POLING: Valdosta needs a mayor like Rainwater

File Photo | The Valdosta Daily TimesThen-Valdosta Mayor James H. ‘Jimmy’ Rainwater, right, huddles with then-state Sen. Loyce Turner, then-Gov. Zell Miller, and retired Air Force Col. Bob Ator to discuss strategy to save Moody Air Force Base from closing in 1991.

One person immediately came to mind when The Valdosta Daily Times editorial board listed qualities it wanted in a mayor.

Members said they wanted a mayor who is transparent, engaged, a visionary but realistic, accessible to the public, a consensus builder, a strong ambassador for the city, a cheerleader for the city, a good listener, a clear communicator ...

“Sounds like we want Jimmy Rainwater to be mayor again,” I said.

Seems to be something of a theme.

In a mayoral forum last week, candidate J.D. Rice evoked Rainwater as a visionary who made things happen.

Sixteen years after his passing seems like Valdosta needs a Jimmy Rainwater again.

But Jimmy Rainwaters — people possessing a combination of such qualities — are not easy to come by.

James H. Rainwater served as the mayor of Valdosta from 1988-2003.

Mayor Rainwater saw Valdosta grow to become the home of Valdosta State University and achieve metropolitan status.

He was instrumental in saving Moody Air Force Base from closing in the early 1990s.

He participated in fine-tuning the city’s administration as the police department became nationally accredited, the water better tasting and safer to drink.

At nearly 16 years in the office, Jimmy Rainwater served as Valdosta’s mayor longer than anyone in city history.

And he wasn’t just the man seated at the head of the Valdosta City Council table. Jimmy Rainwater had stage presence. And he was present, it seemed, for almost everything.

Wearing a pair of his many cowboy boots, he was a familiar figure at business grand openings and ground breakings, in the newspaper and on local television, in neighborhoods and community events, at banquets, dinners and suppers, charity balls and organizational fund-raisers. He presented awards and proclamations, attended funerals and retirements, church services and military changes of command.

A person could find Jimmy Rainwater at these events in the dew of morning, the blistering heat of afternoon, under the stars that shine at night.

Always with a booming Southern voice welcoming residents and visitors alike to the “great City of Valdosta.”

He attended so many things that you came to expect it, without fully appreciating it, like something dependable that you don’t miss until it is gone.

At some point, Jimmy Rainwater became more than the mayor. He became an integral part of the fabric that is Valdosta.

As a Times article noted 16 years ago, “Ask a local youngster to name the president, and he or she may not know the answer. Ask them to name the mayor of Valdosta, and you’ll likely hear several young voices chirp, ‘Jimmy Rainwater,’ in the same way they might say the name of an uncle or an old family friend.”

Granted, there’s some sentimental nostalgia in this column. Things were not perfect in the city during Rainwater’s tenure. The city police department suffered a crisis of leadership in the mid-1990s. Residents received monthly letters regarding the carcinogen rates in the drinking water. Moody was threatened with closure.

It wasn’t that bad things didn’t happen during his watch but rather the way he handled them. Once a court case revealed the depths of mismanagement in the police department, Rainwater called for the suspension of top officers and called in state agencies to review the department. He spearheaded the building of the water treatment plant. He worked with residents, county, state and federal leaders to save Moody.

Bad things happened but the city and county worked together far better than they do now; if residents came before City Council, they had plenty of time to voice their concerns; Valdosta had a vision of where it wanted to go and what it wanted to be; Valdosta had purpose and promise.

Honestly, Valdosta hasn’t been able to check any of these boxes for a long time. Sadly, looking back, it seems Valdosta hasn’t been able to check any of these boxes since fall 2003.

That’s when Mayor Jimmy Rainwater died, less than a month before his re-election bid for a historic sixth term went to the polls.

It’s not really fair to ask any of the candidates to be the next Jimmy Rainwater. That’s a lot to live up to, especially right off the bat. The important thing to remember is even Jimmy Rainwater wasn’t the mayor he would become when elected to his first term. He grew into the office.

But whoever wins the mayoral race can learn a lot by studying Rainwater’s approach and the history of his tenure. And by adopting some of the qualities he brought to office even in his earliest years as mayor: transparency, engagement, a vision coupled with pragmatism, accessibility to the public, the skills to build a consensus, a believer who can be both ambassador and cheerleader for the city, a good listener, a dynamic communicator ...

The next mayor doesn’t have to be another Jimmy Rainwater but Valdosta sure needs another mayor like him.


Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times.

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