Georgia GOP’s ex-minority engagement guru seeks state Senate gig

This story originally appeared on Aug. 17, 2017 at 6 a.m.:

The former head of the Georgia GOP’s minority engagement efforts is running for an Atlanta-based state Senate district that Democrats hope to flip next year.

Leo Smith said Thursday he’s running as a “conservative bridge builder with a unique set of skills” to serve the district, which stretches across parts of north Atlanta and Smyrna. He would be the first black Republican in the Georgia Senate in modern times.

The seat is a juicy target for Democrats. Republican Hunter Hill, who is vacating the position to run for governor, only narrowly held it in November. And Hillary Clinton carried the affluent district in November.

Three Democrats are already in the contest. Pediatric dentist Jaha Howard is making a comeback bid after his slim defeat last year. Trial lawyer Jen Jordan has already announced her candidacy.   And political newcomer Nigel Sims has entered the race. Two other Republicans are also running: Marietta attorney Matt Bentley and Atlanta attorney Leah Aldridge.

As the party’s minority engagement director, Smith often crisscrossed the state trying to recruit African-American candidates and drum up support for GOP policies – sometimes to hostile crowds.

He once vowed that President Donald Trump would get 20 percent of the black vote, and pushed digital efforts targeting black voters to try to broaden the party's base.

Smith’s term ended in June after a new GOP chair was elected. Before he stepped down, he was involved in a high-profile incident: Witnesses said Smith was shoved to the ground by a volunteer after a brief dispute. Both Smith and the party declined comment about the altercation.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.