In Gwinnett, Republicans out of power fear Democratic changes

Gwinnett County Commission Chair candidate Nicole Love Hendrickson speaks at the Get Out The Early Vote with Jon Ossoff, Rev. Raphael Warnock, Carolyn Bourdeaux, and the Biden Campaign at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on Saturday, October 24, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Gwinnett County Commission Chair candidate Nicole Love Hendrickson speaks at the Get Out The Early Vote with Jon Ossoff, Rev. Raphael Warnock, Carolyn Bourdeaux, and the Biden Campaign at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on Saturday, October 24, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Mike Royal doesn’t plan to leave Gwinnett County. But he has plenty of friends who already have.

Those fleeing to north Georgia grew up in Republican Gwinnett as did Royal, a former party chairman in the county and a member of the state school board. In the past two years, he said, friend after friend has decamped, seeking a life more reminiscent of their Gwinnett childhood.

“Gwinnett County is changing its political stripes,” Royal said of voters, who flipped leadership to Democrats for the first time since the 1980s. “You’re politically ignorant if you haven’t seen this coming for the past four years, at least.”

Like other longtime Republicans, Royal said he’s wary of the change. It will be the first time in his adult life he hasn’t lived under Republican leaders.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” said Royal, who lives in Grayson. “Am I leaving? No. Am I concerned? Yes.”

That apprehension has been evident in conversations with many Gwinnett Republicans. They tell The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they’re concerned a change in leadership will signal the downfall of a government that once emblazoned “Gwinnett is Great” on a water tower, then took the slogan to heart.

“Look at Fulton County, look at DeKalb County, look at Clayton County,” said Alice O’Lenick, a Republican member of the county’s elections board. “My observation is it doesn’t bode well for a county to be 100% Democrat.”

In those jurisdictions, O’Lenick said, taxes are higher, roads are worse and government isn’t run as smoothly as in Gwinnett.

But Clint Mueller, the legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the charges are unfair.

Fulton and DeKalb counties until recently didn’t have access to a special tax Gwinnett uses to keep up its roads, Mueller said. And while taxes are higher in other counties, Republican-led Gwinnett put a transit tax on Tuesday’s ballot and recently added an economic development tax for property owners.

He said a lot of the challenges counties run by Democrats face are due to the age of their infrastructure. In Gwinnett, by contrast, roads and pipes are relatively new. And a steady influx of residents kept revenue increasing, even while some other areas, like Atlanta, lost population.

“I don’t know how you would go about proving one party manages better than another,” Mueller said. “As suburbs mature, you’re going to have the same problems no matter who is in charge.”

For many residents, their worry is the schools. While there are two Republicans on the school board,Loganville resident Lyn Williams said she worries Democrats will take police out of the schools and make birth control more accessible.

Gwinnett schools have twice won the prestigious Broad Prize, and are nationally recognized for their quality. The largest school system in the state, Gwinnett has more than 177,000 students who speak 100 different languages. Only 20% are white.

But Williams immediately drew parallels to Clayton County, a system with 55,000 students that lost its accreditation in 2008. (It has since regained it). Williams also said she thinks Keybo Taylor is a “questionable sheriff," and mentioned the legal troubles of Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill.

“I just feel in Democrat-run places, they are not run as good,” she said. “I lived in DeKalb. Something was always going on with them all the time, all the time.”

The racial subtext

Williams, like other Republicans, said party affiliation is the only thing that worries her. But most elected officials in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties are Black. So is each newly elected Democrat in Gwinnett.

And Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist, hears something more than political.

“You can’t ignore the racial subtext there,” she said.

The message also comes through for Nicole Love Hendrickson, the newly elected chairwoman of the board of commissioners. She called the comparisons a coded dog whistle.

“You almost feel a racial undertone when people say they don’t want to turn into DeKalb or Clayton,” she said. “It’s just insulting, it’s frustrating.”

Taylor, the sheriff-elect, said it’s disheartening residents have made up their minds before votes are certified. Both he and Hendrickson said they want to lead all residents.

Hendrickson, who said she worries about white flight, stressed that white constituents are part of the diversity Gwinnett is known for.

“You don’t have to be a person of color or speak another language to be part of the fabric of the community,” she said. “It’s like you’re not even giving us a chance.”

Some residents, like Amitra Stone-Bradford, are excited about the new guard. She’s looking forward to more diversity on the school board, and to having a district attorney who looks like her. Her neighbors, she said, are speaking from a place of fear.

“It’s disgusting, and also very sad,” said Stone-Bradford, who lives in Duluth. “It’s OK to be afraid. Just say you’re afraid.”

Stone-Bradford said other metro counties don’t have a monopoly on wrongdoing. In Gwinnett, two years after Clayton schools lost their accreditation, three county commissioners resigned amid a corruption investigation. One was jailed while another was sentenced to 10 years' probation for taking bribes.

Mike Beaudreau, a former Republican county commissioner who was a member of that board but wasn’t charged with wrongdoing, said Gwinnett residents “shouldn’t feel like they had high moral ground.”

Beaudreau voted for at least one Democrat and said he wants to give new officials a chance. But he, too, worries about the future.

“The biggest example is the school system and making sure we don’t turn into another Clayton County,” he said. “It’s sure on the mind of a lot of voters.”