Democrats, diversity groups look to capitalize on ‘racist pig’ post

Stephanie Cho believes it’s time.

Time for the face of Gwinnett County’s government to fully reflect those of its people, she says. Time for its most powerful body to have its first non-white member.

This moment of urgency comes in the wake of the recent behavior by County Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who last weekend called civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" in a post on Facebook. 

“We want to see more people that are underrepresented, woman, people of color, immigrants, be in these positions,” said Cho, the executive director of the Atlanta branch of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a non-partisan advocacy group. “Because that is the face of Gwinnett now.”

Groups like Cho’s, the NAACP and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials already work to promote better representation of their respective communities. But many now say Hunter’s words — and the furor they’ve whipped up — have served as a wake-up call.

“You’re going to see us contesting very, very strongly this year in the municipal elections, something that hasn’t been done before,” said Gabe Okoye, who took over this month as chairman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party . “And that will be in readiness for 2018.”

Hunter was just re-elected in November. But in 2018, two other commission seats will be up for grabs.

Hunter became the center of controversy on Monday after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published screenshots of several posts on his personal Facebook page. The "racist pig" post was written Saturday afternoon amid a well-publicized feud between Lewis and president-elect Donald Trump.

white voters were no longer the majority in county. Hillary Clinton’s Gwinnett win in November’s presidential election was the first for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners, meanwhile, remains strictly Republican — and white. Voting rights advocates say that’s partially by design.

Last year, the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Association for Latino Elected Officials and several individuals filed a federal lawsuit against Gwinnett County, arguing that the way the county's commission and school board districts are drawn thwarts minorities from electing the candidates of their choice and therefore limits their collective voice in the community.

The county filed a motion to dismiss that suit last month, and the plaintiffs filed their response this week. They’ve asked for oral arguments to be heard in the case.

From the ground up

In November, Hunter won re-election over black Democratic challenger Jasper Watkins by a two-point margin. Board Chairman Charlotte Nash took just 52 percent of the vote against challenger Jim Shealey, another black Democrat.

Lynette Howard’s deeply diverse District 2, which includes Peachtree Corners, Norcross and Lilburn, is due for an election in 2018. So is John Heard’s District 4, which includes a large chunk of Lawrenceville and runs northeast to Buford and beyond.

Okoye said the Democratic Party "already has some well qualified people angling" for those positions, and that Hunter's comments — and the delayed reactions from his fellow commissioners — will play roles in both fundraising and future campaigns.

First on his plate, though, are local city council elections, which Okoye said his party has never specifically targeted. Duluth, Lilburn and Norcross, among others, have multiple city council seats up for election this fall.

“For me, you have to start from the ground up, you know?” Okoye said.

Kerwin Swint, the chair of Kennesaw State University’s department of political science, called Hunter’s ill-fated comments “bulletin board material.” He said they could give Gwinnett’s Democrats some “early motivation.”

But a real, tangible change in the county’s politics, or in voters’ attitudes?

“I don’t think one ill-timed, ill-thought-of comment is going to be a game changer or anything like that,” Swint said. “It’s more symbolic than anything.”

The symbolism is exactly what groups like the NAACP are seizing upon.

Marlyn Tillman, president of the organization’s Gwinnett chapter, said her organization had “already started having conversations about getting people more engaged” in local politics. Hunter’s comments, she said, are energizing those efforts.

“We are going to use it as a point of connection for people,” Tillman said. “To be able to say, ‘OK now, you see this, right? This is a result of the bigger picture.’”

That bigger picture not only includes changing demographics but a history of distrust.

Gwinnett Commissioner Lynette Howard said this week she didn't know what the political fallout from her colleague's Facebook posts would be. But she admitted it probably put a dent in the reputation of a board that's still trying to regain credibility from corruption scandals that were first exposed by The AJC in 2009 and remained in the headlines until 2014.

She said she hopes Hunter’s actions will “inspire people to really see what it means to elect somebody” to Gwinnett’s highest governing body, that voters will re-focus on electing “quality people.”