go and go up to about eight. All right. And but I can’t get nobody to go to the long way with. But when it’s completed, when it’s completed, I’m going for it.

David Martin: I’m going to give you a free ID here. What do you whether you start to dictate or marathon? Oh.

Larry Johnson: Yeah, Well, that’s a good idea.

David Martin: See, we try to help.

Larry Johnson: Raise money for wellness.

David Martin: We try to help our. All right, All right.

Larry Johnson: Day by time.

David Martin: So it’s a thank you. So it’s. It’s almost a marathon. What’s a marathon? 24 and a half miles.

Larry Johnson: You know, I just walk. I don’t think.

David Martin: You could do whatever you.

Larry Johnson: Want. Thank you. Yes, sir.

David Martin: So what is the big issue that you’re tackling?

Larry Johnson: The big issue we’re tackling is multipronged. You know, I’m dealing with our young people who need to have a space for them to express themselves. I’m dealing with the now the moratorium is off around foreclosures. So I got a lot of folks who may be looking for a place to live in. And my when I say young people, I’m also dealing with men who had a setback for two years being in COVID.

Sure. Trying to get them back up to speed educationally on where they need to go. And also, we’re dealing with our seniors. We’ve got an Asian population who want to stay where they live, but may not want a big house, but may want to have a house in their community. And so it’s a in a generational approach I’m trying to take right now.

David Martin: One of the other reasons why we certainly wanted to talk to you is because you are the immediate past president for Naco, the Association of Counties. You spent a year sort of looking at the national picture.

Larry Johnson: Yes.

David Martin: What what about that job? Were you able to sort of bring home to Decatur?

Larry Johnson: Well, my theme was Thrive technology, health, resiliency, vulnerable communities, economic development. That was my theme for the year was about thrive. And what I was able to do is that you go around the country and look at best practice practices and promising approaches and you see what you can do back home. You like, I have a bridge out.

I knew when I went to Utah or North Dakota and when they talked about bridges and roads and what I can do to make it happen in the cab and who I can connect with to make those things happen. When I talked about sidewalks, when I talked about setting up urban farms in our community and going to talk to folks in Minnesota who have been on family farms for four generations on how important farming it is and having it on.

David Martin: How does a guy from from Decatur, Georgia, talk to a farmer in Utah? How does that how does that work?

Larry Johnson: You go to a farm college. I went to the Johnson Farm. Can you believe that it was a Johnson Farm? 10,000 acres. Yeah. And so they were farming, I think. Hey, And I forgot the other crops they had. But I talked to a farmer and we said, now we had lunch together. I rode a horse.

David Martin: Okay. And so first I bought a horse.

Larry Johnson: A second time. So I said, you know, I’m I’m a city boy. I just am country stuff. And oh, I’m all see, come on now. But it was a, it was mainly on how do we connect as human beings and how do we share so many similar, similar things that we got together. But we talk about all the time when you see one county, you see one county, okay, But the people are the same.

You know, they want security, they want to have a great place to live. They want a great quality of life. And my job as the next president was to connect those dots to show how we can connect to thrive was my my presidential theme around broadband on time and inclusion and equity focused on vulnerable communities and economic development.

Plus health. The age was for health because health, as you well know.

David Martin: After your year did you.

Larry Johnson: We I’m still in and now.

David Martin: You’re well I.

Larry Johnson: Have this my year now.

David Martin: No I’m I’m as immediate past president after the after your year as president. Right. Were you more hopeful or more concerned?

Larry Johnson: I had to be hopeful because I’m coming. I was the president coming out of the pandemic. Right. So I was bringing people back into the space of where we can talk to each other one on one again, after two years of being absent. And so the enthusiasm I got around the country was tremendous because everybody know they wanted the best ways to connect is like what we’re doing just face to face talking and connecting.

And we found out that part of being empowered is that we missed each other. And so my job was then to see how we can reconnect you back to Naco about the resources that we all from. Because my job was to let counties know that you’re not by yourself, you’re not alone. If you need help on farming issues, you need help on urban issues, need help on rural issues.

NACO was your go to organization. You can’t get in the better resourced the Naco, because we have some of the best staff in the world who just had a fingertip phone call can get you what you need from grants to meeting with national leaders. You know, federal leaders, right? Those resources are invaluable, especially now, because coming out of this pandemic, you would dealing with so much.

David Martin: All right. So we have a little questionnaire we put together. This is sort of our our our test day from day to day. I wouldn’t say that. Okay. And say it’s the good government test. So we’re going to we’re going to we’re going to get to the bottom of your views on government.

Larry Johnson: Oh.

David Martin: Here we go. So what is good government to you from your position as a county commissioner, from where you said, hey, define good government.

Larry Johnson: Good government is to me is always been we for and by the people on how do we connect the grass roots and the grass taps together to help them solve their problems is not just government by themselves can do it. I tell people all the time is always us working together. There’s going to soar because who knows best?

Your neighborhood and you, you know, who knows best about what The neighbor next door may be suffering in? The person who lives in their community. But us working together, we’re much more powerful. So good government is all of us working together. The government, the faith community, nonprofits, agencies, youth organizations. I mean, I Embree in the football team, I got the basketball team at the table, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts.

I don’t need nobody else, okay? Because nobody has all exclusive answers to themselves.

David Martin: So how do you know if you’re being effective in delivering good government? How do you hold yourself.

Larry Johnson: And get elected six times like I’ve done? Yeah, because I continue to listen to the people and never straight away from knocking on doors. I mean, I have town hall meetings Last year I think I did over 2000 meetings where I can go out to them and connect with them on so many levels. I told you early, I do walk in town hall meetings.

That means we don’t sit in the building. We go to where the problems are. There’s a code issue, there’s a pothole, there’s some issues in a community. What can we do by walking together? Then I bring out the county department here to go with me so they can get from behind the desk. And so you can’t legislate.

David Martin: How do they like that?

Larry Johnson: Oh, they have to get out. They love it because everybody’s bringing you number in code enforcement. I bring the police, I bring the fire department, I bring our homeless task force folks, and we just walk to community. So you get to see what I see every day.

David Martin: So you get immediate feedback.

Larry Johnson: Yes. And I bring residents with me.

David Martin: How do people know if you’re an indicator in your county? How do they know if they’re getting good government? What should they look for to see if they are.

Larry Johnson: They should look for results. Well, my slogan is results. You can see. Yep, there’s that pothole.

David Martin: You have a lot of slogans, though.

Larry Johnson: Yeah, you got to do it, man. You can’t be. You can’t stay stagnant. You’ve got to move with your people. That’s why I go to second grade classroom and I don’t stay all day. Now I know that that’s my toughest audience. Second graders.

David Martin: Why are they the toughest?

Larry Johnson: Because if you can get them to stand up and clap and understand what you’re doing, I’m doing something. Okay? You know, And so but it’s all about how do we meet the needs of our community, Like sidewalks. We had places. They didn’t have sidewalks. Now putting them sidewalks in, we got a we have a program now that we’re paving roads because we couldn’t pay roads in the cab because we didn’t have we didn’t had the funding to do it.

Now we’re paving over 300 roads. Four streets has been some of the worst ones for 20 years. So things like that that people can see. I tell them I don’t want to put no pain in the building, a government building, no carpet on the floor. We got to make sure people can see the results of their dollars on the ground.

David Martin: If people aren’t seeing the results, if people don’t think they’re seeing results, if people don’t like what’s going on, what should they do?

Larry Johnson: They should call us and they keep and make them make their their complaints known. And they should come to our meetings and let me know my town hall meetings and let me know what’s not getting done, that we can find the right people to place they might go. My job is I’m not trying to hide anything from you.

I want you to be the best, okay? I want you, the community, to be strong. So you just tell me what’s going on and let me connect you with the right resources and we’re going to follow it through.

David Martin: So what would you like people to know? Government is not easy.

Larry Johnson: No, No. What would you complicated?

David Martin: It’s complicated. What would you like people to know about how government works? Those people that you know, Oh, this is wrong. That’s wrong. What would you like people to know about government?

Larry Johnson: I would like them to really know that what you see on the Internet, you need to still do more research just because you see a problem to somebody post. Don’t assume that the problem is not being worked on. And so you find out and talk to your elected officials to get the really the get the real skinny on what’s really going down.

And then we just move from there and build a relationship, get on our email lists, go to the meetings and find out what’s going on. You job. Don’t wait for them to come to you. You make sure you find a way to bridge the gap by getting involved. The best way I did it, man, I started getting involved.

I started with my daughter’s PTA and one of the most busiest parents in the world. I started working on my daughter’s PTA and helping with that school program. That one, the best experience I had because I had a chance to give back in ways that I that I would ever never know. But I gave back to the young people I helped the parents at the school.

I said the best way ways to get involved in government, start at the PTA level.

David Martin: Okay. All right. You can’t say Jimmy Carter because you already said that.

Larry Johnson: Okay, I can say that.

David Martin: All right. New question to you. Who’s your who’s your political hero?

Larry Johnson: Oh, I love my great grandmother.

David Martin: Tell me about it.

Larry Johnson: Because she was the first precinct captain for the first African-American alderman in Chicago.

David Martin: Okay.

Larry Johnson: Ralph Medcalf, which was an Olympic gold medal winner. All right. At the Jesse Owens. And she started working for the Papa Daily, but she got us involved in politics. Before I knew it, I didn’t know in my blood till my relatives told me she was doing all of this type of work long before I was thought of like that.

And so I still get some momentums. They finally gave to me on some of the things that she was able to do.

David Martin: All right. You’re from Georgia. Yes. What’s your favorite thing to eat, Georgia?

Larry Johnson: Oh, that’s a you can’t ask me that.

David Martin: Cause it’s right here. It’s all the paper I got.

Larry Johnson: I get. Can I see a couple of them?

David Martin: You can say cupcake bread pudding. All right.

Larry Johnson: Shrimp and grits, fried chicken. And then I make a mean brussel sprouts. And then I got a ninja foodi now, because I got to eat more healthy.

David Martin: No boiled peanuts.

Larry Johnson: No, I eat. I eat the peanut sometimes. Yes. Okay.

David Martin: But she wanted boiled peanuts. Others? Yeah.

Larry Johnson: Yeah. Yet but the crop, the the best crop that Georgia’s known for I know we the state but we do the most blueberries in the world. Really. Yeah we blueberry state South Carolina does are.

David Martin: Mostly pieces of.

Larry Johnson: Georgia and South Carolina is the most we do We do the most peaches and chickens.

David Martin: Okay.

Larry Johnson: We’re shaking capital and blueberry capital of the world we don’t give us credit for doing.

David Martin: All right. Well.

Larry Johnson: Go.

David Martin: Don’t go, dogs. Careful.

Larry Johnson: Okay. Okay.

David Martin: So I did I go to Georgia. Georgia State University.

Larry Johnson: Oh, sorry. Oh, no, I’m in trouble.

David Martin: I know you love growing up. Did you did you aspire to be a politician? Did you want to be president? Well, you’re president now.

Larry Johnson: Yes, I was president of my high school class. I grew up two teenage parents on the South Side of Chicago. I came to the crack epidemic.

David Martin: Yeah, I.

Larry Johnson: Graduated in and went to high school, graduate from high school on my side of town, South Side, with about 700 homicides. It was a universal. And no, I first want to go to college in my family and then I got active in my black student union as president of that, didn’t have a senior vice president or resident association.

David Martin: So this is sort of it in your blood first.

Larry Johnson: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I started like in eighth grade, my first campaign in high school, and then the rest is history.

David Martin: So let’s bring it back to Decatur. Okay.

Larry Johnson: We’re ready to give you.

David Martin: Give me a shot where it’s greater. Give me an example of a of a project of a good government project that you’ve been able to put together.

Larry Johnson: Oh, I would say my inter-generational center is a 30,000 square foot walking track in Southeast side. Computer lab is a place where now we bring all generations together, pool table. We have a place for differently abled folks who want to come. We have a class three days a week. Over 400 seniors come every every three days, and they do aerobics, chair aerobics.

And so it’s a place where you can now come and learn from each other. And so it’s one of my I would call legacy projects in the community. Didn’t have a wellness center.

David Martin: Are you do you have an athletic background? Do you have.

Larry Johnson: No no public health background?

David Martin: Okay. Yeah.

Larry Johnson: I’m a master’s in public health.

David Martin: Oh, you did? Yes. Okay. So that’s. Yes, that’s why it’s so close to.

Larry Johnson: Yes, right? That’s right. That’s right. And help as you well, you don’t have good health. You can’t do.

David Martin: This.

Larry Johnson: Oh, yeah. Well, you can’t do anything without your health. Right. You know, mental health, physical health, all those things are encompassed in on you being successful. All the money in the world can’t help you if you don’t have your mind right and your health together.

David Martin: So if I come to Decatur, I have to I have to walk the trail. That’s where I.

Larry Johnson: Walk to.

David Martin: Train. I have to get some blueberry pie.

Larry Johnson: That’s right. That’s right. And bread pudding, bread, butter and fried chicken. All right. It’s so shrimp and grits.

David Martin: For all that. I’ve just to. To to.

Larry Johnson: This was why I do it.

David Martin: This has been a great conversation.

Larry Johnson: Thank you, Dave. Appreciate you. Thank you very.

David Martin: Much. Thank you for you.

Larry Johnson: Thank you for hosting.

David Martin: And we appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Larry Johnson: Stay strong.

David Martin: You too.

Larry Johnson: Bye bye.

David Martin:
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So if you see him out of the county walking his 25 miles a week and he’s got an ice cream cone and let him finish his cone. Thanks for listening. I’m Dave Martin. That was a conversation with Larry Johnson of DeKalb County, Georgia. Join us next time for another conversation with another leader in government right here on the good Government show.

The good government show and a conversation with is produced by Valley Park Productions. Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder are the executive producers. Our editor and producer is Jason Stershic. This is a good government show. Thanks for listening.


**This transcription was created using digital tools and has not been edited by a live person. We apologize for any discrepancies or errors.