If you’ve ever spent any time talking with Mayor Deke Copenhaver, you’ve heard him say some variation of the following: “One thing I’ve shared with people is…”
That phrase is just about as “Deke” as it gets, because whatever it is he’s about to share with you — that thing he’s just told you he’s shared with other people — he could have just gone ahead and told you. Or he could have name dropped and let you know exactly who he’d shared it with. Or he could have simply kept it to himself
But by sharing with you what he’s telling you he’s already shared, he’s inviting you in while at the same time letting you know that he’s not just sitting in his office, that he’s an elected official who’s actually out there talking to people. Politically, that’s a pretty smooth and crafty maneuver, but with Copenhaver — everyone calls him Deke except journalists — it rings true. Copenhaver does talk to people — a lot of people — and his message is almost always positive and pro-Augusta.
The Boy King acts more like a Boy Scout, and while there’s undoubtedly some calculation in that, you really do get the feeling that there’s some truth in it, too.
“I’ve never been a typical politician,” he says. “To be able to constantly interact with the citizens I serve has been a huge blessing. If I had to be around the politics all the time, I couldn’t take it. But one thing I’ve shared with people — when you’re sitting in the steam room at the Y, you’re on equal ground with everybody.”
So there you go — that’s Deke Copenhaver in a nutshell, and after nine years he is getting ready to step aside for the city’s next mayor, Hardie Davis, who takes office next month.
Nine years is a long time. Two terms of his own and the unfinished term of Bob Young, who left in 2005 to serve as a Housing and Urban Development regional director in the George W. Bush administration.
For many, it seems like Copenhaver has been in office forever, yet in 2004 he was just a guy going through Leadership Georgia (okay, he wasn’t just a guy — regular guys don’t go through Leadership Georgia — but he certainly wasn’t someone earmarked for public office). On graduation weekend, Augusta had its third current or former elected official go under indictment, and when he got off the bus in Thomasville, a friend of his, someone who was on the board of Leadership Georgia, asked him what Augustans were putting in the water.
Comments like that always got under Copenhaver’s skin, but something about this time really hit a nerve.
“I had several mayors who were in my class, and we sat around that evening talking, and I told them that if the rumors were true that mayor Young was going to leave to take another position, I was going to run for it,” he says. “And people thought I was joking, but I’m extremely competitive, and to hear other people constantly talking bad about the place I lived made me feel like I needed to do something about it.”
Though some people said he was just running to get his name out, Copenhaver says that was not his intention at all, that there’s no way he would have put his family through a political campaign so soon after the death of his mother-in-law, who died eight days after he announced.
He ran, and he intended to win.
The first letter of support to the daily paper, he says, was from former congressman Doug Barnard, who told him later that, after he wrote the letter, there were people who told him Copenhaver wouldn’t get six percent of the vote.
Eventually, he came in second to Wille Mays in a four way race that went to a runoff, where he beat Mays with 56 percent of the vote.
A year later, he won with nearly 66 percent of the vote and in 2010 he cruised to victory with 64 percent in one of the more unorthodox campaigns you’re ever likely to see.
“When I ran in 2010 and asked people to give money to charity and not to my campaign — that flies in the face of conventional political wisdom,” he says. “We only did yard signs, and I ran a city-wide campaign in a city the size of Augusta on, like, $5,000. But I felt like after five years in office, if people don’t know me now…”
Popular in spite of the public’s continuing frustration with the politics of the commission, Copenhaver says much of his success comes from his relationship with Administrator Fred Russell, which isn’t necessarily a popular thing to say, since Russell had been a lightning rod for controversy until he was eventually fired last December. Besides that, he’s had essentially the same basic internal management team since taking office; though Karyn Nixon did eventually leave to work for GRU, her replacement, Al Dallas, brought many of the same attributes with him, Copenhaver says. Not only were they both vastly overqualified, underpaid and overworked, but they loved every minute of what they’re doing.
“And I’ve had a good working relationship with the commission,” he says. “All of them. For the most part, it has not been adversarial.”
That good working relationship doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been an easy relationship, however.
“Part of my frustration is that after nine years of trying to lead by example, the politics within the commission remains very similar to when I took office,” he says, steering clear of anything more critical than that, except to add that this has been an especially difficult year.
Once he leaves office, he says he plans to let the incoming Davis do things his way.
“We had lunch last week, and I basically told him that I’m not going to comment on his job performance publicly,” he says. “He’s got to put his stamp on it, but I told him I’m here as a resource. To have one pretty young, progressive mayor exiting and another one coming in, I think, is a unique situation.”
Though Copenhaver might want the transition to be a smooth one, in reality it’s been anything but smooth. Davis has found himself at odds with commissioners over office space in the renovated Municipal Building, and rather than letting him have a say in picking Russell’s replacement, commissioners hired Janice Allen Jackson in September after initially sending her and two other candidates home in the summer.
One thing he has coached Davis on, however, is the effects of social media.
“I told him that he needed to establish his parameters when he got into office,” he says. “I told him he needed to establish them early.”
Copenhaver was one of the first politicians to see the value of social media, and one of the first to get burned by it as well. In 2008, the Metro Spirit published an unflattering story about his use of Facebook.
“I saw Facebook as a great way to get information out to my constituents, but you realize that there’s a flip side to that as well,” he says. “So I got off Facebook, and now I use Twitter, which seems to be a little cleaner and easier. But I spoke to a class about this for the Georgia Municipal Association. There’s going to be an expectation while you’re in office that you’re going to have some kind of online footprint, so figure out what you’re going to use, but also be aware that there is a flip side to it.”
Where elected officials run into trouble, he says, is when they become insular or when they get into that echo chamber where they’re just speaking to five or six people.
“That may not be a very prosperous place to be, and you can get out of touch very quickly,” he says.
And being out of touch can mean having an unbalanced sense of priorities.
“Commissioners will tell me that their phone is lighting up on a particular issue, and I’ll ask how many calls they got and it’s usually 15 or 20,” he says. “And I’m sitting there going, ‘Well, that’s nearly 200,000 people that you didn’t hear from, but you’re going to let a small group of angry people influence you into making a decision that’s not in the best interests of the majority of the population that you serve.’ So those folks don’t call me anymore.”
Taking a page out of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s handbook, Copenhaver says he tries to measure success in terms that go beyond the day-to-day political struggles.
“Joe Riley told me one time that, at the local level, all too often elected officials get caught up in petty debates where nobody six months from now is going to remember what the argument was about,” he says. “But if you focus on building buildings — that will stand the test of time, and that’s something I’ve always pushed for.”
And there’s no arguing that Augusta’s skyline has changed significantly since Copenhaver took office. The Convention Center, the Judicial Center, the Law Enforcement Center and the new library are just a few of the new buildings that have gone up during his time in office, and several major new businesses have also come to town, though not all have been received with the same fervor.
“In economic development, oftentimes when you have a big job announcement, some people will say the jobs aren’t good jobs or not everyone can qualify for the jobs,” he says. “I’ve always focused on quality over quantity, and I think through your ADPs and the recent Unisys announcement we’ve seen that, but I always use Costco as an example: that came online right before the holidays in the midst of the recession. Some would say they weren’t good jobs, but I would share with people — talk to the 200 people that went to work right before the holidays and ask what those jobs meant to their families.”
Always interested in economic development and city design, he insists that his future will be less about running for other offices and more about working with other cities to maximize their potential.
“I would never say never, but one of the things that has been important has been my ability to maintain my independent status,” he says. “And I think when you look at higher offices, if you affiliate with a political party, then money’s raised and you really aren’t your own person.”
Which is why he finds the idea of urban planning so attractive. You can design and build all the great cities you want, he says, but if you don’t have the people to work there and live there, it’s a wasted investment. Having worked on both sides of the economic development spectrum, he says he’s in a perfect position to help, which is why he’s planning to start his own consulting company and work with Cannon Design, a Chicago-based firm.
Though nothing has been finalized, Copenhaver plans to work with them on a situational basis, helping cities implement master plans. Often, design firms come into a city and produce a master plan that has a 30,000-foot view, then the city will turn around and appoint a committee of volunteers together to implement the plan. Many times the committee is overwhelmed by the work and the plan gets put on the shelf and forgotten about.
“One of the things I bring,” he says, “my value add to their design team is the fact that you don’t have a lot of mayors that are my age that have actually been through the process of implementing things and getting things done.”
Here in Augusta, he continues to remain enthusiastic about development around the canal, which is being anchored by the 106-unit CanalSide apartment building.
“Most cities would kill for one water feature, and we’ve got two,” he says.
According to Copenhaver, Augusta’s outdoor amenities are one on of the city’s strongest assets.
“You can live in the urban core and in 10 minutes you can be in the middle of Phinizy Swamp and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “And the same thing with the canal trail.”
And while Georgia Regent’s University decided against moving into the Mills area, he is convinced that GRU will play a major factor in the downtown’s growth.
“I was in Lexington, Kentucky, recently, and you see what the university of Kentucky has done to help transform Lexington’s downtown,” he says. “And you look at SCAD in Savannah — the list just goes on and on.”
The only regret he’ll admit to is not working harder to change the structure of the government, which he says is outdated.
“The charter is the business plan, and if you don’t update your business plan in 18 years, you go out of business,” he says. “I happened to have a great working relationship with the city administrator, and that was a great situation, but will the stars align that way again? I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.”