Clarkston’s ‘millennial mayor’ drops out of Georgia Senate race

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry speaks to the crowd during Rally for Resettlement, a solidarity event for refugees and agencies, held at Clarkston International Bible Church on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Photo: Rebecca Wright / Special to the AJC)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

He plans to run for a DeKalb County commissioner’s seat instead

Democrat Ted Terry dropped out of the crowded race against U.S. Sen. David Perdue on Sunday to run for an open DeKalb County commission seat, leaving three top rivals competing to challenge the Republican in the nationally-watched contest.

The Clarkston mayor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his fundraising struggles - his latest disclosure showed him with roughly $60,000 in campaign cash - contributed to his decision to abandon a race expected to set new spending records.

“The old saying that it takes coal to run a train, but it takes gold to run a campaign is more true in this age of politics than ever before,” Terry said in a letter to supporters. “And while the thousands of you who have pitched in has made a huge difference, it just isn’t enough to sustain us all the way to the May 19th primary.”

Terry is not yet endorsing any of his rivals, though he hasn’t ruled it out. Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, business executive Sarah Riggs Amico and former 6th District candidate Jon Ossoff are in the race, along with lesser-known candidates.

Terry launched his campaign in July highlighting his efforts to push Clarkston, a town of about 13,000 people, to embrace liberal policies such as higher minimum wages, stricter clean energy standards and more welcoming immigration policies.

But Terry, known to supporters as the "millennial mayor," failed to gain traction beyond a core group of liberals who admired his stewardship of a city so diverse it's often described as the "Ellis Island of the South."

Republicans, meanwhile, quickly branded Terry as a part of a “socialist sprint” trying to trip up Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive with close ties to President Donald Trump.

Ted Terry speaks as Sarah Riggs Amico, Teresa Tomlinson and Jon Ossoff at a January 20 forum of Senate Democratic candidates.

It's not immediately clear which Democrat is most helped by Terry's decision, since there's been limited polling of the race. At events, Terry took square aim at Perdue and not his Democratic rivals. "Hold a town hall," he bellowed at one recent forum.

He lagged far behind his rivals in fundraising with collections of roughly $90,000 through September 2019 - the most recent report available - for a shoestring campaign that relied on volunteers and social media to publicize his message.

Most of his contributors gave small-dollar donations, and some were drawn to his recent role on Netflix's "Queer Eye" show, which featured stylists who made him shave an unruly "Resistance Beard" he started growing after Trump's victory.

He'll take that donor list to his race for the seat held by long-time DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who announced last week she will not seek another term. She represents Super District 6, which covers the western half of the heavily-Democratic county.

At least two other candidates are already in that contest: Democrat Robert Murphy, a local realtor, has already filed paperwork. And community activist Emily Halevy announced her own campaign last week with Gannon's support.

Even as the field for Perdue’s seat winnows, the group vying for Georgia’s other U.S. Senate race is set to grow.

Two Democrats - Matt Lieberman and former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver - plan to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. The Rev. Raphael Warnock is expected to enter the race, and Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins could soon, too. 

Terry said he’s ready to pivot to a county commission contest focused on more local issues. He said he’s planning to resign as mayor in March to focus on the DeKalb race.

“It’s not over for us. It’s not over for me,” he told supporters. “Help me make bold progressive change a reality for my community, Georgia and the nation. Together we can change everything, but it requires everyone.”

At the behest of Amina Osman, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry hired some of the teens from Joint International Regimental Inc. to do small tasks for his 2017 re-election campaign. He paid them $15 an hour. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM 2015

Here’s Terry’s message to supporters:

Dear Friends,

My career in public service started 5 years ago when I launched a campaign to become mayor of the most diverse city in America, Clarkston. Many considered it a long shot that a young, progressive candidate with a vision for improved services and quality of life, for creating a sense of community pride, for a government by the people, could be elected. We shocked the naysayers and not only won, but worked to fulfill that vision.

Over the last seven months I’ve traveled our beautiful state, meeting with thousands of Georgians in their homes and communities. I’ve earned the support of tens of thousands of you who have signed up to follow and promote our campaign to bring courage back to Washington. For that support I will be forever grateful.

I must, however, suspend my campaign for U.S Senate at this time. The old saying that it takes coal to run a train, but it takes gold to run a campaign is more true in this age of politics than ever before. And while the thousands of you who have pitched in has made a huge difference, it is time to look in a different direction and focus on the ways I can take the lessons I learned across the state and apply them in my home county.

As First Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, I also want to be sure that my efforts in the Senate race are advancing our cause of winning both seats on the ballot. We must win both seats to end Mitch McConnell's "graveyard" of bills that advance goals like improving healthcare access and reducing gun violence, and put a stop to his packing of our federal courts with right wing extremist judges. I believe I can best contribute to that effort at this time by building Georgia's progressive statewide grassroots network rather than being a Senate candidate myself this year. 

Many of you know the work I’ve done as Mayor of Clarkston, and know that that real change can happen at every level of government. For now the change that I will continue to fight for will remain at the local level. In March I will be resigning as Mayor to run for the Super Commission District 6 seat in my home county of DeKalb.

I plan to bring the same spirit to my work on behalf of the 750,000 residents of DeKalb that I brought every day as the mayor of Clarkston. DeKalb has faced challenging times recently, but it has so much potential to be a leader. In DeKalb we can show Georgia, the nation and the world that progressive policies that honor our diversity and challenge the entrenched special interests can truly improve the lives of everyone. Most important, we can show the world how to make lives better, on the ground, every day.

If you supported the vision of my Senate campaign for a more equitable and just society, I ask for your help in electing me to the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, where I can make sure many of the things we care about are carried out. DeKalb is one of, if not the, most Democratic county in Georgia. No Democrat win Georgia without winning DeKalb. That is just how important this election is for our values.

The change we wish to see in the world, happens one by one, person to person, community to community.

Help me make bold progressive change a reality for my community, Georgia and the nation. Together we can change everything, but it requires everyone.

Thank you and onward!

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