Tommy Hunter wants Gwinnett to remember him for more than racist posts

Donna McLeod can’t come up with enough ways to bid Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter adieu.

“Good riddance, goodbye, arrivederci, sayonara,” said McLeod, a Democratic state representative from Lawrenceville. “No, I will not be sorry to see him go.”

At the end of the year, Hunter will leave office after deciding not to seek reelection for a third term as a county commissioner. His exit is something protestors have been agitating for since January 2017 when, weeks after being reelected, Hunter wrote a Facebook post calling then-Rep. John Lewis “a racist pig.”

Lewis, who died this year, is a civil rights icon and the backlash was swift. Hunter, a Republican, lost support from his own party.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hunter said he doesn’t care how people think of him. But again and again, he also said he hopes he’ll be remembered for more than what he wrote.

“Whenever you talk about me and what I tried to do, I ask you not let Facebook cloud your judgement on what I tried to accomplish,” he said. “If that’s all you’re about, I’d rather you not remember me at all.”

Hunter still isn’t contrite about his controversial statements, which included name-calling about liberal voters he also represents.

“It’s on my private time, my private computer, my personal thoughts,” Hunter said. “Why should I apologize?”

Mike Royal, a member of the state school board and a Grayson resident who is a former Republican Party chairman in Gwinnett, said an apology from Hunter would have helped mitigate the damage caused by his comments.

“When, in any party, someone is being an idiot, it reflects badly on everyone,” Royal said.

Protesters attended county commission meetings and pushed Hunter to resign. An ethics complaint was filed and his fellow commissioners — all Republicans at the time — voted to publicly reprimand him.

Hunter sued to declare the ethics board unconstitutional and rescind the reprimand. The latter case, in which he asked for $5 million in damages, is ongoing.

February 28, 2017, Lawrenceville: Phyllis Richardson and Michael Richardson (not related) hold signs during a Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners public hearing while more protesters demand the resignation of Tommy Hunter, the District 3 leader who recently called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” on Facebook. Curtis Compton/ AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

A Hunter apology would have made a difference for Perry Eidson, a Grayson-area resident who voted for Hunter’s second term. Eidson said he has been disappointed both by Hunter’s statements and the commissioner’s conduct in the aftermath.

“He doubled down,” Eidson said. “He never recanted from it and that bothered me a lot.”

Hunter quickly became persona non grata in the county. But he says there’s nothing about his time in office he regrets, including his decision to stay.

“I’m not ever going to quit when the people who are opposing me want me to quit,” he said. “A commitment was made to serve four years. I wasn’t looking for a way out.”

Hunter has often been absent from meetings. He was in the rotation to be vice chair of the county commission this year, but asked to be skipped because he knew he would miss at least two meetings. Even on days when he is there, he frequently skips meetings that aren’t part of the official business, such as discussion sessions regarding the county’s transit plan.

Hunter said when he missed meetings, it was often because he had work to do in his consulting job. The county commission is a part-time job that pays $45,000 a year.

Regarding the transit meetings, he said his fellow commissioners already knew his position — he supported transit, but thought voters shouldn’t be asked to weigh in again so soon after rejecting it in 2019.

“I didn’t have anything else to add,” he said.

‘A dog that caught the car’

As his county commission career ends, people who aren’t Tommy Hunter struggle to articulate what good he’s done for Gwinnett.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Lynette Howard, a former county commissioner who served with Hunter. “He was able to get people fired up.”

Hunter is knowledgeable about the county, she said, and it was helpful for an official to have engineering knowledge. But Howard said Hunter’s statements “hurt the credibility of our board.”

Eliiott Brack, editor and publisher of the Gwinnett Forum, endorsed Hunter in his first run for office — but not his second. He said Hunter’s posts “voiced an old way of thinking that even people who thought that wouldn’t say it these days.” He said the posts embarrassed the county’s white community.

The result, he said, was that Hunter was sidelined.

“The county commission more or less disregarded him,” Brack said. “I doubt he contributed very much. ...Residents in that district didn’t get as good representation because he was ineffective.”

It was a frustration for Eidson, who thought Hunter did a good job when he was first elected. Once the posts gained attention, Eidson said, Hunter’s work ethic changed.

“After that, I would not say he was mailing it in, I would say he was distracted,” Eidson said. “He became a lot harder to contact. He disappeared from public view. ...When all the uproar started, he did not seem to be as engaged in the county.”

Tommy Hunter during the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners meeting at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Tuesday, February 19, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Hunter would admit as much, too. He said he had been hesitant to seek a second term, but did so because there were projects he wanted to see through. Before he even ran for reelection, Hunter said, he already felt like he had scratched his political itch.

A friend, Hunter said, told him: “I reminded him of a dog that caught the car.”

“I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “It’s just time to do something else.”

Something to stump on

One way Hunter did influence Gwinnett? His statements gave Democrats something to stump on, said Bianca Keaton, chair of the county’s Democratic party.

“For a considerable amount of time, it was a candidate recruitment tool,” Keaton said. “Diamonds form out of pressure.”

Rebecca Mitchell, who was just elected to the state house, said she got involved in the party because of Hunter’s posts.

Keaton said people showed up “in droves” to protest Hunter. It helped some in Gwinnett see that they didn’t just have allies — they were in the majority. While Hillary Clinton won Gwinnett County in 2016, no Democrat was elected at the county level until 2018. In January, nearly every partisan seat in county government will be held by a Democrat.

“We woke up,” Keaton said.

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

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

McLeod, the state representative, was among the protestors who called for Hunter to step down. So was Maxine Wheatley, who came to nearly every Tuesday afternoon meeting for more than three years, until she knew Hunter didn’t plan to run again.

Wheatley doesn’t live in Hunter’s district. But she said his posts were bigoted and sophomoric and she kept her protest up because she didn’t want Hunter to forget there were people who disagreed with him.

Hunter, despite his posts, said he has good relationships with his Democratic colleagues. He even voted for a Democrat this year — incoming Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson, who he said he thinks a lot of.

On the other hand, he said the Republican leadership that abandoned him “can pound sand, for all I care.”

About those accomplishments: Hunter said he’s pleased with the work he’s done to improve roads and encourage big projects in Gwinnett. He cites the county’s purchase of the old Olympic tennis center, the opening of the police department’s Bay Creek Precinct in Loganville and the work he did to help get Rowen off the ground, the massive technology park that’s planned for Dacula.

Hunter said he was a champion of that project, which dates back to 2013. But Howard, the former commissioner, said it was a group effort.

Chuck Warbington, the Lawrenceville city manager and a former chair of the Planning Commission who was reappointed to the board by Hunter, said he expects the project to morph so much over the years that it would be hard to credit one person with its existence.

This summer, after the project was announced, Hunter said he had been worried it wouldn’t be public until he was out of office.

“I want to leave with people knowing I did something,” he said then. “I just want to be remembered for doing something constructive. It’s what I set out to do. People may forget, but I won’t.”