Hoschton official weighing resignation over his comments about race

Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and City Councilman Jim Cleveland face calls to resign. About 75 people attended a City Council meeting to protest comments the two made about a black applicant for a city job. Shantwon Astin vowed to vote the mayor and councilman out of office. Hoschton resident Mary Morrison attended to meeting to voice her concerns. "I don't want people to think that about our community," said Kelly Winebarger, who protested with her sons, Ryder and Knox.

Hoschton City Councilman Jim Cleveland said he is considering “all options” for his future in city government, including resigning, in the wake of a racially charged controversy over the hiring of a new city administrator.

Cleveland and Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly have been under fire since an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into the city administrator search revealed allegations that Kenerly initially withheld a candidate because he is black. Kenerly allegedly told a member of the city council that "the city isn't ready for this."

Moreover, he offered his opinion that interracial marriage was not in keeping with his understanding of Christianity and that seeing interracial couples of television “makes my blood boil.”

Cleveland initially defended the mayor, saying he “understood where she was coming from.” But in an interview with the AJC Wednesday, Cleveland said Kenerly was wrong.

“I do understand where she came from, but I don’t necessarily agree with it,” he said.

Asked if the mayor should resign, as others have called for, Cleveland said: “She just —,” then stopped. “I don’t know.”

The comments from both officials drew immediate condemnation from every corner of the political spectrum, including the current and former chairs of the Jackson County Republican Party, the Georgia chapter of the Council and American-Islamic Relations and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.

On Tuesday, the pastors of 12 Methodist churches in Jackson county released a statement condemning Cleveland's statements and urging Christians to "resist racial injustice in every form." The statement was issued through the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and carried the endorsement of the the district superintendent and the bishop.

Mayor Theresa Kenerly (left) and City Councilman Jim Cleveland (right) during a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Mayor Theresa Kenerly (left) and City Councilman Jim Cleveland (right) during a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Kenerly did not return a phone call from the AJC Wednesday.

But in comments to the AJC, Cleveland said he is not the hard-core racist he’s been made out to be, claiming he has moderated his views over the years.

“The thing that I think is not accurate and/or misunderstood is, that was my upbringing,” the 67-year-old contractor said. “There is a whole lot of other people who grew up the same way I did.”

He said he has changed over the years.

“People think I’m completely intolerant. That’s no way the case. We just came back from a vacation in Florida. We had a black couple two doors down and I talked to them,” he said, adding that he had a “nice conversation.”

“I don’t have a problem with blacks. I don’t. I haven’t been that way in years,” he said. “I’ve seen the world change. I’ve seen the work environment change, and I’ve changed with it. I am not an intolerant person.”

That said, Cleveland defended his views on interracial marriage.

"I still think that whites should marry whites and blacks should marry blacks," he said. In a separate interview with the AJC's Bill Torpy, Cleveland said the races should remain "pure."

“Part of the reason for it, and I’ve talked to my pastor about it, it can create problems,” he said. He recalled the example of Forsyth County, a north Georgia County that violently purged its black population a century ago and become internationally infamous in 1987 when residents pelted civil rights marchers with bricks and bottles.

“You know how it used to be in Forsyth County. A black couldn’t spend the night there,” he said.

Cleveland sounded less resolute than when he exchanged words after a city meeting Monday with a small group of critics calling for his resignation.

“I’m sorry all this happened,” he said.