ALBANY — Chris Cohilas understands their frustration, but he doesn’t agree with citizens of Dougherty County who find little positive to say about the community.
Cohilas did, after all, leave a lucrative position with an Atlanta law firm to come to Albany and work in the Dougherty County district attorney’s office for seven years, advancing to the chief assistant district attorney’s position and helping launch a successful crimes against women and children program before returning to private practice.
“The people of Dougherty County have a lot of things to be proud of, from the tremendous infrastructure to the phenomenal natural resources to the fantastic people,” said Cohilas, who is challenging former County Commissioner Gloria Gaines for the commission chairmanship in the May 20 Democratic primary. “We need to market those things, change the way we talk about our community.
“I could have chosen to live pretty much anywhere. I had a number of professional opportunities, and my wife (Karen Cohilas) is very talented. But this is where I want to live, this is where my kids are from. It’s easy enough to sit back and complain, but this community needs more people willing to put skin in the game. I believe a growing number of our committed community stakeholders and leaders are on that path.”
After coming to Albany as a prosecutor, Cohilas volunteered to work with a newly formed unit of the district attorney’s office that aggressively sought justice for abuse victims. With the aid of the Lily Pad Sexual Abuse Nurse Examiner facility, Cohilas helped erase a huge backlog of cases and “gave voice to victims of the worst crimes imaginable.” By the time he left the DA’s office, the unit had a conviction rate near 100 percent.
“A lot of times little children who were the victims of abuse were told by their mothers to recant their testimony because the person who abused them — the mother’s husband or boyfriend — was the household breadwinner,” Cohilas said. “It was heartbreaking to have children recant testimony even after we had videotaped confessions from the person who abused them.
“Those were the worst crimes imaginable, but it was a wonderful experience to stand up for these victims, to be a voice for people who had long been voiceless.”
Cohilas admits that politics is a far different pursuit than he’s accustomed to, but he said his concern for the community — and a large number of calls from supporters who endorsed his candidacy when long-time Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard announced that he would not run for re-election — led him to seek the office.
“I think, first of all, that it is the chairman’s responsibility to sit down with all community stakeholders and open a free-flowing discussion on the issues that impact the community,” Cohilas said. “And one of those that I’m very concerned about is the amount of talent we’re losing. Our high school graduates and graduates of our local colleges are getting their diplomas, packing up their bags and leaving.
“I think we can have some meaningful positive impact on our community by addressing those kinds of issues, by starting from within.”
Jobs are a priority concern for Cohilas, and given his background, it’s no wonder public safety is also near the top of his list.
“Everyone’s goal should be to create an environment where quality jobs flourish,” he said. “That’s not going to happen overnight, but I think it’s important to get a buy-in from the community on that core concept. It’s something all of us should work for.
“My background makes me uniquely qualified to take a close look at inefficiencies in our criminal justice and public safety systems. There’s a common misconception that because each agency has a standalone budget, they work independently. But to work efficiently, each must work together. The work of each agency interacts with others, and having them work in harmony is a win-win for the community.”
Cohilas said that when he and Gaines committed to running for the chairmanship, he met with her to get to know her and share thoughts on the needs of the community.
“One of the things I wanted to do was let her know I was committed to running a positive campaign,” he said. “This was not done for show; we met privately. I think our campaign in this race is symbolic of progress made in Dougherty County. We share a lot of the same ideas, and whoever wins the election doesn’t need to go into office bogged down with negative sentiment.
“Of course, I’m well aware this could be a historic election. I’m the only half-Greek American running, and I’ve worked hard to garner the support of other Greek Americans in the community. Unfortunately, there are only about five. All kidding aside, though, I’ve really made this a grassroots campaign by knocking on doors throughout the community and relying on the contacts I’ve made in the years I’ve been here. It’s been so humbling to see so many citizens rally around my campaign.”
Cohilas said he’s aware of the void Sinyard’s absence will leave in the community, but he plans to use the contacts he’s made in his career to bring the community’s concerns to state and national leaders.
“I’m well connected locally, and I’ve made lots of friends throughout Georgia and beyond,” he said. “I believe I have made the kinds of relationships that will allow me to get things done.”