“I believe that voting is the first act of building a community as well as building a country.” – John Ensign
There is no greater patriotic pursuit than exercising your right to vote, and Darryl Hicks is a key cog in the team working to make sure your voice is heard.
Along with Addison Lester and Aaron Wright, Hicks is a member of the Board of Elections. The Board of Elections is tasked with ensuring local elections run smoothly, fairly, and securely.
“I want to make sure that every citizen is confident that their vote is counted, that the process is fair to everybody, doesn’t discriminate against anybody, and that we have an election process that people can count on and say at least I’m comfortable with what happens here,” said Hicks. “I got into politics because I wanted people to be represented.”
Hicks found his way into community service from humble beginnings. He grew up in Reynolds, Ga., near Ft. Valley and Macon. He was born at Grady Hospital, but his parents moved south before he was a year old, and he lived the rural life.
“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “My summer job was chopping cotton and picking peaches, making $5 a day.”
He made his way to the city, studying undergrad at Morris Brown and later getting his Master’s in executive management at Georgia State. He moved with his wife and their three kids to Fayette in 2004 for the school system. Now, his day job is with financial planning with MassMutual.
Hicks spent 20 years working for Atlanta Gas Light, and it was that work that helped push him to get involved in the community. He was their Managing Director of Governmental Relations, which gave him an upfront look at state politics.
“I spent a lot of time down at the capitol basically lobbying for AGL and making sure our interests were being heard,” he said. “One of the things that struck me was that politics is pretty vicious. My fundamental belief is that I serve people, and I try not to get bogged down into the politics of it without trying to see the solution of helping people be what they want to be or receive the services that they should received.
“I saw when I was down there that politicians would get so polarized that I thought to myself there has to be a better way for us to be represented by people.”
He first took aim at state office, running for Secretary of State in 2006 and losing in a runoff in the primary. In 2010, he ran for Labor Commissioner and beat the former Speaker of the House before losing in the general election.
“After those two races, my wife told me to get a job. She said they don’t pay the bills,” he joked.
Shortly thereafter, he was called to serve his community. He was appointed to the Recreation Authority Board, then the local Democratic Party appointed him to the Board of Elections in 2011.
Hicks views his service as totally independent of who selected him to the position. When he handles county business, he serves only the residents of Fayette County.
“When the party asked me to be on the Board of Elections, when the county asked me to be on the Recreation Authority Board and then eventually the Development Authority Board, my position has always been the same, if you’re going to ask me to do that, you’ve got to accept what I bring to the table,” he said. “When we have meetings, I’ve been clear to everybody, I take off my party hat, and I then do what’s in the best interests of the citizens, no matter what. You can like it or not like it, I don’t care because I don’t get paid to do it.
“I’m here to serve. Once I take that oath, I’m serving people, and I want to make sure we have a process that’s fair.”
The obstacles are many with the 2020 elections looming. There is an intense focus on election security, and Georgia is breaking in new voting machines statewide. The new machines were delivered late, and both staff and voters still need time to get to know the units. Volunteers at each precinct already face a tiring task having to be there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then tally the machines and bring them to the home office.
Among the turmoil, Hicks is keeping his eyes on the prize.
“I don’t let that cause me to get off center,” he said. “Center for me is, in spite of all that, people need to feel comfortable around voting.”
The Board of Elections has put an emphasis on community eduction, hosting a number of gatherings for voters to come test the machines and get hands-on experience.
“This isn’t about is this the right machine, is this the right process. That’s not the purpose of it. The purpose of it is to get you ready to use the machine,” Hicks said. “We had no choice in the matter. We didn’t choose the machines, and we don’t set the legislation. What we can do is make sure election day goes as smoothly as possible.”
Hicks is confident that voters will pick up on them quickly.
“We need to educate citizens on how to use these voting machines. If they don’t show up, that’s not our fault, but at least we provided the opportunity for them to do it,” he said. “It’s critically important that they learn how to do it. Once they learn how to do it, they’ll see it’s easy as pie.”
Hicks’s investment in the community goes beyond the Board of Elections. He is also a member of the vitally important Development Authority. The Development Authority is tasked with targeting ideal businesses to attract to Fayette.
One way the Development Authority brings about positive change is by incentivizing the right kind of business growth. For instance, they only look to attract businesses that pay a minimum of $30 to $40 an hour.
“The citizens of this county come first for me, not politicians, not builders,” Hicks said. “It is the citizens of this county and how can we best spend their money to ensure they have a brighter future. That’s what I do and the other eight members of that Board focus on, along with the staff.”
Being a part of shaping Fayette’s future is a responsibility he does not take lightly.
“Economic development is the decisions that you make that determine the future of the county,” he said. “I want to be a part of that legacy that says we made a good decision from an economic development standpoint for not just the citizens that are here paying taxes but those citizens that are not here or not even born yet, that we made a good decision and this county is thriving 50 years from now.”
He cited Hartsfield Jackson Airport and its immense impact on Atlanta’s economy. Atlanta fought to be home to the international airport for the region, while Birmingham shied away from the opportunity, and the Alabama city is still playing catchup.
“Economic development changes the future of your county for generations to come. There are decisions we make as board members that, if we make the wrong decision, could cause this county not to be successful in the future 50 years from now.”
Economic development is understanding that change is inevitable, so you must focus on shepherding in the kind of change that helps a community flourish.
“Can you shepherd it in, and, if you have concerns about the negative side of that change, then I think, as leaders, you have to deal with it,” he said. “You don’t stop progress because you are afraid of change. You plan for those things that you are concerned with. You do thoughtful planning around those concerns.”
One of the biggest challenges the county faces is dealing with a rapidly aging population and striking a balance between current residents and attracting young people to move to, or stay in, Fayette. Among the tasks is attracting data centers and other businesses that bring strong capital investment and high-paying jobs.
“We have to make it easier for young people to move here and live here,” he said. “We can stick our head in the sand and not make decisions because I want it to be the way I want it to be as long as I’m living here without the ability to think of the child that is unborn and what do they want,” he said. “Change is going to happen. It’s inevitable. The question is, are you going to lead the change or are you going to be lead by the change?”
He said a key is getting younger residents involved in the process, and only then can the county get a better cross section of what Fayette needs to be in coming years.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re training the bench, the younger folks that are going to come after us. We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving them an opportunity to participate and we’re leveraging what they bring to the table.”
The bottom line is exciting days are ahead for Fayette.
“If I could say anything, the future of Fayette County is bright. It really is bright,” Hicks said. “We’ve got the right pieces in place, the question is do we make the right moves.”