District 105 isn’t the only Gwinnett County seat in the General Assembly that observers believe has the potential to flip from red to blue in this fall’s elections.
But it may be the most intriguing race among them.
Republican state Rep. Joyce Chandler opted earlier this year not to run for re-election for the legislative district, which primarily includes parts of the Lawrenceville, Grayson and Snellville areas. That left the door open for either establishment Republican Donna Sheldon — who is a few years removed from a decade spent in the House — or activist Democrat Donna McLeod.
McLeod lost her 2016 bid to represent the rapidly diversifying district by only 200 or so votes.
It’s a contest that has intrigued many political observers because District 105 is the subject of gerrymandering accusations, in which critics say district lines were redrawn to give an advantage to Republicans. That’s playing out against the larger backdrop of Gwinnett’s long-predicted political reckoning and the rise of Democrats.
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Those factors combine for the makings for a very consequential contest.
“A lot of people just keep talking about the importance of this race, and it is definitely important,” said Sheldon, who works as a realt estate agent. “We’ve got to make sure that we continue to have a voice at the Capitol and proven leadership.”
Though the seat has been held by Republicans for decades, McLeod predicts that the district already has turned blue, as well as the county. She may very well be right. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Gwinnett County in 2016, taking more than 52 percent of District 105’s votes.
Said McLeod, a chemical engineer: “I think Gwinnett is ready for this.”
Gwinnett saw the state’s biggest increase in Democratic ballots cast when comparing the gubernatorial primaries of 2010 and 2018.
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said there’s a good shot Gwinnett’s legislative delegation will be “predominantly Democratic” after Election Day. Last session, the delegation was comprised of 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Chandler is just one of five incumbent Republicans who have since left their seats for various reasons, creating open races.
“Across 15 years, or a little bit more than that, [Gwinnett] may have gone from being an entirely Republican delegation to one in favor of Democrats,” Bullock said.
But others say it’s hardly a given that District 105, or any other, will turn blue. In 2012 and 2014, Democrats lost tight races for District 105. And while Gwinnettians — more than 60 percent of whom are now minorities — have shown more of a propensity to vote for Democrats, that has thus far only resulted in competitive races and few victories.
Sheldon, who served as a state representative from 2004 to 2014 before mounting an unsuccessful run at Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, said the race is “really about proven leadership.” She said she’s been reminding voters why many of them moved to Gwinnett — low taxes, good schools, safety — and assuring them she’d keep all of that in place.
“I take the job of a state representative very seriously,” Sheldon said. “… It’s not about being divisive and just a bomb thrower.”
The latter was a shot at McLeod, who has touted her own background as a community organizer and activist.
She started a nonprofit to register voters and has been active in the protests surrounding Gwinnett Commissioner Tommy Hunter. Hunter has faced backlash since Feb. 2017 Facebook posts that called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” and referred to Democrats as “a bunch of idiots.”
McLeod, who was recently endorsed by former President Barack Obama, said Sheldon’s experience makes her part of the status quo.
“You show me what your leadership is when you start being proactive, when you think ahead and you actually fight for that forward thinking,” McLeod said.
In 2015, the Republican-controlled General Assembly redrew the boundary lines for two Georgia House Districts: Henry County’s District 111 and Gwinnett’s 105. Two separate lawsuits were later filed alleging that the new districts were drawn to thwart the influence of black voters and protect incumbent Republicans.
A June ruling by a panel of three federal judges found “compelling” evidence that that may be the case.
But, while the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering is illegal, it has demurred on determining the constitutionality of partisan-based gerrymandering. In the June ruling, the federal judges found that the plaintiffs couldn’t refute that pure partisanship was a primary factor.
The judges refused to issue an injunction to stop November’s elections in Districts 111 and 105, but the related litigation is ongoing.
McLeod, who narrowly lost the first District 105 election after it was redrawn, called the process “anti-American.” Sheldon was not in the legislature when the district was redrawn. She said she doesn’t believe it was improperly gerrymandered.
She called McLeod a hypocrite for raising a stink about it.
“She’s been endorsed by [former Georgia Gov.] Roy Barnes, who was the king of gerrymandering,” Sheldon said.