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Opinion

    During my time in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, through countless changes to economic conditions and leadership, I was proud to represent my home state of Georgia and the interests of the people and organizations that make it great. As I’ve stepped away from public office this year, I have not stepped back from advocating for policies that would help my state - the results of the COVID-19 pandemic included. The present conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are like nothing we have experienced before, and I urge economic caution to be observed along with health warnings as we adapt to changing circumstances. We want to help all those feeling the adverse economic effects of this crisis without causing unintended consequences. I was relieved to see the government step in to assist Americans and our economic structure through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Along with help for individual Americans and families, small businesses, it was important that the legislation also help industry of all sizes. In Georgia, the airline industry is the largest employer, with Delta alone providing livelihoods for more than 30,000 workers. Across the country, airlines employ over 750,000 Americans, and indirectly support the jobs of 10 million. The importance of this industry to our economy is clear. For this remarkable $2 trillion stimulus package, Democrats and Republicans came together to rescue American enterprise and jobs during an unprecedented crisis. But as the Treasury Department begins to produce guidelines for its implementation, it is clear that we are far from any true sense of how this crisis will play out for Americans. As someone who has written and voted on landmark legislation, I know that it’s not just the legislation, but the details — and how they are interpreted — are of the utmost importance. In the case of the CARES Act, one of the critical details is that it’s possible that the government could earn a financial return in exchange for the U.S. airline worker payroll assistance. That’s just wrong. The $25 billion provided in payroll assistance should not go in a corporate slush fund, but instead be sent directly into the pockets of hardworking U.S. airline employees. These workers will not only avoid reliance on state or federal unemployment funds, they will also have cash to support other businesses. This has a substantial impact for the U.S. economy. We should also recognize that the airline industry fills a unique role in driving the resurgence of our economy. Once America reopens for business, we need airlines to be ready to take off, connecting people, businesses and cargo. If the U.S. airline industry was forced to lay off thousands of employees in the face of the unprecedented collapse in demand due to COVID-19, rehiring, retraining and re-certifying its workforce would only further delay our recovery. This alone is a significant return on the payroll assistance program. I’ve heard arguments that the government must take this stance to ensure the program is only used in the most dire of situations. However, the data is already dire. Just last week, the jobs report showed over 3.2 million new unemployment claims, and there is every indication that this number will go up by another million this week. This is an unprecedented national health emergency, and now is not the time to be opportunistic. Government support is meant for just such extraordinary times. While our country is already experiencing unemployment in rates rarely seen, U.S. airlines are facing an industry-specific challenge threatening their very existence: plummeting demand. Nearly 1,300 aircraft are now idling, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported a 92% decline in screenings from the 2.5 million screenings it reported just a year ago. The combination of travel restrictions and public fear have decimated a once-robust industry that will be needed when this crisis passes. Let’s don’t forget that time and again, U.S. airline employees have proven themselves as resilient, patriotic and dedicated workers. These brave men and women are working with the U.S. government to get medical supplies to the hardest-hit areas and continue to help people get home safely amidst an enormous crisis – all in the face of the health risk. U.S. airline employees continue to go to work to provide an essential service to our county. Those employees will be ready when our country is ready to travel again. With the right policies in place, airlines will be poised to help the United States recover from this crisis. These companies play a unique role and have long been a major economic engine of our country. With the millions of jobs they support, they will continue to be. Former U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson served in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate from 1999 until 2019.
  • It’s been a long time coming but in a few short weeks Rimbey and Jason Schroeder, along with their three daughters, will move out of the motel room they have called home for the past year and into a Lawrenceville apartment. When I first told you about the Schroeders they were living in a Motel 6 in Norcross, one of many hardworking families and elderly individuals on a fixed income stuck in extended-stay motels in metro Atlanta. In fact, according to a survey released last spring of residents from nine extended-stay motels in Norcross, 84% of respondents indicated that an extended-stay motel is their place of residence. And, while they had jobs, they were struggling financially and couldn’t afford the upfront financial obligations they needed in order to move into a rental unit. What was also noteworthy was that 29% of the hotel residents were 55 and older. The survey was conducted in late 2018 by LiveNorcross, a local program of the statewide Georgia Initiative for Community Housing. Not surprising, dozens of readers responded after reading about the Schroeders, offering everything from gift cards to money to help cover a week’s stay at the hotel. “The outpouring of support from the readers was wonderful,” Rimbey Schroeder said recently. “We are very grateful for everyone that helped us.” But just as LiveNorcross was releasing its survey results, pleas for help to the United Way of Greater Atlanta 211 call center were increasing. “What we found was that our greatest unmet need was for families living in extended-stay hotels,” said Protip Biswas, vice president of homeless. RELATED | Who lives in extended-stay motels? The answer might surprise you Since then several things have happened: Months after the column about the Schroeders ran, Norcross and College Park officials each donated $25,000 to help local families in extended-stay motels find more stable housing. United Way matched their donations. Through its Motel to Home program, United Way of Greater Atlanta along with a long list of partners is working to help even more families find permanent housing. At last count, they had placed some 86 families. “That’s the model we want to promote,” Biswas said. Those partners include nonprofits St. Vincent de Paul, Action Ministries, Housing Plus, Community Concerns, and New Life Community Ministries. Still, outreach to these families can be tricky, Biswas said. Not only are hotels resistant to teams contacting families, he said, finding the resources to make deposits, helping families navigate the process or even finding the right housing can be tough. For now, Biswas said team members simply follow school buses, paying close attention to where parents are picking their children up. And so instead of going to motels, they start conversations at school bus stops near motels or the closest laundromat. “We have to start conversations with families so we know what they want to do,” Biswas said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of making a deposit or finding the right housing and then convincing the landlord to work with them. Sometimes families want their kids in Gwinnett schools but with good schools come high rents so we have to sometimes convince families to weigh their options and make hard choices.” RELATED | Business execs sleep out so homeless youths won’t have to Although families in motels aren’t considered homeless, they aren’t people staying in hotels for the short term either. They are living in a single room for four or more months at a time. Here’s why that’s a problem that extends far beyond mere homelessness. Studies show that people who live in hotels for extended periods experience more stress and domestic violence. Children suffer the most, emotionally and academically. “Housing is a fundamental need for every family,” Biswas said. “The sooner families can get into their own place, the sooner they are able to start addressing getting additional income and their child’s education performance.” It’s easy to look down our noses at these families but many are there through no fault of their own. They are often underemployed, struggling to overcome past issues with landlords, or just need additional help. In 2019 alone, more than 3,000 families in metro Atlanta in extended stays placed calls for help with the United Way 211 call center. Biswas said there is still a lot to be done. “Housing is the single largest unmet need,” he said. “It’s an area ripe for discussion and action.” Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.
  • The Decatur, Georgia Veterans Administration Health Care campus annually treats nearly 120,000 veterans facing a variety of illnesses, treatment regimens and surgical needs. It is one of the busiest VA campuses in the nation, and it is currently operating under a state of emergency.   Consider this a potential preview of Medicare For All. The U.S. Veterans Administration is the largest civilian agency in the federal government. Despite doctor and nursing staffing shortages, the VA employs more than 400,000, a number just slightly less than our entire standing U.S. Army.   Though patient outcomes continue to be troubled, along with access to and inconsistent quality of care, the entire VA health care system is government funded and controlled, and though some of its facilities are not aging well, the agency does not lack for resource or bi-partisan congressional support. But big budgets don't necessarily mean excellent or even efficient performance and fixed salaries and federal salary caps don't make for the most promising job opportunities for the best and brightest in health care.   Infection rates in operating rooms and other issues became so problematic that all routine surgeries at the Decatur campus were suspended in September, with hopes of resuming in November, once new nursing and support staff have been trained or re-trained. Joe Marrable, a veteran battling cancer on the Decatur campus also died in September, covered with more than 100 ant bites. Pest infestations also closed the campus canteen the same month.   Soon to be retiring U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, Georgia's senior senator and chair of the Veteran Services Committee joined a loud chorus calling for a change in leadership of the VA campus. Regional VA Director Leslie Wiggins was put on administrative leave on September 17th, Dr. Arjay K. Dhawan, Regional Medical Director was moved to administrative duties, pending further investigation, and seven other staff members were reassigned to non-patient care duties. And terminating the employment of poorly performing administrative and federal union VA staff remains a major problem. 'It’s just the culture, and I don’t know what it’s going to take to change it other than a complete house cleaning,” said Sheila Meuse, a retired VA whistle-blower and former assistant director at the VA hospital in Decatur.   Nationwide, the VA has the additional challenge of several thousand open physician and nursing staff positions. VA system salaries typically lag their private sector counter-parts at for-profit and non-profit hospitals alike. And the VA’s model with all employees working for the federal government, no insurance company and all care provided by one provider...is also VERY much like the much vaunted ‘Medicare For All’ being touted by the bulk of potential Democratic candidates for President.   There are still millions of physicians, specialists and nurses of all stripe, employed in private practices, and many of them do not accept Medicare, or are challenged by performing procedures and providing care at Medicare determined reimbursement rates lower than the actual costs of providing that same procedure or service. As most any Medicaid or Medicare patient can share with you, this often means restricted options and long waits for even the most basic appointments, procedures and patient care.   Thankfully, the Veterans Choice and Veterans Mission Acts, championed by Georgia Senator Isakson, passed with rare bi-partisan support and signed into law by President Donald Trump, are providing our veterans with a long needed safety valve of seeking care outside of the VA healthcare system.   But unfortunately our Atlanta VA system is far from alone in operating on broken down equipment, with low employee morale and unexpected deaths among routine patient outcomes. Our veterans deserve better, promises made to them and their families still need to be kept, and though I do not view health care as a Constitutional right, American citizens do deserve the right to make a choice in the structure and nature of their health care provider system.    In the most recent Democratic Presidential candidate debate, Vice-President Joe Biden mentioned a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of $34-trillion over 10 years for Medicare For All (which Biden does not support), and those costs could be covered only four short months if we eliminated the entire Pentagon, all military service branches, every weapon system and bullet. There is virtually no way to fund this plan which also has absolutely no operational quality guarantees. That's my diagnosis anyway...
  • We cannot allow this dangerous disease to make a comeback in New York City,' said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking to the city's emergency powers in matters of public health during a press conference on April 9, 2019. There are limits to my belief in modern medicine. Currently only taking one prescription drug for elevated blood pressure, lots of supplements and CBD oil to deal with a chronic inflammatory illness. I'm a big believer in wellness, prevention, chiropractic, exercise and a near daily yoga practice to help maintain good health.  But the evidence is indisputable, that vaccines have prevented serious illness among hundreds of millions, saved lives and shrunk the world of many killer diseases into a deep freeze in petri dishes secured within vaults at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Undoubtedly, preventative vaccines have spared both my children most of the once more severe illnesses of childhood.  Yet I did note a significant increase in both the type and number of required vaccinations from the birth of daughter #1 in 1992 to daughter # 2 in 2007, both children have been spared the pleasure of the measles and its German cousin, chicken pox, mumps and many other maladies too numerous to mention.  And yet, in many parts of the first world, parents are increasingly vacillating or in many cases simply saying NO to childhood vaccinations. Some believe vaccinations harbor small amounts of heavy metals like mercury and other toxins as preservatives. Thiomersal, and it's trade name, Merthiolate (patented by Eli Lily in 1928), are a preservative, derived from Mercury, used in the manufacture of many medical vaccinations.  A not small number in the scientific community, thousands of parents and families, and several well-regarded studies have indicated that Thiomersal may contribute to or cause autism and other illnesses, including cancer, SIDS and other neurodevelopmental disorders.  While parents have the right to make these decisions for their families and children, we are at the same time, more and more congregating in cities, where population density and commonly used surfaces and gathering places are also more and more the societal norm, in the United States and elsewhere. A current resurgence of the measles in New York City, originating reportedly within Orthodox Jewish communities who do not vaccinate as a matter of faith, has moved into the broader public school system population.  New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio is leading a public awareness effort, 'Don't Wait...Vaccinate,' to slow the measles outbreak, already resulting in hundreds of hospitalizations, from developing into a pandemic. The Mayor and City Council have mandated the measles vaccine for school-age children within several Zip codes in Brooklyn where out-breaks first occurred. Prior to the public health emergency declaration, Orthodox Jewish families in the impacted neighborhoods and communities were simply urged to keep sick children at home.  Vaccinations, on a global scale, have all but eradicated the threats of small pox and polio...and yet without continued vaccinations among our new population, these crippling and fatal diseases may likely make a return just as measles, chicken pox and other ailments considered less threatening are occurring, even to the extent that some parents hold 'measles/pox parties' to intentionally expose their offspring, in hopes of naturally strengthening their immune systems.  The annual flu vaccine, as an example, is often administered without any preservatives, while still sparing millions of Americans from the serious and in some cases fatal malady of the flu. And yet, with that vaccine both inexpensive and almost universally available, thousands of adults continue to choose to avoid it, and Georgia was among the most flu-infested states in the nation yet again this year.  The pharmaceutical industry, coming off another year of near record profits, would do well to make the common sense decision to research and deliver other preservative options. Protective mothers, like bears and lionesses are not likely to simply accept assurances and admonitions of 'trust us.' Trust, once lost or broken must be earned. Let's not gamble again with global public health. Drugs are tweaked and re-patented every day at the molecular level by big pharma when seeking the protections of a new patent. It's time to step up, so that you help remove the doubts of thousands of families refusing to roll up their sleeves and point their child's foot, upper arm, thigh or other body part at the business end of a needle. How about a little bit of self-directed financial pain for a significant confidence and consumer trust gain? Don't vacillate, make the smart and easy choice.
  • America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves,' President Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865). As has been documented in numerous public opinion surveys, Millennials, who as of this year became the largest demographic age group and population block in our nation, have a clouded understanding of the meaning of socialism. When asked, in multiple formats, if our nation would be better off if all incomes were collected by the government, and then redistributed in equal amounts to all citizens...an overwhelming nearly 80 percent of those surveyed emphatically said, Yes. I frankly find this more disturbing than the ongoing Opioid Crisis, which took the lives of nearly 48,000 Americans during 2018. Since elementary school, I have been a student of history, our republic and the conflicts which helped build our nation into the world's strongest economy, and the only place I know where personal freedom reigns supreme. And with that said, I want my children, your children and our grandchildren to better understand that even freedom is not 'free.' The parade of U.S. presidential candidates for 2020 already sounds like a sweepstakes race, with each trying to top the other with their Get Out, No Jail Everything is FREE card. Free college, free Medicare for all, free Daycare, free Basic Income... and the list goes on. I purchase healthcare coverage via the federal Market Place Exchange, and though I can't say I have been pleased with many aspects of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, I had no coverage at all for a few years prior to that, due to a pre-existing medical condition. That said, me having health care coverage remains and should be my responsibility not my employer's, the federal government nor my neighbor. I support subsidized and on-site employer sponsored day care, as an employee amenity, and deductible expense for the employer, but NOT mandated, federally organized and funded child care. If you think otherwise, pay a visit to your nearest local Head Start program. Georgia's lottery provides pre-K funding, but that program funds local schools and even private daycare facilities, leaving placement choices and related staffing concerns in the hands of parents, as it should be. Much example is made of socialist programs in many Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway and Finland. Neither is a true socialist state, but both offer much higher income tax rates, greater redistribution of income and a larger safety net than the U.S. Having traveled to Iceland and other neighboring nations, the populations there are smaller, much more Euro-centric and generally less diverse. Tourism is easy and encouraged, immigration, non-native born citizenship, or the ownership of property is not particularly encouraged and in some cases practically impossible. The immediate prior President of France raised the income tax rate for wage earners there to 75 percent. Almost overnight the top 300 wealthiest citizens of France became citizens of Belgium and other neighboring low and no-tax neighbors within the European Union.  More recently stateside, Trump administration tax cuts removed a long-treasured tax haven of the full deductibility of state income and property taxes. Not surprisingly, with the cap on deductible residential property taxes now $10,000, hundreds of thousands of residents in high tax states have sold their property and homesteads, relocating to lower and no property tax states. Not having served in uniform in our nation's military is perhaps my largest single life regret. Although time spent in the Georgia Defense Force (the Reserve's reserve) was worthwhile, it's not the same, and particularly not the same as serving during a time of military conflict. Those who have lost life, limb or a family member in combat, paying the ultimate price, know more than any others that the price of our continuing freedom is truly not free. A warm visit just over a year ago to the land of fire and ice (Iceland) was followed by my more recent discovery that the world's tiniest nation strictly controls the birth rates of any fetus determined to test positive for a genetic marker for Down syndrome. Nearly 100 percent of those pregnancies are then terminated. Having a child with Down syndrome of our own, we can unequivocally state that this is a choice and price which the people of Iceland are collectively paying, and which they may not fully appreciate for decades, but it also makes the price of any return trip to that lovely island nation a bit too high for me.  
  • One of Georgia's oldest counties, Gwinnett County, became 200 years old on December 15, 2018. Looking ahead, as the man whom the county is named for frequently did, it may be time for bold decisions and potentially new directions. Button Gwinnett, a longtime resident of Chatham County, briefly became Georgia's provisional President in 1777. An early speaker of the Georgia state legislature and later signer of the Declaration of Independence, like most Georgians of his time felt that an independent United States might be unthinkable. Great Britain was then the world's mightiest empire, and the colonies of the Americas were but a fledgling cluster of port cities and plantation towns up and down the eastern seaboard of North America with no organized militia.  But while first serving in a Georgia provincial assembly in Savannah in January of 1776, Gwinnett was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he was first seated that May. Gwinnett became convinced that American independence was worth the risk and price that would likely be paid, and on July 2, 1776 and again on July 4th, Gwinnett voted in support of the Declaration of Independence. Georgia was considered a remote colony, but all three of its delegates to the Continental Congress became enthusiastic supporters of the declaration and the American Revolution which followed.  During the century that followed, Gwinnett County remained a predominantly rural county, and still later a somewhat remote bedroom community for fast growing Atlanta to its south. By the 1940 census, prior to World War II, the county population remained just under 30,000. Rapid growth defined the post-war decades and approaching the 2020 census, Gwinnett has become Georgia's second most populous county, now with nearly 1,000,000 residents. Gwinnett is home to Georgia's largest public school system and one of its highest performing. A strong cluster of municipalities offer differing tastes of Gwinnett life and county pride and its percentage of lifelong residents remains high. A strong technology corridor exists along the county center, and the I-85 corridor is ripe for re-development.  But, Gwinnett County is also changing. During the last census, Gwinnett's population became majority-minority. For decades thousands of Gwinnett workers streamed each morning along interstates, state highways and major thoroughfares into metro Atlanta's core. But that traffic is now much more two-way, with workers heading in and out, both of the high and low-skill variety. Interstate connectivity along I-85, 985, 316 and U.S. Highway 78 remain almost unmatched in the region, while east/west connectors apart from the Ronald Reagan Parkway are few and far between. And while Gwinnett Transit System and GRTA Xpress buses offer service across Gwinnett to other parts of the metro Atlanta region, route frequency is largely limited to rush hour commutes.  Gwinnett county sites were left on the sidelines recently during competition for the nation's largest economic development prospect, the Amazon HQ2 search, solely because of lack of direct access to region-wide transit. The Gwinnett County Commission has developed an ambitious transportation plan for the future, but they are leaving the decision on whether or not the county significantly expands and enhances its local transit options to area residents and businesses.  Gwinnett voters previously approved Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendums to improve local schools, parks, libraries and other infrastructure. Now they have the opportunity to even more significantly invest in their future through a March 2019 Transportation SPLOST special referendum.  Gwinnett County has reached many milestones with an even brighter future potentially ahead, but to maximize those successes and share the wealth with all levels of the local citizenry, a deeper and more tangible series of connections to the rest of the metro region are needed. A dedicated lane on Ronald Reagan Parkway or the Highway 120 corridor for high occupancy vehicles or bus rapid transit could easily improve and expedite county traffic east and west. Direct rail or light rail access from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport would provide an explosive boost in convention and tourism business at the Gwinnett Convention Center, Infinite Energy Arena and the upcoming Revel development.  In his day, Button Gwinnett, British born and raised, first a modest merchant and later a plantation owner, heard the voices of those afraid of the future, but he also knew that America and its people could not prosper as a subordinate, under the yolk and thumb of a large and sometimes oppressive government. If Button Gwinnett was still around today, I'm pretty sure he would be leading the way to get on board this train. Go Gwinnett.
  • “Georgia and our people have been very kind to Sandra and me. I'm glad that together we were able to accomplish some things that hopefully make life a bit better here for all Georgians,' said Georgia's outgoing Governor Nathan Deal.
  • Americans are benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States,' J. Bartlet Brebner, well known Canadian historian and author. As I crossed the mid-century mark a few anniversaries around the sun ago, I decided that I needed to make a higher priority of actually taking the trips and adventures on my bucket list, before the good lord decided to take me…and while the goin’ was still good.  So last Christmas, our small family made an incredible holiday trek to The Greenbrier, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The resort is too incredible to describe in a few sentences, and the time spent with my daughters and son-in-law, on Amtrak en-route and later at the hotel gave us a host of precious family holiday memories. I was greatly touched this year when my father started a new family tradition of sharing favorite Christmas memories, and that Christmas journey has already landed atop those lists.  But this year, both girls would be elsewhere with their mothers, so I wanted to plan something memorable, and singular…in that I was not likely to take this trip again later. I selected The Canadian, the flagship of Canada’s rail system, Train #1 traverses from Toronto to Vancouver, east to west, and Train #2 (my choice) the reverse from Vancouver to Toronto.  I actually prefer train travel in many ways, so I flew from Atlanta to Seattle, taking Amtrak from the under renovation King Street Station in downtown Seattle to Vancouver. On this leg of the trip I met an incredible woman, Ms. Loretta Young Phillips, 85 years young, on her way to spend the holidays with children and grand-children north of the border.  In Vancouver, I spent a lovely Christmas Eve getting to know the city, having only been previously to Vancouver Island and Victoria nearby. An enchanting Christmas market had at its center a three-story Christmas manger, much like a heirloom family holiday centerpiece back home, only this one contained a live three-piece music combo on its main level, which also made me feel more at home as I approached they were swinging to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” originally recorded by Lithonia, Georgia’s own, little Miss Brenda Lee.  After the market and walk along the waterfront, back to the Marriott Pinnacle Vancouver for what turned out to be an incredible Christmas Eve dinner, and the best bowl of summer squash bisque I’ve ever tasted.  Christmas morning brought a return to Vancouver’s grand Pacific Central Rail Station, and off across the Rockies and British Columbia…the views were indescribable and majestic. The Via Rail staff were all incredibly professional, hospitable and accommodating, and I sensed even more so than usual during the holiday season. My accommodations were a comfortable, and compact, sleeper cabin for two, with a half-bath, and a communal shower just steps away. A glass-domed lounge car offered even more incredible 360 degree views as the beautiful vistas continually unfolded.  Our first stop to de-board was in the ski burg of Jasper, population 4,501, easily trebling during ski season. Nearing half our cabin departed here for the slopes on Boxing Day.  This was not my first trip visiting our northern neighbors, prior business ventures had well introduced me to Toronto, Montreal and Windsor . And I noted as always on this trip that Canada welcomes diversity, and Asians of many nations are among their largest and most visible minority population. Passengers on-board this train trek represented most every continent. I counted at least 10 languages which I overheard but could not speak. Yet smiles, nods, and holiday greetings were the universal language easily spoken by all.  Friends in Toronto have already given me good reason to return soon. This was perhaps the whitest Christmas and most snowfall I have also ever experienced, other than some Christmas ski trips to Park City and Steamboat Springs, yet unlike those, I was seldom out IN the snow and cold. And as I type these words, in the warm comfort of my cabin as I watch the beautiful scenery roll by, I’m accompanied by a hot mug of cider, as well as knowing that the warmth of the VIA Rail team and fellow passengers outside are all just a few steps away. It’s the only way to roll, Happy New Year, now back to being out and about.
  • Most of us have a 'home away from home,' or a second place we consider home in our hearts and minds. Mine is Athens, Georgia. Like Athens, Greece, its namesake. The Classic City has a storied history, as well as many prominent leaders, academics and athletes living there today. But what makes most any town really unique and special are its people, and this column is about a small handful of Athens' finest. Mayor Nancy Denson has been serving the community and county for nearing four decades. With several of those as Tax Commissioner, Mayor Denson can honorably state that she never forced a single individual or family out of their home due to a forced tax sale. Mayor Denson is term limited from running again, much to the chagrin of many in the city, but her legacy will long live on. Both northeast Georgia/Athens area food banks were begun from her garage. And her family continues in public service, with one daughter the longtime City Manager of Tybee Island and another a well-regarded State Legislator as well as candidate for Mayor of the City of Atlanta. In or out of politics, the Denson community service dynasty will continue. Another prominent face, on seemingly every billboard in Athens is that of entrepreneur and Dawgs super fan, Reign Streiter. His broad grin and clean-shaven pate call to mind a more congenial Mr. Clean, with that white t-shirt replaced by Bulldog colors and a strong following of friends and customers. If you don't see Reign sign at most every major Athens intersection, touting Team Reign, and spirited, feel good sayings of the day, just look for him Between the Hedges prior to most every UGA home game.  Reign graduated from UGA, first becoming an educator, and from every account, he loved teaching and his students loved him. But with a growing family, he decided he also needed to increase his income, and he then began a side enterprise of selling cars. His approach was very unique, as he might ask you about your dream car, that you never owned, or the one that got away, as part of sizing up your needs. Within a few years, he moved on to more lucrative enterprises, and after securing his realtor's license, he began selling homes. In no time and for six consecutive years, the Reign Man became the TOP selling realtor in Athens/Clarke County, and though he was happy making money for himself as well as his lead brokers, he wanted to do more, and give back some of the success he was finding to the community. And out of that desire, just over a year ago, he birthed Give Back Realty. Reign and his team of Athens' top realtors donate 10% of their real estate commissions to a growing list of nearly 20 Athens area charities and non-profits from every sale closing. It is not unusual for sale and purchase customers to now also match that gift.  During Team Reign's first year in business, this Give Back Realty 10% community reinvestment has resulted in well over $105,000 in direct donations to the coffers of local Athens charities and non-profits. And if you do the math on how well the overall enterprise is doing, multiply those gifts by ten, and that's gross commissions, which at best are seven percent of the sale price of the homes and commercial buildings being offered. That big smile of Reign's rolls over onto a LOT of other faces. Give Back customers run the gamut, first time home-buyers, former UGA football coaches to college sports broadcast giant, IMG (a tenant in Give Back Realty and Team Reign's office building). It's easy to see given the community's return on investment by moving real estate thru Give Back, that the firm and the Reign Man will likely soon be expanding into other Georgia cities looking to slightly recast the real estate business.  And Athens leaders aren't limited to living IN the Classic City, the CEO of my own home and DeKalb County government is another Athenian, Michael Thurmond, the former legislator, State Labor Commissioner and DeKalb Schools Superintendent also has a decades long history of servant leadership and public service. And I'm happy to note that Georgia's Governor-elect, Brian Kemp, is also still an Athenian, as well as a developer, entrepreneur, former State Senator and Secretary of State. Georgia should be in good hands. As the New Year approaches, I hope that Athens will keep producing more servant leaders who walk their talk and set great examples for the rest of us, like Mayor Nancy Denson, the Reign Man and others. And with the Sugar Bowl in the Big Easy just coming into view...Go Athens and Go Dawgs too!!  
  • It has probably taken me longer than it should have to realize that the greatest gifts of my life are often the more intangible ones, as well as the longest lasting. Barclay, my first child, followed her mother into teaching, the two are both on the faculty of the same Gwinnett County elementary school, and as with her sister, Barclay shares many of her mother's mannerisms and characteristics, as well as the obvious physical resemblance.  Many of the lessons I learned through my first child, good and bad, have hopefully better prepared me for raising my second, Olivia. Though born with the genetic disability of Down syndrome, Olivia teaches me life lessons almost weekly. Her joy is contagious and her ability to make new friends is constant and instantaneous. Despite a decade and a half between my girls, the two half-sisters are quite close. Barclay's guidance and advice as an educator has also been invaluable as we step delicately through the minefield which special education in a public school setting can be.  Between them, the girls currently have 12 living grandparents, I won't bore you with the math, but it can make making everyone happy during the holidays a challenge. As I watch them both live and grow, I marvel and find great joy in noting expressions, gestures, and mannerisms shared with their ancestors, many of whom they've never met and know only through related stories and old photographs.  My paternal grandmother, Mary L. Crane, was a businesswoman and civic leader. She had few great joys in life and spent most of her time shepherding, some might say micro-managing, different aspects of the family newspaper enterprise. She wasn't one to smile often, or give herself time to relax, but when she did either it was real and genuine. My youngest has her smile, and the sometimes matching shoulder-shrug which together signaled true contentment. We lost Mary the week prior to Barclay's birth in 1992, and yet I still can feel her presence in Olivia's smile.  Barclay favors both of her grandmother's, Lynn Crane and Mary Lowery. Her maternal grandmother’s love for laughter, as well self-deprecating humor, are both frequently in evidence. And Barclay also shares these traits with her own mother, as well as a gesture ending with hands on each hip, coupled with a head tilt. It is hard to explain how much I enjoy re-discovering these mirrored micro-traits, movements and physical gestures mimicked between generations, especially when the younger never actually saw or experienced the trait being demonstrated by the elder. How exactly can genes do this?  Olivia and her mother, Tiffany often sit near or next to each other, and in a matter of moments both will have the same leg cross, with the same foot bobbing slightly. Whether it's nervous energy or more gene mimicry I’m still not quite sure, but when each is buried in a book or laptop or movie on television, and the two are half a room apart, with the same leg bob going...I'm convinced again it is more magic gene pool footwork at play.  These little memory 'gifts' of random DNA help the beloved no longer with us live on. I don't need a 21 & Me kit to frequently note who is related/connected to whom. And as we age and grow to become our parents, I note with each visit how often my sisters mirror our own mother, Lynn Crane, or how much my vocal timber and head tilt have become so identical to my own father, Jerry Crane.  So much of the holiday season is filled with time or memories of family, but now the 'greatest gift' for me is just watching my girls grow, loving life and others...while carrying along inside of each of them a little piece of the rest of us. Just as a smile itself can be shared, while also bringing back some wonderful of memories of that same smile from another face decades before.  Keep your family close and tell your children how much you love and cherish them, if not everyday, at least during this season of thanks and gracious plenty and celebration. You will be glad you did, and when they smile back at you, try and remember whose smile they are now also wearing. Merry Christmas, best wishes of the season and New Year to you and yours.