Longtime allies face off in Fulton commission race

For years Democratic Fulton County Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards have seemed inseparable.

They sit side by side at commission meetings. Their views on various issues are so similar that a meeting rarely passes without one or both saying “I agree with” the other a few times. Neither is afraid to lambaste powerful political adversaries, especially Republicans in the General Assembly.

Now, after more than a decade of working together, Darnell and Edwards face unexpected foes in the May 20 primary election: each other. Thanks to a redistricting plan drafted by the north Fulton Republicans they have often clashed with, only one can return to the board of commissioners next year to represent south Fulton in the redrawn District 6.

But if anyone expected an entertaining brawl between the two longtime allies, they’ve been disappointed. Both prefer to run on their lengthy records in public office, rather than against each other.

“I’m running for the seat,” Edwards said. “I ain’t running against Emma.”

Darnell and Edwards aren’t the only commissioners facing possible elimination. All seven commissioners are up for election, and retirements and redistricting assure at least three incumbents won’t return to the part-time job that pays a salary of $40,446.

North Fulton will have a greater say in county affairs, just as the authors of the redistricting plan intended. North Fulton residents have long said they pay most of the taxes but don’t’ get their fair share of county services — a sentiment confirmed by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation last year. The Republican redistricting plan creates a new north Fulton commission district, eliminates one of two at-large seats, and pits Darnell and Edwards against each other in the same south Fulton district. The winner will face Abraham Watson, the only Republican nominee for District 6, in November.

Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said the proliferation of candidates — 20 for the seven commission seats — is evidence the redistricting plan will shake up a government many north Fulton residents say spends too much.

“It basically means that folks are recognizing that the status quo is not acceptable,” Lindsey said.

Others fear the new district lines will deprive south Fulton residents of influence.

“I thought it was sad that they were able to take two commissioners who would advocate for their constituents in south Fulton and pit them against each other,” said south Fulton resident Winston Carhee Jr.

Some critics said the redistricting plan violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diminishing the voting power of black residents. But talk about challenging it in federal court went nowhere.

Darnell and Edwards called the plan a racist attempt by Republicans to seize power in a predominantly Democratic county. That kind of rhetoric has long made them lightning rods for criticism. But they haven’t backed down.

“I don’t like bullies, and I don’t accept bullying,” Darnell said.

Some, including Republican candidate Watson, say it’s time for both Darnell, 80, and Edwards, 64, to move on. Watson, who is 29, said the incumbents, both of whom are black, typify the north vs. south, white vs. black dynamic that Fulton County needs to put behind it.

Both commissioners regularly invoke the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and cast current debates as a continuation of hard-fought civil rights struggles.

“Let the past be the past,” said Watson, who is also black. “We have to respect the past. We have to know where we came from in order to get where you’re going. But we can’t get there if we keep having the same rhetoric.”

Both Darnell and Edwards have long records to run on.

In the 1970s Darnell, an Atlanta resident, served in the administrations of Mayors Sam Massell and Maynard Jackson. Jackson fired her amid complaints about her aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and a perceived mistreatment of employees. She later ran unsuccessfully for mayor and Atlanta City Council before winning election to the County Commission in 1992.

Edwards, a Fairburn insurance agent, spent 13 years as president of the Old National Merchants Association and was involved in numerous community groups before his election to the commission in 2000.

On the commission, Darnell has advocated for social service programs, especially for seniors and young people. She said she’s most proud of earning the trust of her constituents “at a time when they have every reason to question — and do question — the entire process.” One sign of her popularity: She hasn’t faced an opponent in any of her five previous re-election campaigns.

“If you work every single day responding to the needs of your district and the entire county, people get that,” she said.

Edwards also has staked his reputation on constituent service. He represents Fulton’s only remaining unincorporated area, where residents get police, fire and other municipal services from the county. His hands-on approach to the job — fielding complaints and running interference for constituents — has earned him the nickname “the Mayor of South Fulton.” He has also successfully advocated for south Fulton facilities such as the Wolf Creek Amphitheater, which critics consider a waste of taxpayer money.

“Those people in unincorporated Fulton, they don’t have a mayor,” Edwards said. “I’m a little bit more hands on because I have no choice.”

Watson, the Republican contender and a College Park sales and marketing consultant, wonders whether enough has been accomplished. He cited crime, unemployment, declining property values and other problems in the district. He said many residents are unhappy, and he doesn’t think incumbency will be an asset in the general election.

“They say that I’m a long shot because everyone knows their name and how long they’ve been in office,” Watson said. “I’m telling you, that’s going to be their downfall.”

At least one of the incumbents will be gone from the commission next January. But if one of them wins re-election in November, the other won’t necessarily go away. Darnell said she plans to use Edwards as an adviser if she wins. And Edwards said he’ll appoint Darnell to some county board where she can continue to be a thorn in the side of their critics.

“We’re just caught up in a situation and the citizens will have to make a choice,” Edwards said. “But if you’re trying to silence Darnell’s voice, if I win, you’re not going to achieve that.”

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