Gwinnett official’s district supportive after ‘racist pig’ Facebook post

Bolton’s Store on New Hope Road near Grayson offers fish bait and barbecue. Holly Peppers, an employee at Bolton’s, said she “can’t say nothing bad” about embattled Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter. (TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM)

Bolton’s Store on New Hope Road near Grayson offers fish bait and barbecue. Holly Peppers, an employee at Bolton’s, said she “can’t say nothing bad” about embattled Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter. (TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM)

Bolton's Store is an aging cinder block destination that might seem out of place in Gwinnett County.

An American flag waves over a small patio that’s populated with mismatched furniture sets and an ice box. A sign boasts of fish bait and cold drinks. On the other side of the metal screen door, Holly Peppers punctuates each sentence with a heartfelt “hon” as she prepares sterling silver buffet dishes for the barbecue-fueled lunch rush.

Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter was known here — a rare rural pocket in this fast-growing county — even before his Facebook comments calling civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" made national headlines.

And he’s liked here, too.

“I do like Tommy,” Peppers says over the drone of a small TV set. “So I can’t say nothing bad about him.”

Plenty of people in Gwinnett, however, are not as pleased with the commissioner for District 3, an area that covers a large swath of southern and eastern Gwinnett County and is divided heavily along racial and political lines. Hunter's controversial comments, first published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 16, have led to advocacy groups demanding Hunter meet with more diverse constituents.

There have been vocal protests at Board of Commissioners meetings, too, with residents calling for him to resign his post — unusual episodes of public disruption in a county that prides itself on smooth government operations.

But the feelings among many everyday residents of District 3 remain divided.

‘He ain’t gonna hide it’

Hunter’s Facebook post, which was written amid a well-publicized feud between Lewis and then-president-elect Donald Trump, also referred to Democrats as “Demonrats” and a “bunch of idiots.”

In a district where 49 percent of residents voted for his Democratic challenger in November and the proportion of white conservative voters is dwindling, many have criticized Hunter for alienating a significant portion of his district.

As he and his wife hurried into the Hot N Cold Chinese Buffet in the heart of Snellville last week, Al Frazier called Hunter’s comments “kind of unconscionable.”

“As much as we’re trying to put things together, people are still pulling it apart,” said Frazier, an 82-year-old black man.

But not everyone sees it that way. Folks like Peppers say Hunter’s a good guy who’s done good for the county.

“He doesn’t care what it is, if he feels it, he’s gonna say it,” Peppers said. “And he ain’t gonna hide it.”

Hunter is a married, seemingly doting father of two, a Sunday schoolteacher, an outdoorsman and a Florida Gator fan. A native of southern Hall County and a resident of Buford, he’s a civil engineer by trade and a vice president for Norcross-based United Consulting.

District 2 Commissioner Lynette Howard, who has denounced Hunter’s “racist pig” comment, previously said Hunter is “very strong” in dealing with the issues of the county. Chairman Charlotte Nash, who has apologized to Lewis for Hunter’s remarks, praised the “different perspective” that his work background brings to the board.

When he was first elected to the board in 2012, his district’s voters were about 55 percent white and 30 percent black, according to an AJC analysis. By last October, those numbers had shifted to about 48 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

And while Hunter’s direct contributions during his time on the county commission — a board that rarely butts heads publicly and has, for the most part, seen a dearth of controversial votes — are difficult to quantify, his tenure has had several noteworthy moments.

In 2014, Hunter was one of two Gwinnett commissioners to vote against red-light cameras at three major intersections, calling them nothing more than “revenue generators.” In July 2015, an ordinance change allowing backyard chickens in residential areas, which Hunter lobbied hard for, was passed.

Two months later, Hunter expressed support for a controversial statement released by Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway. In his letter, a response to rioting and protests in Ferguson, Mo., Conway said he was “angry that the fringe groups who started the culture of police hatred have widened the racial divide in our country by alleging that officer involved shootings stem from racism.” The lengthy missive was punctuated by an “ALL LIVES matter.”

Asked about the sheriff’s letter, Hunter said it summed up “the way a lot of people feel.”

On Oct. 29, 2015, Hunter made the motion that led to the BOC’s unanimous denial of a proposed Bosnian (and mostly Muslim) cemetery. He never elaborated on his reasoning.

More recently, Hunter helped spearhead the effort that led to the county purchasing “The Promised Land,” an 1820s-era former plantation home near Snellville that’s one of Gwinnett’s oldest and most historic homes. Purchased by the Livsey family in the 1920s, it became the center of a thriving African-American community. The surrounding area has remained one of the county’s most concentrated pockets of black residents.

Tom Livsey, a descendant of the owners, said Hunter was “very active” in the purchase and preservation of the property. The family considers Hunter a friend, he said.

Snellville City Councilman Dave Emanuel, whose town lies in Hunter’s district, said he “absolutely disagrees” with the nature of Hunter’s comments about Lewis.

“However,” Emanuel said, “I have a hard time aligning that comment with what I’ve seen him do.”

‘Correct in everything he said’

On Jan. 16, a few hours after an AJC story published his anti-Lewis post, Hunter wished his friends and followers a “Happy MLK Day” on Facebook.

“Remember it’s the content of your character, not the color of your skin that matters,” he wrote. “Someday, hopefully that will become reality.”

Hunter has not posted on Facebook since but has apologized for the "choice of words" in his post about Lewis, and plans to attend the Gwinnett NAACP's general membership meeting on Valentine's Day.

In the days immediately following his post, the commissioner received more than 900 emails. The majority of senders ripped Hunter for his comments.

“You sir, are the epitome of deplorable,” a woman named Jan Golden wrote in an email. “Go back to your racist cave and stay there, please.”

About two dozen emailers, however, offered support for the commissioner in the face of his controversy.

“As a Gwinnett resident for the past 23 years, I want to commend you for your candid and accurate remarks about Rep. John Lewis,” one Snellville resident, Joseph Tollison, wrote. “You are entirely correct in your comments and I, for one, am proud of your bravery in the face of this ‘politically correct’ social climate to speak out.”

With protests planned to continue at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, opponents have also floated the idea of making a push for a recall election. Because state law mandates that no such effort can be launched in the first 180 days of an elected official’s term, that would have to wait until July — and would take a lot of work, too.

Signatures from 30 percent of District 3’s more than 128,000 registered voters would have to be collected, and the thousands of people like Peppers, the Bolton’s Store employee, likely wouldn’t be interested.

Nor would Merle Stephens, a 70-year-old Dacula woman.

On a recent spring-like day at her city’s namesake park, she took a break from her walk to say Hunter was “correct in everything he said.”

“He just wasn’t as politically correct as everybody thinks you have to be,” she said.