Gwinnett commissioners to seek re-election; Democrats vow to challenge

Gwinnett Commissioners John Heard and Lynette Howard (SPECIAL PHOTOS)

Gwinnett Commissioners John Heard and Lynette Howard (SPECIAL PHOTOS)

The two Gwinnett County commissioners whose seats are up for grabs this fall say they plan to seek re-election.

The leader of Gwinnett's Democratic Party, meanwhile, is vowing that they'll be challenged — and in an ever-diversifying county that's shown an increased willingness to vote blue, GOP incumbents John Heard and Lynette Howard could have a battle on their hands.

Gwinnett County hasn’t had a Democratic commissioner in more than three decades.

Heard, whose District 4 covers the bulk of the Lawrenceville area and stretches north through Buford, is a former state legislator who has served on the commission since 2011. He announced his plans to run for re-election on Facebook this week.

"I think it's important to keep the momentum going and keep the team in place so that we don't have any loose cannons trying to mow us down," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, touting his role in guiding the county in the aftermath of both a recession and a corruption scandal.

Howard, whose District 2 covers the Lilburn, Norcross and Peachtree Corners areas, is a former planning commissioner who has also served two terms on the commission. She confirmed Tuesday that she plans to run for a third.

”While we have made great progress over the last four years, there is still work to be done on issues such as addiction, transportation, and homelessness that are impacting our community,” she wrote, in an emailed statement.

The official qualifying period for candidates isn’t until the week of March 5. But Gabe Okoye, the president of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, said challengers have already been lined up for both contests.

A single Democratic candidate will be vying for Heard’s seat, Okoye said. The party leader declined to identify that candidate, saying that “he wants to remain working underground until March.”

In Howard’s district, plans are currently for four different Democratic candidates to compete in a primary to decide who will be the challenger in the general election, Okoye said. He identified local residents Ben Ku and Desmond Nembhard as two likely candidates but declined to reveal the others.

Gwinnett has not had a Democrat elected to its county commission since 1986, but the county voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016’s presidential election — the first time it had selected a Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Democratic challengers also fared reasonably well in 2016's Gwinnett commission races. Jim Shealey garnered about 47 percent of the countywide vote in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Chairman Charlotte Nash, and District 3 Commissioner Tommy Hunter beat his Democratic challenger by about 2 percentage points.

Hunter’s seat won’t be up for grabs again until 2020. But he may nonetheless play a role in November’s election.

Hunter's infamous Facebook post calling civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" is now more than a year old but has served as a rallying point for Democrats. All of Hunter's fellow commissioners, including Heard and Howard, denounced his statements and, after a formal ethics investigation, voted to publicly reprimand him.

But that doesn’t mean the comments — and Hunter’s continued presence on the commission — won’t be brought up during campaigns against his colleagues.

“I would think so,” Heard said. “I think it’s a motivator for them, to get the Democratic turnout out. It’s a scar for the conservative agenda that he is there.”

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