Clarkston’s ‘millennial mayor’ enters Senate race in Georgia

Wants to ‘set the marker’ on being a progressive in Georgia

Ted Terry, 36, is the youngest person to ever serve as mayor of Clarkston in its 135-year history. He is known to supporters as the “millennial mayor." He was on an episode of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," and they shaved his "resistence beard." In 2016, he signed an ordinance that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, making Clarkston the first city in Georgia to adopt the drug policy. He is a Florida native, but moved to Atlanta after college.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, who has pushed his city to embrace pioneering liberal policies, launched a campaign Wednesday against Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue with a promise to "bring courage back to Washington."

The 36-year-old Democrat, known to supporters as the “millennial mayor,” said he would use his leadership of Clarkston as a template for his Senate platform: He supports higher minimum wages, stricter clean energy standards, decriminalizing marijuana and more welcoming immigration policies.

“Campaigns are ways we can move the needle on policies,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I’m going to set the marker on what being a progressive in Georgia stands for. I won’t be surprised if the others follow suit.”

He enters the race at an unsettled moment. Only one other Democratic candidate, former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, has announced so far. But several others are exploring a run, including Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost last year's lieutenant governor's race, and former 6th District candidate Jon Ossoff.

The nominee will face Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive who is closely tied to President Donald Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp. Democrats see Georgia as crucial to flipping the U.S. Senate, and the contest is likely to be the most expensive Senate race in state history.

Terry is likely to push the field to the left on issues ranging from environmental policy to criminal justice – using polices he's staked as leader of Clarkston, a DeKalb County town of about 13,000 people that's so diverse it's been described as the "Ellis Island of the South."

Republicans quickly tried to brand him as part of a “socialist sprint.” Nathan Brand of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Terry was a polarizing figure who will pull Democrats “further away from mainstream Georgia values.”

Outside of Georgia political circles, he may be better known for recent role on Netflix's "Queer Eye" show, including a memorable segment when stylists made him shave his unruly "Resistance Beard" – which he started growing after Trump's victory.

'Running on my record’

A Florida native, Terry moved to Atlanta after college to follow a girlfriend attending law school and soon plunged into local politics, getting his start going door-to-door for the Sierra Club in 2005 to canvass for the budding Beltline project.

After working for a string of Democratic campaigns, he was elected mayor of Clarkston in 2013 and promptly steered the city to adopt headline-grabbing initiatives that put it squarely in the political spotlight.

His signature policy might be an ordinance he signed in 2016 that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, making Clarkston the first city in Georgia to adopt the drug policy.

It faced stiff opposition from conservatives and Gov. Nathan Deal's administration. Since then, however, Atlanta and other cities have passed similar measures.

Terry also led an initiative to limit Clarkston's cooperation with federal deportation officers to protest the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration.

He pushed his city to commit to operating solely on renewable energy by 2050. And under his watch, Clarkston became the first city in Georgia to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage.

“I’m running on my record. We were on the cutting edge in Clarkston,” he said. “My record as mayor has always been to challenge the establishment and disrupt the system, and being elected to the U.S. Senate would be the biggest threat to the established order.”

To impeach or not?

Still, Terry’s campaign promises don’t track exactly with the liberal policies of some of the 2020 presidential contenders.

Terry wants to boost the hourly wage, but said it should be pegged to inflation not necessarily set at $15. He backs a “public option” to let people buy coverage in a government-run healthcare plan with the goal of increasing competition and, potentially, driving down costs.

He “unequivocally” supports free community college and tech college training, but hasn’t yet embraced the push by some Democrats to make all college free and eliminate student debt.

And Terry, the Sierra Club’s state director, backs new environmental regulations but does not endorse all tenets of the Green New Deal, the sweeping congressional plan to tackle climate change, because it doesn’t properly support farmers who “are on the leading edge of reducing carbon emissions.”

He was critical of both Trump and Perdue in the interview. But unlike Tomlinson, who has said the president should face impeachment proceedings, Terry said the party’s focus should be trained on the ballot box.

“The American people have all the evidence they need,” he said. “What we’ve seen from the president and Sen. Perdue is enough to defeat them in 2020. I’m more interested in defeating them in the election than trying to impeach.”

Here’s Terry’s answers to key questions about the race:

On why he’s running:

“Desperate times require desperate measures. I want to bring new vision, energy and courage back to Washington. It’s political malpractice from David Perdue because he hasn’t held a town hall in five years. I’ll have the courage to face my constituents whether they agree or disagree.”

On his strategy:

“It’s all about the message. We were the first in Georgia to lead on minimum wage, on housing affordability, on making Election Day a holiday, on criminal justice, and on being compassionate to immigrants. They’re important to Democratic voters but they’re also important to the mainstream. I expect that message to resonate with a lot of people.”

On the Green New Deal:

“Farmers in Georgia and around the nation are on the leading edge of reducing carbon emission. We need to recognize and support them during the transition to clean energy. That means communities where coal-fired plants are closing need to be the first where we invest in solar energy.”

On whether he’d describe himself as a socialist:

“I would describe myself as a Democrat who gives a damn – I give a damn about people who are in poverty, about people suffering, about our planet, about the rent being too damn high. I’m a Democrat who gives a damn.”

On immigration policy: 

"Sen. Perdue's RAISE Act is a complete disaster and wreck whole portions of Georgia's economy. Clarkston is multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious - and it's been good for our economy, for our culture and for what the future of America will look like."

On whether he’s angling to be the Bernie Sanders of the Senate race:

“I have the desire to support policies and plans like Elizabeth Warren. I want to change fundamental aspects of the system like Bernie Sanders. I want to bring a youthful vision like Mayor Pete and I want to embody the passionate approach of people like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.”

On his appearance in ‘Queer Eye’: 

“With being on a reality show, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. If people want to know who I am, watch that 55-minute episode of Queer Eye.”