Hoschton official who decried interracial marriage resigns

A sign demanding the resignation of Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and City Council Member Jim Cleveland sits near City Hall in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Update: Councilman submits resignation letter

Embattled Hoschton City Councilman Jim Cleveland resigned Tuesday, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he‘d rather leave office on his own terms than face voters in a recall election next month.

“I’m not going to give them the pleasure of saying they recalled Mr. Cleveland,” he said in an exclusive interview.

The news comes some seven months after an AJC investigation into claims that an African-American candidate for city administrator was sidetracked by Mayor Theresa Kenerly because of his race.

According to interviews and subsequent court testimony, Kenerly held back the resume of the only black finalist for the job. She later told council members she did so because of his race.

Cleveland defended the mayor’s conduct, but he also volunteered that he disagreed with interracial marriage and that seeing whites and blacks on television “makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.”

He also insinuated that Hoschton residents held different beliefs than people in Atlanta in regards to race.

“I understood where she was coming from,” he said. “I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we’re not Atlanta. Things are different here than they are 50 miles down the road.”

The controversy made national headlines and the small city just northeast of the Gwinnett County line became a poster child for racial intolerance. Locally, representatives from the Jackson County Republican and Democratic parties joined together in calling for both officials to leave office, even hosting a joint event to encourage residents to file ethics complaints against the pair.

A special meeting of the City Council is set for Wednesday to accept Cleveland's resignation and elect a new mayor pro tem, according to fellow Councilman Shantwon Astin. Kenerly has not commented on her future plans, but she fought the recall campaign all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, which last month declined to hear her appeal.

As he prepares to resign, Cleveland said he believes he is misunderstood.

In the months following the AJC's investigation, the longtime councilman and building contractor said his comments reflected his beliefs as a younger man and said he is much more tolerant now. However, in a heated exchange with residents following a council meeting in May, Cleveland repeated his racial beliefs as one resident recorded the exchange on her phone.

“I’m not racist, but I do not believe in interracial marriage,” he said.

When it became clear that Cleveland and Kenerly would not resign, residents organized a recall campaign to force them from office. Earlier this month, that campaign cleared its final legal hurdle when the Jackson County Board of Elections called a recall election for Jan. 14.

Not only is Cleveland leaving office, he said he is leaving Hoschton.

“There is a lot on the plate for Hoschton and some of it is not going to go well,” he said. “It’s not going to be a good place for me to live.”

He did not offer examples of what he believed to be going wrong, except to suggest that some involved in the recall campaign wanted political power for themselves.

Erma Denney, a former mayor of Hoschton, said the allegation is ludicrous. She and the other citizens only hoped to restore the city’s reputation, she said.

“Our community has coalesced around the singular goal of expunging the hateful rhetoric brought into light earlier this year by the elected officials Kenerly and Cleveland,” she said. “I get nothing out of this except to try to restore the dignity and reputation of this town.”

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