MILTON, Ga. – Call him the Teflon Mayor. After eight years as mayor of Milton, Joe Lockwood has remained popular with the voters. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone to say a bad thing about him.
He has managed to polish his hometown-boy image and gee-whiz, Huckleberry Finn persona while guiding Milton through its early years of transition from rural clusters of subdivisions into a city that still clings to its rustic charm despite being just under 8 miles from Ga. 400.
At the Aug. 11 Rotary Club of Milton weekly luncheon, Lockwood gave the Rotarians his insider’s look at politics in his fair city.
“Why did I run for mayor? Well for a long time, people called me the unofficial mayor of Alpharetta because my office was across the street from Alpharetta City Hall. But I ran for mayor of Milton for important reasons,” he said.
“For one, I had a lot of people ask me to run, and I was encouraged. But I was still scared to death,” he said.
Like just about every other candidate in Milton, he had never run for political office. The week of qualifying he had to be in Colorado, so that meant gathering all the appropriate documents and having his secretary present them while he was gone.
“I don’t consider myself a politician,” he said. “I just wanted to do something for the city. I had been turned off by other politicians.”
Still, he had to run a campaign.
“In politics, there is no Easy Button to push,” he said.
He also had a wide circle of friends from living in Milton for many years – in addition to family, there were people from church, school, Little League and business. He took one piece of political advice – that was to take one issue and stick to it.
Lockwood decided he would fight to preserve Milton’s rural character. That is what attracted many of the new residents and kept many of the old residents on their property.
He had one standard that served him well also. He said he would weigh all the facts and how it affected his family.
“I felt like if it was good for my family, then it would be good for yours,” he told the Rotarians.
Now he had a campaign to run, and he stumbled onto a good campaign strategy by accident. His opponent had contacts in many of the subdivisions and had signs in them the first day.
“They say to win you have to knock on a lot of doors. But a lot my friends and supporters lived right on main arteries that serve the subdivision entrances. So while people saw [some opponent] signs on their street, once everybody left their subdivisions, they saw all of my signs up and down the main roads,” Lockwood said.
Locating those signs where everybody could see them gave his campaign instant legitimacy and a psychological boost to his supporters. He would win with 60 percent of the vote.
Before his first debate, he had to counter the spin that as a general contractor, Lockwood would bulldoze Milton. He said he was just a “regular guy” without a lot of political experience.
“Now people were saying I wanted to pave paradise,” he said. “That hits you in the gut.”
When it is your hometown where people are saying things, it’s personal. So he took the tack as a small business owner versus a big corporate lawyer.
In the end, he was able to build a larger network of people who knew “the real Joe” and who talked up his campaign that won him his seat.
After the election, Lockwood showed he was country smart also. After the election, he would seek out the folks who had his opponent’s signs in their yards.
Although he won the election handily, Lockwood was not satisfied.
“The say when you win an election with 60 percent, that’s a big win. But when it’s your hometown, that 40 percent is a big number too. You have to learn not to take things personally. But when it’s a baseball coach you knew or a church member, it’s tough,” he said.
By reaching out to them, he found out he was not so much disliked as people simply liked the other guy more. But in seeking them out and listening to their concerns, he was establishing personal contacts with them.
Come the next election, many of those yards that sported his opponent’s signs now held his signs.
Meanwhile, winning the election had moved the mayor and his new City Council into a bigger arena – putting together the pieces of a functioning government.
“There is no instruction book on starting a city,” he said.
But they did have the example of Sandy Springs, which a year earlier incorporated and hired CH2M Hill, a global company experienced in consulting, design, design-build, operations and program management.
Milton leased that company’s expertise as it built up its own government infrastructure over three years, then severed the connection to go solo. Lockwood said the City Council believed they were “cutting out the middle man,” and would do as good a job at a lower cost.
For example, the city had a ladder truck the Milton Fire Department needed for its office buildings on Windward Parkway. But it would take a minimum $2 million to build a fire station there.
“But we knew Alpharetta already had a fire station there and an empty bay. So now we staff the ladder truck in that bay,” he said. “They save the cost of a $1 million ladder truck, and we pay to share the coverage on Windward.”
So everybody wins, Lockwood said.
What is exciting to Lockwood is that as Milton has begun to add new city infrastructure – ball fields, parkland improvements, police services and a new library, residents are changing too.
“We’ve gone beyond just bricks and sticks. There is a real sense of community now,” Lockwood said. “People are excited about the city. They have ownership in it.”