DAWSON, Ga. -- As the people around him told Christopher Wright his plans to run for mayor of this small community were foolish -- that he didn't know enough to hold the job, that he wasn't qualified, that it was political suicide to go up against a 32-year incumbent like Robert Albritten -- his thoughts kept returning to his 6-year-old nephew, Christian Johnson.
"I wanted Christian to have a positive male role model in his life, someone who got up in the morning, put on a suit and went to work," Wright said. "That's the way my family raised me, with manners and morals, and that's something that drove me."
It was that drive, and the growing resentment of a population angered by leadership seemingly more intent upon personal gain than community development, that propelled Wright to a stunning upset of Albritten in the Nov. 6 mayoral race, an upset that left Wright, at 22, the youngest mayor-elect in the state.
"This was so much bigger than me -- this was some Dr. King, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth stuff here," Wright, now 23, said as he talked with a visitor Wednesday in his cozy office in Dawson's City Hall. "But I came into this office determined not to let anyone tear this community up. I've got to live here; this is my home and always has been.
"This may be hard to get, but as I've watched people from here try to bring Dawson down, I've always thought if you can't be at home in your own home, why even go home?"
A political novice who, with older sister Stephanie and younger sister Chante, was raised by Sean and Tonya Wright in the Bronwood Road Church of Christ, Christopher Wright's somewhat idyllic childhood centered on church-related activities. He often joined friends at the local Boys and Girls Club and eagerly took part in the Albany-based Young Marines program.
"That program was mostly for at-risk youths, and I was by no means a troubled child," Wright said. "I just wanted to wear a uniform and go 'hut-two-three-four.' I had visions of maybe becoming a Marine, but health issues ended that."
'INHERITED A MESS'
The kindness and compassion showed by a funeral director during his grandfather's funeral sparked Wright's interest in the funeral home business, and after high school he was hired on by City Council member Ernest Johnson at his Johnson and Son Funeral Service. The mayor still works there.
Wright earned a business administration diploma from Albany Technical College, and he got his first taste of politics when chosen, at age 20, to serve as chairman of the local Democratic Party and as chair of the fourth quadrant of the Second Congressional District's Democratic Party.
Those offices did little, though, to prepare Wright for what he faces as mayor of the 4,600-citizen community.
"There's no kind way to say it: I inherited a mess," he said. "I came into an office in a city where leadership has chosen to help themselves rather than the people they represent. I mean no disrespect for Mr. Albritten -- I have the highest respect for him; he has done justice for the city of Dawson. But I think he became like a lot of politicians who have been in office for a long time. He became complacent.
"I believe leadership in our community has lost touch with the people. That's what I'm trying to re-establish."
Wright, who claimed the mayor's office with a slim victory, a 755-726 vote differential, confirms that the local NAACP chapter has demanded that City Manager Barney Parnacott be removed from office. And he says that even though discord between the city government and the Terrell County Commission has lessened somewhat during the short time he's been in office, there are still issues to resolve.
"I promised the people of Dawson during my campaign that I would bring the city into the advanced technological age," he said. "You can't even use a debit card to pay bills here, and if someone from Florida gets a ticket here, they have to show up in person to pay it. We also don't have a website, so one of my first priorities has been to get started on bringing these things to Dawson.
"We've also had a disagreement with the county that led to city inmates being housed in the jail in Americus-Sumter County. If anyone wanted to visit a relative in jail or even pick him up when he was released, they had to drive all the way over to Americus when we've got a perfectly fine facility right here. I am working with Sheriff (John) Bowens and the County Commission to change that, and we're making progress."
Of course, not everyone's gotten on board as the new mayor tries to introduce his plan to improve Dawson.
"I have a copy of a letter a woman here sent to the Supreme Court asking them to impeach me because she said I wanted all City Council members and all city workers to be black," he notes wryly. "I don't know where that came from.
"I think it's just part of the overall mistrust people have of leadership here. I truly believe to make things better, we're going to have to fix ourselves from the inside out."
A month into his tenure now and a couple of council meetings under his belt, Wright's slowly starting to recover from the "utter shock" he felt when election results were announced. He references the Bible, I Peter 2:13-17 in particular, as he talks about the challenges ahead. "That's what the Bible says," he notes after reading the passage. "And if that's what the Bible says, that's what Chris says.
"I'm one of those people who believes that you can plan all you want, but if it's not what God wants, it won't happen."
Wright muses for a moment as he's asked to consider the challenges that await him. He's already put citizens and city staff on notice that he's available, going to his office from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday to work on those challenges. As he considers a question posed by a visitor, an impish grin crosses his face, one befitting a 23-year-old man who's still adapting to adulthood.
"One of the things that I've learned since I've been in office is how to cuss," he says. "Now I know my mom and dad are not going to like reading that, but as stupid as it sounds, that's sometimes the only way you can get things done around here."