When Wendell Willard entered the state Legislature in 2001, his home city of Sandy Springs didn’t exist yet. Now that he heads into retirement, having marked his last Sine Die last month, the longtime representative of House District 51 is looking back on a legacy where cityhood was just the start.
“Look up the road here at all the things that have happened in Sandy Springs… My gosh, the changes that have come about [are] amazing,” said Willard in a recent visit to the Reporter Newspapers office. The 2005 incorporation – a product of legislation that he and others pushed through – created a “strong community spirit” that didn’t exist before, he said.
Already an accomplished attorney, both in private practice and for DeKalb County, Willard won the seat – then House District 44 before redistrictings changed the number a couple of times – in 2000 after longtime state Rep. Sharon Trense stepped down. Nearly 18 years later, he was never opposed for re-election, he says with pride.
In 2004, Willard’s Republican Party suddenly took over state government after years as the minority party. A long-frustrated plan for Sandy Springs cityhood became politically possible. Willard supported former state Rep. Joe Wilkinson and other colleagues in the passage of a landmark bill allowing Georgia’s first new city in a half-century. Willard worked on related legal changes, such as making the chartering of a city an act of the entire General Assembly, not local legislation, which local officials could have blocked in Sandy Springs’ case. Asked whether having the entire state weighing in on new cities was merely a smart tactical move, Willard says, “I really did believe that. It wasn’t just the battle cry.” Any new city affects the entire state, he said.
At the request of Eva Galambos, the late founding mayor of Sandy Springs, Willard did double duty as city attorney until he retired from that position last summer. Having formed a new city in an act of independence from Fulton County, the two were also early supporters of breaking off the northern suburbs as a separate “Milton County.” Today, Willard just received a resolution of praise for his career from the Fulton County Commission, an era of goodwill that he says the cityhood movement ushered in.
“When I started out, the big cry was, ‘Let’s create Milton County.’ There was big division north and south, with Atlanta in the middle, and nothing but bickering between [areas],” he said. Now every part of the county has followed Sandy Springs in incorporating, most recently with the City of South Fulton. Willard suggested that county government has its proper role and a satisfied citizenry has little political appetite for the Milton County concept.
The new era of Fulton cities and county government cooperating has been a lever on such issues as mass transit expansion, said Willard, who in the 1970s was spokesperson for a group advocating MARTA in DeKalb County. With ever-worsening traffic, Fulton officials have been major advocates of regional transit planning and expansion, a concept reflected in legislation passed last month to establish a new 13-county system.
“We’re slowly evolving around,” Willard said of transit, adding he believes that longtime MARTA-resistant Cobb and Gwinnett counties will join the new system. “Government works best under crisis.”
Another big change of the 2004 GOP takeover was that Willard became chair, rather than just a member, of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. In that position, he led several legal reforms that he sees as among his best and longest-lasting legacies.
They include creating the state’s first-ever rules of evidence for criminal and civil courts, rather than the accumulation of 150 years of legal decisions. The reform was heavily opposed: “Old lawyers didn’t want to learn new law, simple as that,” Willard said.
He also led reforms of laws protecting the “most vulnerable groups” – seniors and children, such as revamps of laws on physical and financial abuse of seniors. Juvenile justice was another area of reform, with kids facing criminal charges allowed to stay at home and in school rather than going to jails, which Willard said he saw as “nothing more than taking that child and turning them into a criminal person. … “We have changed the landscape on how we handle children in trouble in amazing ways in the past 10 years.”
In recent years, Willard’s committee became a prominent foil of intensely controversial “religious freedom” legislation, which supporters said would further protect people from laws violating their beliefs, and which opponents said could empower discrimination, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. While the most vocal opposition on the committee came from other members, Willard spoke strongly of his personal stance against the legislation and sounded annoyed by its concept.
“If people would stop and read the provision we have in our state constitution—we have a very strong article in the constitution that already recognizes religious freedom,” Willard said. “The other side of it was a law being pushed by people who may want to use it in a way that is discriminatory” – including rejections of amendments that would have protected LGBT people in public accommodations.
Asked whether his own thinking had changed on LGBT rights, Willard did not answer directly or use the term. Instead, he said his stance was rooted in Christianity and Republicanism, though his opponents on the issue were mostly Christian Republicans as well.
“My thoughts were, I don’t want a law based on religious reasons being used to discriminate. It’s the thing we all learned in Sunday School — what would Jesus do in that circumstance?” said Willard. He added that the GOP “has always been [about] recognizing the value and worth of the individual,” back to President Abraham Lincoln and the 1960s Civil Rights legislation. “I think that true Republicanism is not discriminatory,” he said.
Willard’s long legislative career includes some regrets as well.
“I voted early on to make our [Fulton County] tax commissioner an elected official. I’d take the vote back,” he said, referring to Arthur Ferdinand, long controversial as the state’s highest-paid elected official due to a law allowing him to collect a fee on tax lien situations. “I caught hell from Eva on that,” Willard adds.
Tax revenue is the heart of Willard’s concerns for future legislators to deal with. He said the state is almost doing too well, with revenue “coming in at an alarmingly high rate.” He said that as citizens elected a new governor this year, they need one who won’t be tempted to spend all that money and expand government.
The next legislator in his District 51 seat will be either Republican Alex Kaufman or Democrat Josh McLaurin. It’s become a messy race, with the Fulton County Republican Party challenging McLaurin’s residency. Willard says he has met with both candidates, but otherwise “kept out of it” and will eventually support Kaufman.
As for Willard, he’s taken up some advisory work at Freeman Mathis & Gary, the law firm of new Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee. And Willard and wife Vicki aim to spend time at a vacation home in North Carolina and traveling elsewhere.
After a long career, he says the plan is simple: “Enjoy life.”