“Are we to thank Tommy Hunter for anything?” one activist, Susan Clymer, wondered recently.
The commissioner's posts spurred the county's first-ever ethics complaint and led to a public reprimand for Hunter, and they fueled months and months of protests at local commission meetings. Those meetings helped galvanize local activist groups (not to mention the Gwinnett County Democratic Party) and to start a larger discussion about race in one of Georgia's most diverse communities.
Advocates and officials alike — Clymer and Gwinnett Commissioner John Heard, to name two — have said the fallout forced them to confront their privilege and rethink how they think about diversity. Activists believe the response to incidents like a police beating and a judge making his own racially insensitive Facebook comments, both of which occurred in the months following Hunter’s comments, was much different than it might’ve been before.
There are more tangible reverberations, too.
Rachel Theus holds a “resign” sign during a Feb. 28, 2017, meeting where protesters demanded the resignation of Tommy Hunter, the Gwinnett County commissioner that called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” on Facebook. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
There's still a day in court that's yet to be had, Hunter's legal team arguing that the ethics board that recommended his reprimand was unconstitutional because its members were appointed, not elected. The commission seat occupied by Hunter, a Republican, won't be up for grabs for nearly three years — but others will be on the ballot this fall.
“An elephant is eaten one bite at a time,” Gabe Okoye, the leader of Gwinnett’s Democratic Party, said. “Therefore, we will make Gwinnett better, one step at a time.”
Said Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash: “My intent is to use this learning opportunity as motivation for even greater involvement and outreach across our Gwinnett community. We have made progress, but there is more work to be done.”
It was Jan. 14, 2017 when Hunter decided to weigh in on a very public feud between then-president elect Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Lewis, a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., had gone on TV to question the legitimacy of Trump's election victory. Hunter, who has no direct connection to Lewis or his Atlanta-based congressional district, responded on Facebook that day, the Saturday of the MLK holiday weekend.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on his posts two days later, and the issue exploded from there.
Hunter initially told The AJC his comments were "probably an overreaction out of aggravation" and, at the next day's commission meeting, read a statement apologizing for his "choice of words." His colleagues on the board condemned his comments and multiple advocacy groups called for Hunter's resignation.
Along the way, then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed would weigh in with a threatening letter to Hunter's full-time employer, United Consulting, which does significant business with the city. Georgia's Legislative Black Caucus would call for him to step down, too.
Tommy Hunter is suing all his colleagues, the county and the county ethics board following his public reprimand for controversial comments he posted on Facebook.
Dozens of anti-Hunter protesters attended that first meeting on Jan. 17, 2017, taking up 2 1/2 hours of public comment time. The protests slowly waned in size from there, but the Board of Commissioners did not have a protest-free meeting until July 25 — and a handful of detractors showed up at a meeting earlier this month, though they tempered their efforts after learning Hunter had had a heart attack a few days earlier.
“I must say,” Commissioner John Heard told them after the meeting, “I’m impressed by your endurance.”
And advocates believe that endurance has made a difference.
Activist and Democrat Donna McLeod believes the Hunter outrage contributed directly to the speedy firing and arrest of two white Gwinnett police officers when they were caught on video striking a black motorist during a traffic stop. That incident happened in April, smack in the middle of the Hunter fallout.
McLeod and others think that Hunter's comments led to a similar result — a quick suspension followed by a resignation — after controversial Facebook posts written by a Gwinnett Magistrate Court judge were reported on by The AJC. She tied the preservation of Lawrenceville's historic African-American Hooper Renwick School, and the fact that city and county officials listened so intently to those who wanted it saved, to the Hunter effect as well.
“We’re not in the same place we were a year ago,” McLeod said.
That includes politically.
Gwinnett has been a minority-majority county since at least 2010 and went blue in 2016’s presidential election, making Hillary Clinton its first Democratic selection since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Hunter narrowly beat Democratic challenger Jasper Watkins in his own 2016 race.
Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter, left, takes an oath before declining to answer questions during the Gwinnett County ethics board’s Wednesday morning hearing. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM
Since Hunter's Facebook comments, two Gwinnett cities have elected the county's first-ever non-white mayors, though there's likely little connection to the outcry over the commissioner. Norcross' new leader, Craig Newton, was a longtime city councilman and unchallenged in his journey to become Gwinnett's first black mayor. Loganville's new leader, outspoken Trump supporter Rey Martinez, became the county's first Latino mayor.
But Okoye, the Gwinnett Democratic Party president, said the Hunter fallout has “galvanized” his group. He expects the party to launch energetic campaigns for the two Gwinnett commission seats up for election this November — which are held by incumbents Heard and Lynette Howard, who are both Republicans.
Gwinnett has never had a non-white member elected to its county commission or its school board.
Tommy Hunter, whose recovery from a Dec. 30 heart attack is “going well,” declined to comment for this story, referring inquiries to consultant and spokesman Seth Weathers.
“I’m not surprised at all that the AJC would try to create racial division to sell newspapers by bringing this up again,” Weathers said in response to one of several questions sent via text message.
Weathers and Hunter’s legal team, though, are keeping the saga alive, too.
Seth Weathers, the political consultant who represents embattled Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter, poses for a portrait at his Weatherscorp business office on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Cumming. Curtis Comptonfirstname.lastname@example.org
Credit: Curtis Compton
Credit: Curtis Compton
In July, Hunter's team appealed a Gwinnett judge's dismissal of his lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ethics board that investigated the commissioner and recommended his public reprimand. The suit — which argues that using an unelected board to punish an elected commissioner should be impermissible — is awaiting consideration by the Georgia Supreme Court.
And in November, Hunter attorney Dwight Thomas sent Gwinnett County a notice of his intent to file a new federal lawsuit. The document — which claims Hunter's First Amendment rights, among others, were violated by his reprimand — threatens to sue Hunter's commission colleagues in both their official and individual capacities. It demands "not less than" $5 million in compensation.
The filing was first reported by The AJC this week.
As of Thursday, no federal litigation had been filed, but Weathers said that a lawsuit is still planned. When that would happen, and when such a suit would then be considered, were not immediately clear.
The time frame, though, would likely be a lengthy one.
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