State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, (right) in a 2016 file photo. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Looking for signs of a blue wave in north DeKalb County

In wave elections, the most vulnerable politicians are often the ones who play well with others. That’s not a secret — just an irony for our polarized times.

Yet another non-secret is the fact that, if a blue tsunami does sweep into Georgia on Nov. 6, it’s likely to crest in north metro Atlanta — which polling suggests is a mother lode, if you will, of female distaste for President Donald Trump.

And so, many are eyeing the Sixth and Seventh Districts now held respectively by U.S. Reps. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, and Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville. Both face well-financed Democratic opposition — Lucy McBath in the Sixth and Carolyn Bourdeaux in the Seventh.

But for Democrats to win either of those seats, never mind the Governor’s Mansion, there must be a surge beneath the foam. Which brings us to the numerous state House and Senate contests that form the building blocks Democrats will need to pull off a northern arc revolution.

Specifically, keep your eye on Senate District 40, a mostly north DeKalb County enclave at the southern tip of Handel’s Sixth District. Republican Fran Millar of Dunwoody won it in 2010 (after serving 12 years in the House) and has held it ever since.

Democrat Hillary Clinton won Senate District 40 with 54 percent of the vote in 2016. Millar won it with 56 percent.

The Democrat in the contest is Sally Harrell, a former state lawmaker who earned points from her party last year when she backed out of the special Sixth District election last year, allowing Democrats to coalesce behind Jon Ossoff. Who lost to Handel.

Following the lead of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, Harrell is talking health care and education. She has the endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Millar, a marketing specialist, holds a somewhat unique spot in metro Atlanta politics. He is the only Republican state senator from DeKalb, and one of only three Republicans in the entire 23-member DeKalb delegation.

In a Republican-led General Assembly, Millar has been the fellow DeKalb Democrats often rely on to stop bad legislation, or to shepherd favored measures. It is an off-and-on partnership.

Sally Harrell, the Democratic candidate for state Senate District 40/Special

Millar has been endorsed by former DeKalb CEO Liane Levetan, a Democrat. At a delegation meeting this spring, Democrat Michael Thurmond, the current CEO, heaped praise upon Millar for helping to pass 2017 legislation that allowed a referendum on a one-cent sales tax for infrastructure improvements.

Thurmond has thus far remained neutral, though Harrell told us she has a meeting with the DeKalb CEO on next week’s calendar.

Millar’s survival next month could depend on a pair of approaches that are somewhat in conflict.

Over the last several years, Republicans in the Legislature have drifted away from the concept of local control, and have imposed their will on counties with Democratic majorities.

Fulton County government has been largely disassembled through a cityhood movement. Last spring, the Legislature approved, and the governor signed, a set of measures to allow a city of Eagles Landing to be created from the existing geography of Stockbridge in Henry County.

To DeKalb Democrats and independents, Millar is pitching himself as a bulwark against bad ideas. “If I’m not there, do you think the Republican majority is going to give a hoot about DeKalb County? I don’t think so,” Millar told me.

To Republicans, who have thus far held sway in north DeKalb, Millar outlines the dangers of complete Democratic rule. “Here’s what could happen if I don’t win re-election,” he said. “No. 1, they will raise the MARTA tax. They’ve tried to raise it here in DeKalb, and I’ve stopped it. No. 2, if I’m not there, there’s talk that they’ll try to repeal my property tax freeze.”

His ace in the hole: “I was involved in extending the Sixth District as far south as possible into DeKalb, to get away from Cynthia McKinney,” Millar said. (As a member of Congress, the liberal McKinney was an anathema to Republicans in DeKalb.)

“If I’m not there, the people out here could end up with Hank Johnson as their congressman,” said Millar, never known for his subtlety.

The question is whether McKinney or, for that matter, Johnson matter in the current political climate. One of Harrell’s political strategists is Chris Huttman, a polling specialist who has been examining Democratic changes in state legislative districts in north Metro Atlanta.

Huttman recently sent us some interesting polling data of a generic ballot question — would you vote for a Republican or a Democrat? – broken down by age and gender, 2016 versus 2018.

This was before the Brett Kavanaugh hoopla, which could have altered the dynamics, but Huttman thinks he may have found evidence of a revolt among middle-aged women in north metro Atlanta — courtesy of Donald Trump.

In 2016, 44 percent of female voters in that territory identified as Democrats, compared to 51 percent who called themselves Republican.

Currently, 54 percent of these over-50, under-64 women call themselves Democratic. Only 40 percent now identify as Republican. That’s a 21-point shift in only two years.

At 52 years old, Sally Harrell fits that profile. Like Millar, she was elected to the Legislature in 1998. But she was redistricted out of her House seat and didn’t run for re-election in 2004.

Harrell created something of a stir in 2000, when she brought her new-born baby onto the House floor and breast-fed him. “Yes, I got flak. But I pushed through it,” she said. As executive director of the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia, she could hardly have done anything else.

Two years later, she helped pass legislation that offered protection to women who breast-feed in public. During her short tenure, Harrell also helped push through legislation to require hearing tests for all newborns in Georgia.

Harrell varies from the Democratic mold in one aspect. For a time, after leaving the Legislature, she home-schooled her children. “I felt the school was reaching too far into the family,” she said in 2016. “Home schooling gave me my family back.”

To the frustration of Millar, who likes to point to his support for public education, Harrell has made that topic a priority of her campaign. She has joined Abrams in her opposition to private school tax credits, which allow individuals and corporations to make donations for scholarships — which critics say amounts to a backdoor system for school vouchers.

Unlike incumbents, new candidates surfing a wave have a certain advantage. Republicans in the Georgia of the 1990s and 2000s had the freedom to pitch untested ideas. Democrats have it now.

Harrell supports the expansion of Medicaid for lower-income Georgians, and more. “In my district, health care expenses are affecting everyone, no matter their income level. So expanding Medicaid isn’t going to help a number of people in my district,” Harrell said.

“I would like to explore the idea of Medicaid as a public option —for people who are over-income for Medicaid to be able to buy into the system,” she said. “We would have a public option that would compete on the private market — which could help control runaway costs in the private market.”

An idea like that will require a big wave to carry it. Or if you’re Fran Millar, a strong levee to contain it. We’ll see which one shows up on Nov. 6.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.