Gwinnett Democrats win decisive victory in most county races

Gwinnett County Commission Chair candidate Nicole Love Hendrickson speaks at the Get Out The Early Vote at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth. Hendrickson appeared on Wednesday to have won her race. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Gwinnett County Commission Chair candidate Nicole Love Hendrickson speaks at the Get Out The Early Vote at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth. Hendrickson appeared on Wednesday to have won her race. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For the first time in more than three decades, Gwinnett County voters appeared to choose Democratic leaders, flipping the balance of power in the second-most populous county in the state.

Ballots are still being counted, but the margins in many races are wide enough that those outstanding votes won’t have an impact on the results. Beginning in January, Democrats will control the county school board, hold every seat on the county commission and lead the sheriff’s department, the District Attorney’s office and several other elected positions.

All were previously held by Republicans.

“We knew we were going to smash things up pretty good," said Bianca Keaton, chair of the county’s Democratic party. “We made history everywhere.”

In addition to the change in party, many of the Democratic winners are decades younger than the elected officials they’re replacing. And every one of them is Black.

Gwinnett, with a population of nearly a million people, is the most diverse county in the state.

In only one school board race is the result too close to call. Incumbent Mary Kay Murphy, a Republican, holds a narrow lead over her Democratic challenger, Tanisha Banks.

Everton Blair, a sitting Democratic member of the school board, said he’s excited to work with progressive, visionary leaders like fellow Democrats Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins, who are leading their races. The difference with new leadership, he said, is that these officials will try to represent the Gwinnett that exists now.

“We have an opportunity to repaint a suburban vision,” said Blair, a graduate of Gwinnett County schools. “The guard is changing.”

Wayne Hill, a former Republican chairman of the Gwinnett County commission, said he thinks voters “elected some good people.” Hill, who lost his first race in 1988 as a Democrat, said he wasn’t surprised by the wave of victories. He just hopes the new slate of leaders keep up the quality that Gwinnett is known for.

BJ Van Gundy hopes the newly elected Democrats echo the priorities of the Democrats that held power in the 1980s, many of whom became Republicans as their party’s fortunes changed in the state.

Van Gundy, a member of the executive committee of the state’s Republican party and a former chair of the Gwinnett Republicans, said the Democrats won by a wider margin in Gwinnett than he expected. He said he’s “somewhat horrified” by the results.

“I don’t consider Fulton or DeKalb well-run,” he said of Democratic leadership in neighboring counties. Still, Van Gundy said, “Maybe they come in and do great things.”

The new leaders certainly have big plans. Democrat Keybo Taylor, who is leading in the sheriff’s race, said he intends to immediately end an agreement with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain foreign-born arrestees who are charged with committing a local crime, a program known as 287(g). He also plans to diversify the command staff in the sheriff’s office.

Patsy Austin-Gatson, whose victory in the District Attorney’s race would unseat a longtime Republican, said she wants to listen to the community more about needed changes in the criminal justice system. Those include the role of wealth in the ability to get a good defense, she said.

And Nicole Love Hendrickson, who is likely to be the new Democratic chair of the county commission, said her priorities include a focus on social issues like homelessness, food insecurity and workforce development.

“Voters want leaders who value their needs,” she said. “We love our community. We want to see change, we want to see progress.”

Other likely Democratic wins include county commissioners Kirkland Carden and Jasper Watkins, Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter and Superior Court Clerk Tiana Garner.

Ben Ku, a Democratic member of the county commission, said he thinks through their votes, residents indicated they want more transparency and accountability in local government.

“I see it as these barriers are finally being broken down,” Ku said. “Gwinnett is not the Gwinnett of 200 years ago or even 30 years ago.”