Newly-elected Dougherty County Commissioner Clinton Johnson stands in front of the government center in Albany. Johnson begins his term as the youngest member of the board on Jan. 7.
ALBANY, Ga. -- All many Dougherty County citizens know of Clinton Johnson is that he became caught up in the drama of the Rev. Lorenzo Heard's quest to qualify as an independent candidate to run for a Dougherty County School Board seat.
That will change on Jan. 7.
On the first Monday of the new year, Johnson will be sworn in as the Dougherty County Commission's District 3 representative and, at 34, become the youngest member of the board. If the work he's put in since being officially elected on Nov. 6 is any indication, expect Johnson to hit the ground running.
"Is my hair gray yet?" the affable Johnson asks as he talks about the responsibility of serving on the County Commission while dining at Billy Boy's BBQ and Wings in East Albany. "As we get closer (to the swearing in), it weighs on me more and more, far more than anyone would know. I know going in that this will not be about Clinton making a decision. It will be about me articulating the thoughts of the people in District 3.
"There are people looking for me to succeed on their behalf, but I know there are plenty of people looking for me to fail, too. I just go back to King Solomon and ask God for the wisdom to be a leader of the people."
Born, raised and still living in East Albany, Johnson graduated Dougherty High School and later moved on to Albany State University, where he studied political science.
"I've always been into political science; yes, I'm a big nerd," the commissioner-elect said. "I've always loved reading about and studying history. One thing I've discovered is that people have a choice when it comes to bringing about change in their communities: They can talk about it or get actively involved. Unfortunately, most just talk the talk.
"Few people are willing to put themselves out there, to throw their hat in the ring. I decided to do that because I want to be a face for real change in our community. I don't like the fact that people try to blame the government for all their problems. Real change is change they make themselves."
Johnson decided to briefly leave Albany to live with his Marine brother in North Carolina, but three days after he left, his mother suddenly passed away. He came straight home and hasn't considered another permanent move since.
With no clear career path mapped out, Johnson worked "odds and ends" for a period before being hired as the first black salesman at Enco Materials in Albany. He worked there for almost five years before fate -- and what Johnson says is a higher calling -- intervened.
"I'm a lifelong member of Greater Second Mt. Olive Baptist Church, and I stepped out on faith and left my job (with Enco) to get more actively involved in the housing program of the church," Johnson said. "After a short period, it hit me that this is where I'm supposed to be. I began to live and do things I felt good about.
"I'd always dreamed of becoming involved with corporate America and making boocoodles of cash. But I decided rather than chasing that dream, I'd give my best years to God to see what he could do with them."
Since joining the staff at Greater Second Mt. Olive, Johnson has become a trusted member of the church's hierarchy, working with its housing program, its youth ministry, its after-school program and its summer camps.
While taking a visitor on a tour of his district, Johnson points out areas both familiar and newly discovered with the enthusiasm of an explorer.
"See all these trails through here?" Johnson asks as he drives his pickup slowly along Blaylock Street. "They're made by young people who drive their four-wheelers and ATVs through here. They don't harm the environment at all, and I'd like to look into a way of making the paths safer for them, maybe install some lighting."
Later, while driving along Clark Avenue, the commissioner-elect points out land owned by MillerCoors brewing.
"I had a conversation with (Georgia) Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black recently," Johnson says. "I asked him if there are crops we can grow locally that MillerCoors could use in making their products. That's a conversation I want to have with the folks at the brewery, too. We owe it to our manufacturers to do everything we can to help them."
Johnson pulls into the new Verizon store at the corner of Clark and U.S. Highway 300, pointing out the new growth adjacent to the recently opened Walmart across the street.
"This is the first thing people coming in from Atlanta see when they reach Albany," he said. "That's not a bad thing. A few years ago, the view was a lot different."
As Johnson talks about his life in Albany and his plans for serving on the County Commission, he speaks freely about issues that have had an impact on the community. He said he's disappointed that many attacked Heard for his decision to run for a seat on the School Board.
"I served as Rev. Heard's agent because I'd been through the process myself (when qualifying to run for the County Commission)," he said. "When I told him that the elections office had denied his notice of candidacy, I took the form back to his office. His secretary shredded it because he didn't want a document around with his signature on it.
"Some people have said they fear Rev. Heard's politics and mine will be mixed because of my relationship with the church and with him, but that's not going to happen. I look up to him because he's my pastor. He's encouraged me to have a heart like Solomon and to try and serve wisely."
As for the controversy surrounding the closure of two county library branches in South Albany, Johnson said he's disappointed in the way the closures were announced to the public.
"The Library Board told the public, not the elected officials," Johnson said. "That's my biggest issue. If there's a necessary evil like that, it should be the duty of the elected officials -- not an appointed board -- to explain the reason the decision was made. The people are pissed off about the way this was handled, and they have a right to be."
Johnson said he's developed a relationship with every member of the County Commission and expects to fit in with them immediately.
"They've all been very, very, very, very welcoming, and I've gained a rapport with each of them," he said. "I think we can work together to do great things for our community."
Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said he's been impressed with Johnson's willingness to get involved with the board while waiting to be sworn in as a member.
"He's been at all of the meetings, trying to get ahead of the curve, more so than any other elected official I've been around," Sinyard said. "He has a genuine desire to understand the issues before the commission so he can hit the ground running.
"Rome wasn't built in a day, and there are always things you only learn by being actively involved. But when Clinton is sworn in on Jan. 7, he's going to be much more comfortable than people who aren't willing to put in the time he has. I think his enthusiasm and energy will bring some different perspectives to the commission, perspectives that will create synergy."
Johnson's just anxious to get started.
"I've got a lot to learn," he says, "but I'm ready and willing to learn. I know going in people are going to talk about me if they don't agree with what I do, but I really want to get away from the self-serving attitude some people have and work for the greater good.
"I want to do what will benefit my district and all of the people of Dougherty County. I'm not going to vote color or politics; I'm going to vote platform and purpose. I'm going to talk to the people of this district and truly try to represent their needs on the commission."