Gwinnett is on the cusp of political, racial change in Nov. 3 election

A 30-year drought in Democratic leadership in Gwinnett could become a flood this fall, as voters appear poised to flip the balance of power in county government for the first time since the 1980s, members of both parties told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With it, voters would also change what power looks like in one of the most diverse counties in the country as well as realign government priorities in the county of nearly 1 million people.

Gwinnett elected its first Black candidate to a countywide seat in 2018 — just months before its bicentennial. This year, all 10 Democratic candidates running for countywide office are Black, meaning a sweep this fall would leave just one white elected official outside the judiciary.

“It represents a shift in Gwinnett County, a big one,” said Democratic Party chair Bianca Keaton. "There’s no bones about it. For 200 years of our county’s history, we’ve had completely white representation.”

Not everyone thinks the Democrats' victory is guaranteed.

Edward Muldrow, chair of the Gwinnett Republican party, said the group has taken steps to reach voters it hadn’t engaged with in the past — particularly minorities.

“We’re not of that mindset that there’ll be a blue wave,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, you just had to have that R in front of your name and you’re going to get elected. This year’s a little bit different.”

But there are plenty of Republicans who won’t be surprised if Democrats dominate.

Wayne Hill, a former county commission chair who won as a Republican in 1992 after losing his first race as a Democrat in 1988, said the red wave of the 1980s snuck up on people.

“Some [Democrats] who got beat were shocked," Hill said of 1984, when Republicans rode Ronald Reagan’s coattails to control countywide offices. "No one’s going to be shocked this time.”

Demographic changes

Gwinnett’s population has nearly tripled since 1990. Then, Black people comprised just 5% of Gwinnett’s 352,910 residents, and Asians made up 3% of the population. Hispanics totaled fewer than 2% of residents.

Elliott Brack, editor and publisher of the Gwinnett Forum, said good schools and cheap housing drove the growth in the early years. Hispanic residents first started to come following the building industry, Brack said, while Asian residents came from the west coast looking for more affordable places to live. The school system drew Black residents, he said.

Now, Gwinnett’s population of 936,250 is 30% Black, 22% Hispanic and 12.5% Asian.

“You can’t deny the numbers,” said longtime Republican state senator Renee Unterman, who retired this year for an unsuccessful Congressional run. “It’s like you close your eyes and overnight, it just flips.”

It hasn’t really been overnight. Republican margins of victory continue to narrow as areas become more diverse, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist.

“The reason why this is important is because of the size of Gwinnett County,” Gillespie said. “The impact is unmistakable. This has a lot of sway in being able to shift outcomes in the state.”

For now, at least, the state is still run by Republicans. As such, Lee Thompson said, the party switch could cost Gwinnett influence at the state level.

Thompson, who ran unsuccessfully for chairman of the county commission this year as a Democrat, said the Republican-led legislature may not see Gwinnett as the player it once was.

Gwinnett’s last political realignment also came because of new residents, said Steve Reilly, chair of the county’s Democratic party from 1996 to 2002. Midwestern and northeastern transplants made the once-rural area suburban.

Charlotte Nash, Republican chair of the county commission and a Gwinnett native, said she grew up with a father who was “a lifelong FDR Democrat.” Nash, who started as a Gwinnett employee in 1977 and is not seeking reelection, said the newly-elected Republicans in the ’80s quickly focused on public safety, road improvements, building a new courthouse and expanding parks and libraries.

They also helped professionalize an unsophisticated, rural government, the chairman said. Now, she thinks Gwinnett is again at the cusp of change.

“In some ways, it’s a natural progression,” she said.

Lawrenceville city manager Chuck Warbington said the change is also generational. Older elected officials like Nash didn’t seek reelection while others, like school board member Louise Radloff, lost their races to younger competitors.

“There’s institutional knowledge we’re losing as a community, but I think you’re going to see fresh ideas,” said Warbington, an eighth generation Gwinnett resident. “Frankly, I’m excited about it.”

New ideas

Some of those ideas have already begun to germinate.

Everton Blair, who in 2018 became the first Black member of the school board, pointed to efforts at improving outcomes for minority students.

He said the board eschewed dissent and saw student punishment as retribution, not rehabilitation — both are things he hopes will change.

Democratic sheriff candidate Keybo Taylor has said he will eliminate the 287(g) program if he wins. The controversial federal program lets Gwinnett sheriff’s deputies hold foreign-born arrestees charged with local crimes for transfer to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

His opponent, Republican Lou Solis, has said he would retain the program.

And Ben Ku, the first Asian and openly gay member of the board of commissioners, said he hopes a new board will remove a Confederate memorial statue erected 27 years ago in Lawrenceville.

Other changes under Democratic leadership could include a greater focus on transit. Democratic candidates back the Nov. 3 ballot measure to expand transit, though all the Republican candidates are opposed.

Homelessness, food insecurity and social welfare concerns will get more attention if she is elected to lead the county commission, said Nicole Love Hendrickson, the Democratic candidate.

“We have to take care of our most vulnerable communities,” said Hendrickson, who is running against Republican David Post.

Peter Ward, a white Duluth resident, was raised Republican but backed a straight Democratic ticket when he voted early for the Nov. 3 election. The first time he voted for a Democrat locally was in 2016, and Ward said he felt like he was “sinning.”

But four years later, Ward said he’s excited and hopeful about what new leadership could mean: “It’ll be better for everyone.”

Gillespie, the Emory political scientist, said voter turnout increases when minorities are elected and residents tend to feel more empowered.

Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta, said she hopes one of the ways things get better is by county leadership making ballots available in Korean, Vietnamese and other languages. Gwinnett is only required to provide ballots in Spanish and English.

That could make voting accessible to more residents in future elections.

Critics including Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett chapter of the NAACP, said the county has made it difficult to have a fair election. She cited a high number of absentee ballots that were rejected in 2018 and the fact that some some voting precincts opened that year without power cords or other equipment.

Others have questioned why Gwinnett, with more than 620,000 registered voters, has fewer early voting locations than counties with fewer voters, like Cobb and DeKalb.

“Voter suppression is real,” Poole said. “We’ve got a lot to overcome.”

Even having a competitive ballot is somewhat new for county races. For years, only Republicans ran for many county seats.

So for people like Stephen Day, chair of the county’s Democratic party from 1993 to 1996, this election has been a long time coming.

“You’re looking at a 25-year harvest,” Day said.