Interest in governor’s race may affect Gwinnett elections

The Gwinnett County Board of Education has never had a member of color. There are two black candidates running for open seats in November. Political analysts believe voter turnout will be the key to winning. AJC file photo
The Gwinnett County Board of Education has never had a member of color. There are two black candidates running for open seats in November. Political analysts believe voter turnout will be the key to winning. AJC file photo

With so much focus on the race for Georgia’s next governor, county election watchers are concerned that voters won’t scrutinize local candidates as closely.

“It’s a shame that people don’t see the importance of these elections,” said Marlyn Tillman, chair of Gwinnett SToPP, a grassroots parent advocacy group. “These seats are the first level of defense for bigger issues in the state.”

Gwinnett is the most diverse county in the state with 60 percent minorities according to the U.S. Census bureau. But that diversity isn't reflected in government offices.

Neither the school board nor the county commission has elected a person of color. The current board of education is composed of all Republicans with the exception of District 5’s Louise Radloff, who is the lone Democrat.

School board seats were last up for election in 2016 when Carole Boyce, District 1, Mary Kay Murphy, District 3, and Radloff all ran unopposed. In 2014, Daniel Seckinger, District 2, ran unopposed and Robert McClure, District 4, beat his opponent with 58 percent of the vote. This year both Seckinger and McClure have decided against running. This will be the first time in 13 years that the board will seat new members.

In District 2, Republican Steve Knudsen is running against Democrat Wandy Taylor. In District 4, it’s Everton Blair Jr. (Democrat) versus Chuck Studebaker (Republican).

Georgia Republicans pride themselves on the strength of their party and their candidates.

“As a strong supporter of local control, Brian Kemp will need committed community leaders on the school board and other commissions to help implement teacher pay raises and school safety measures,” said Georgia GOP Chairman John Watson. “Politics — and governing — is a team sport, and we need conservatives across the state to ensure Georgia’s best days are ahead.”

Gwinnett Democrats see the governor’s race as an opportunity to increase voter turnout and effect change on the county level.

"Local elections affect lives more than state and federal," said Gabe Okoye, Gwinnett Democratic Party chair. "The school board influences how children are taught. Local politicians maintain roads and water rates."

Even though the county is moving toward diversity, he doesn’t believe the residents are taking advantage of their rights. Since becoming chairman in 2016, Okoye said he’s made it a mission to help with voter registration and get people to the polls.

Robert Howard, professor of political science at Georgia State University, said the polarizing governor’s race could be a good thing for local elections.

“If you look at the last presidential election, you’ll see that Gwinnett County pretty squarely voted for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “That’s an indicator that the county’s ripe for change, but Democratic affiliation doesn’t always translate to voter registration or voter turnout.”

He’s written a book called “Politics in Georgia” that recently released a third edition. Howard noted that when education and income level aren’t a factor, whites tend to vote more than minority groups. In off-year elections where turnout often hovers around 50 percent, the victory goes to the one who can get people to show up.

“The lower-level races (county offices) depend upon higher level turnout” than state and federal offices, said Howard.

Tillman, the Gwinnett SToPP leader, agreed. But she’s hoping a candidate forum scheduled Oct. 16 will make voters scrutinize school board members.

“There has been a consensus among the school board,” she said. “This is the first time in over a decade where there will be new blood. That’s a big deal.”

The Gwinnett Commission also has the chance to make history next month.

Democratic candidate Ben Ku would become the county’s first commissioner of Asian descent, and its first openly gay member, if he beats incumbent District 2 Republican Lynette Howard (who has recently begun more publicly touting her Cuban heritage).

In District 4, Democrat Marlene Fosque would be the county commission’s first black member if she beats incumbent John Heard.

Local Democrats and advocacy groups have frequently voiced their desire for more diverse representation on the commission, particularly during the fallout of District 3 Commissioner Tommy Hunter’s 2017 Facebook attack on civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Ku and Fosque have both expressed similar sentiments. Part of Fosque’s campaign has also been about increasing diversity in the county’s overall staff.

While folks like Heard have agreed that the county should embrace its diverse population and all that entails, they disagree with the notion that as whites they can’t represent other people sufficiently.

“While some would say that diversity carries Democratic versus Republican nuances to it, I tend to disagree,” Heard said. “I think that people choose their party affiliations based on their character and their background and their lives.”

Professor Howard believes that Georgia is increasingly turning purple, but Gwinnett is close to turning blue. Will this be the election that turns the tide?

“The issue isn’t if, it’s when,” he said. “This cycle will eventually be determined by demographics and it will come down to voter turnout.”

Gwinnett County School Board Candidate Forum

When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16

Where: Gwinnett Justice and Admin Center Auditorium, 75 Langley Drive, Lawrenceville

There will be a candidate meet and greet at 6:30 p.m. and the forum will begin promptly at 7 p.m. The event is hosted by Gwinnett SToPP in alliance with the Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission. All candidates have confirmed they plan to attend.

Information: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/gwinnett-county-school-board-candidate-forum-tickets-49369422271

Gwinnett County School Board Candidate Forum

When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16

Where: Gwinnett Justice and Admin Center Auditorium, 75 Langley Drive, Lawrenceville

There will be a candidate meet and greet at 6:30 p.m. and the forum will begin promptly at 7 p.m. The event is hosted by Gwinnett SToPP in alliance with the Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission. All candidates have confirmed they plan to attend.

Information: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/gwinnett-county-school-board-candidate-forum-tickets-49369422271