Fayetteville’s first black mayor is ‘bridge builder’

The Edward James Johnson Files

Age: 60

Native of: New Orleans

Residence: Fayetteville

Political history: Elected to Fayetteville City Council, 2011. Currently, Fayetteville mayor-elect.

Work history: Retired in 2000 as a naval commander after 22 years in the Navy. Currently, Pastor of Flat Rock AME Church in Fayette County, the oldest African-American church in the county.

Community activities: Has served three times as president of the Fayette County branch of the NAACP since it founding in 1997.

Family: Married to retired naval officer Vanessa Johnson for 36 years. The couple has two sons, Edwin and Devan, both graduates of Fayette County High School. Edwin is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Devan is a graduate of Georgia State University.

Hobbies: Fishing and golf.

As Fayette County continues to spar over the question of preserving at-large voting or embracing district voting, voters in the county seat of this Republican stronghold elected a consensus-building Democrat last week as the county's first black mayor.

Ed Johnson, a retired naval commander and pastor of Fayette’s oldest black church, unseated incumbent mayor Greg Clifton Tuesday night in an at-large, nonpartisan race that drew only 11 percent of Fayetteville’s 12,000 registered voters. Johnson got 673, or 54 percent, of the votes. Clifton drew 582, or 42 percent, of the votes. About a third of Fayetteville’s 16,000 residents is African-American.

It is the second time the 60-year-old Johnson has made history in a part of the county where streets are named after Confederate generals. In 2011, the three-term president of the local NAACP was elected Fayetteville’s first black city council member with the help of a coalition of political groups that included the local tea party.

“He’s a person who can attract support from those who historically differ from African American views,” said Fayette NAACP President John E. Jones. “He’s a bridge-builder.”

During his run for mayor, Johnson attended the Fayette County Republican monthly breakfast and solicited votes for his candidacy.

“I can not ever recall that happening before in my two decades of residing in Fayette County,” County Commissioner SteveBrown said.

At that time of his election to city council, Johnson was only the second black candidate to win any kind of political office in Fayette. (Chief Magistrate Judge Charles “Chuck” Floyd holds the distinction of being the first. Floyd was first appointed to the job in 2002 and later elected to the post in 2004 and again in 2008. He died in 2010.)

In the bigger political picture, Johnson’s win could “bolster the argument that African Americans can get elected in the county under an at-large system,” said Charles Bullock, Richard Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia.

“For the defense it’s something they could point to,” added Bullock, author of the 2009 book “The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South.”

At the same time, Bullock said “the other side would come back and say ‘So this African American wins in Fayetteville but that’s not the entire county.’ So it’s not as strong an argument for the defense because it’s not a probate judge or some officer who’s running countywide.”

Either way, advocates and opponents of at-large voting hailed Johnson's win.

“He’s won twice now in a small southern town with a white majority population,” said Bob Ross, co-founder of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party and an advocate of at-large voting.

“They looked first at the person to see what kind of person he is. He certainly gets a check in the box for being a good citizen. He’s community-minded and selfless with his service. He’s got the ability to listen to different sides of an issue and he tries to build consensus,” Ross said.

“People appreciate that and they say ‘That’s the kind of person I’d like to be running my city.’ Clearly, the majority of voters were voting for the right person. They’ve seen how he performed as a city council member for four years and they elevated him to mayor,” Ross added.

The NAACP’s Jones called Johnson’s win “a testament to the work the NAACP is doing to make our community more inclusive and diverse as far as the people who govern. We look forward to great things from Rev. Johnson. I know he has some great ideas he wants to implement. We’re all concerned about the high rate of vacant commercial properties in Fayetteville. I’m sure he plans to address this.”

“With the changing demographics in Fayette, it’s a successful accomplishment,” Jones said.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Johnson talked about his win and his goals for Fayetteville. He wants to get more citizens involved in the city’s decision-making process and continue to bring in more businesses.

While Johnson said at-large, nonpartisan races in Fayetteville “can produce fair and equitable elections,” he stopped short of saying whether it was the best method for selecting county-level candidates.

“I don’t know that. I think people vote their conscience. In a small-city election, they look at the quality of the candidate,” he said.

Fayetteville is currently in District 5, a mostly black district created in 2013 when U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten’s ordered the county to establish single-member district voting. The county appealed and an appeals panel sent the case back to Batten for trial, which last week was postponed from it’s scheduled Nov. 16 start date.

As for which voting system would work best for Fayette County?

“I prefer not to answer that,” Johnson said. “It’s still in litigation.”