Georgia Democrats regroup in Atlanta to prepare for 2020

Nikema Williams elected party chair
Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams holds her son Carter Small after Williams at the state convention. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams holds her son Carter Small after Williams at the state convention. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The Democratic Party of Georgia held its state convention meeting Saturday to pick new leaders and ramp up preparations for the 2020 election, when the state is set to be a battleground for the presidential contest.

Republicans swept every statewide office for the third midterm election in a row, but Democrats led by Stacey Abrams flipped about a dozen state legislative seats, won a coveted U.S. House district and came close to capturing several top offices.

The full story: Georgia Democrats pick a new leader after setting a new course  

Follow along for a live blog of the key moments of the convention:

Nikema Williams, a state senator from Atlanta, was elected the first black woman to lead the Democratic Party of Georgia. A crowded room full of activists cheered her win, chanting: “Fired up, ready to go” as she took the stage.

“Today, we are continuing the work so we can elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” Williams said.

It was a changing of the guard from one of the last rural white Democrats to hold high office in Georgia to a young, black woman with a background steeped in activism who represents one of the state’s most liberal legislative districts.

Williams won by a 191-53 vote, with the support of most of the party's elected officials and highest-profile figures - including Stacey Abrams. Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, known for pushing progressive policies, won the No. 2 spot by a wide margin. 

They are joined by a cadre of other young officials who will round out the party’s more progressive side. Just about all of them are in their 20s or 30s and just about all of them are from metro Atlanta.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen of Atlanta, who succeeded Abrams in the House, was voted vice-chair of constituency groups.

Adrienne White, a stalwart of the progressive New Leaders Council, was voted vice-chair of recruitment.

Jason Esteves, the chair of the Atlanta Public Schools board, is now the treasurer. Justin Holsomback was elected secretary and Sarah Todd was made secretary.

2:10 p.m.: It hasn't been formally announced yet, but a party official said that state Sen. Nikema Williams was elected party chair by a roughly 4-to-1 margin.

1:30 p.m.: Stacey Abrams is sitting near the front of the stage, and just about every speaker has invoked her in some way or another.

The loudest ovation came when the party’s treasurer thanked “Senator” Abrams for showing up.

Several attendees see her appearance as yet another sign she's running for U.S. Senate. "Otherwise," quipped one, "why would she put herself through this?"

12:45 p.m.: Voting is underway for party chair after state Sen. Nikema Williams and businessman Daniel Blackman each delivered speeches that were well-received by the audience.

Williams, now the party’s vice-chair, is the presumptive frontrunner and has locked up endorsements from most of the state’s Democratic leadership, including Abrams and other top elected officials.

She pledged to start a grant program for local counties that need help building apparatus and to start a year-round field program to “make sure we are ready for a blue Georgia.”

“We can’t keep saying we need to start our field program earlier,” said Williams. “And we’re going to constantly let people know how Brian Kemp is failing us, and what’s happening in Washington and our state Legislature.”

She also nodded to her arrest in December during the special session when she was taking part of a "count every vote" demonstration at the state Capitol. That gained national attention, in part because officers are prohibited from arresting lawmakers when they are in legislative session.

“I’ve knocked on doors. I made calls,” she said. “And, y’all, I even went to jail fighting for our values.”

Blackman told the crowd how he and his family moved to deep-red Forsyth County, where he became one of the only Democrats to run for public office in an unsuccessful challenge to state Sen. Michael Williams.

He advocated for more aggressively reaching out to Democrats in conservative territories in metro Atlanta’s exurbs and rural Georgia. And he said the party needs a strategic plan to chart out its path ahead.

“Building a bench is much more than just getting good candidates to run for office. It’s about homegrown talent to run our campaigns,” he said. “We have talented people right here.”

DuBose Porter gives a farewell address to the Democratic Party of Georgia. AJC/Greg Bluestein

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Noon: In his farewell speech, outgoing party chair DuBose Porter recounted the party's gains over the last four years – and compared himself to a Biblical figure who has led Democrats to the verge of statewide success.

“Everybody in the country, everybody – is talking about Georgia,” he said. “We’re in a good spot, but we’ve got to continue the work and take the next step. I do feel a little bit like Moses. We’re out of Egypt. We’ve come out of the wilderness. But we still haven’t made it to the promised land.”

That promise, he said, is the expansion of Medicaid, more transparency, more transparent voting laws and the continuation of criminal justice overhauls.

“We’re right here,” he said. “Let’s get across the water. Because with Democrats in charge, there’s so much promise.”

Near the end of his speech, he recognized Abrams, who had recently arrived at the cramped auditorium. After her narrow defeat, she's considering a 2020 challenge against U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

“Whatever you decide,” he said, “we’re with you.”