The last time a Democrat served on the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, Ronald Reagan was president. Dale Murphy hit 29 home runs for the Atlanta Braves. And four out of 10 of today’s county residents weren’t even born.
Since 1986, Republicans have dominated politics in Georgia’s second-largest county. But Democrats are starting to show signs of life.
Last week, three stepped forward to challenge incumbent Republican commissioners, though many political observers give them little chance of winning.
Gwinnett remains dependably Republican, but the GOP’s dominance has slipped amid dramatic demographic changes. One measure: In 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore earned just 32 percent of the vote in Gwinnett, but in 2012 President Obama won nearly 45 percent.
“It’s just a matter of time, and probably not a very long time, before (Gwinnett) becomes a predominantly Democratic county,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.
That transformation could make Gwinnett the vanguard of a larger shift in Georgia politics. It wouldn’t be the first time.
For much of the 20th century, Democrats had a lock on the county, the state and much of the South. That began to change when Southerners bolted from the party as it embraced civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Other changes also were afoot.
A population boom that began in the 1970s drew tens of thousands of new residents to Gwinnett, transforming a rural enclave into one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. A good portion of the new residents were northerners or young professionals unbound by traditional county politics or party preferences.
Many proved receptive to the Reagan Revolution. In 1980, Jimmy Carter, the incumbent Democratic president and former Georgia governor, carried his home state. But Republican Ronald Reagan carried Gwinnett County.
The first Republican won a seat on the five-member County Commission in a special election in 1983. By 1986, Republicans had defeated the last Democratic commissioner and held every countywide elected office.
The Republicans’ conquest of state politics took longer. But, by 2004, they controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the General Assembly.
But Georgia continues to change, and its minority population — which tends of vote Democratic — is booming. Non-Hispanic whites now account for 54 percent of state residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A recent study found Georgia and other Southern states could become swing states in presidential elections within a decade.
If so, the transformation may again play out first in Gwinnett. Already, its population is just 41 percent white.
Whites still account for a little more than half of Gwinnett’s active voters, according to registration data maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office. But Gwinnett Democratic Party Chairman Jim Shealey believes the county’s demographics may already make the party competitive in local politics.
“The key is, can you get those minorities out to vote?” Shealey said.
Shealey is running against incumbent County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, a Republican. Elsewhere, Democrat Derek Johnson will challenge incumbent Republican Jace Brooks in commission District 1, and incumbent Republican Tommy Hunter faces Democrat Jasper Watkins III in District 3.
“I know of only one way to go at an election, and that’s to put forward my record,” Nash said. “I’m going to be talking about that record and what I think we can do moving forward.”
Rich Carithers, chairman of Gwinnett’s Republican Party, doesn’t give the Democrats much chance of unseating incumbents he says are well liked in the community. But he acknowledged the demographic challenge facing the GOP.
Carithers said he tells his fellow Republicans, “The people who are going to be the future members of this party don’t necessarily look like you and me.”
He said the party must convince a diverse population that Republican values are closely aligned with theirs.
That may be a challenge when this year’s leading Republican presidential candidate – Donald Trump – has called some Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Bullock said minority turnout tends to be higher in presidential election years, and Trump’s candidacy may boost it even more.
Bullock said demographic trends favor Gwinnett Democrats, who could start winning elections again as soon as 2020.
Shealey isn’t ruling out Democratic gains this year.
“The demographics of the county have changed,” Shealey said. “Whether it’s enough to get us over that 50 percent hump, I don’t know. The effort has to be there.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.