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.

Torpy at Large: Hoschton, GA, where racial purity and growth collide

Basically, the mayor of Hoschton seemed to call out her constituents as a bunch of bigots.

On Monday, The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a story saying Mayor Theresa Kenerly did not support a black job candidate to become city administrator — according to interviews and city documents — because “the city isn’t ready for this.”

Mayor Theresa Kenerly (left) and City Councilman Jim Cleveland during a City Council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton on Monday, May 6, 2019. 
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

While digging into this story, my colleague Chris Joyner came across Councilman Jim Cleveland, who said the mayor of this overwhelmingly white community of perhaps 2,000 residents “might have been right” in her reluctance.

“I don’t know how they would take it if we selected a black administrator,” he told Joyner.

Then the 67-year-old Cleveland added this gem: “I’m a Christian, and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe.”

It was like stumbling upon a member of a long-lost tribe no longer thought to exist. If Cleveland was studying the Bible, it must be the 1897 Mississippi Miscegenation Version.

The comments drew a roomful of angry Hoschton residents Monday evening who wanted to say Kenerly and Cleveland were all wet. Some 75 people squeezed into an old train depot and clamored for apologies or resignations. However, Mayor Kenerly, Cleveland and another councilwoman huffed out after a 14-minute meeting, wanting no part of this public scolding spectacle.

Hoschton City Councilwoman Susan Powers during a City Council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton on Monday, May 6, 2019. 
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

As they left, Cleveland bent over Councilwoman Susan Powers and muttered something in her ear. Powers, who had helped bring the hiring fiasco to light, had just asked Cleveland and Kenerly to resign.

So, what did Cleveland tell her?

“He tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that I’d be gone before he was,” said Powers, who has one year on the council to Cleveland’s 10.

Resident after resident, some of them quite hot, said they came to let the world know that Hoschton, which is northeast of Gwinnett County, is not the backwater burg the mayor and councilman seem to make it out to be.

“You do not represent our community,” said resident Kristi Williams, her voice growing more strident as she stood to point a finger at the mayor. “I did not move here for that.”

Mary Morrison, a longtime Hoschton resident who is black, stood up as the meeting was ending and named several black families who reside in the city.

“Where did all this come from?” she asked, referring to the mayor’s comment that the town was not ready for a black administrator.

Hoschton resident Mary Morrison speaks during a City Council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot on Monday, May 6, 2019.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

After the meeting, Morrison told me, “As you can see with all the people here tonight, we’re all ready.”

Ron Johnson, a retired Marine and a retired New York cop who is a local GOP leader, told me he has an interracial nephew. He came to the meeting because, “I’m appalled Jim Cleveland would make statements like this. I grew up Catholic, and nowhere in the Bible does it say that. In fact, I looked at the Bible today to make sure.”

Hoschton Councilman Jim Cleveland is escorted to his car by a Jackson County Sheriff’s Department officer following a City Council meeting where members of the community urged his resignation at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot on Monday, May 6, 2019. 
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Earlier in the day, Johnson saw Kelly Winebarger, a relatively new resident, protesting with placards outside City Hall. He didn’t know her, but he figured she might be hungry, so he went to the local pizzeria to buy her a slice and a drink. It’s that kind of small-towny place.

Winebarger, a mother of two who cleans homes and offices for a living, said someone called the cops on her, who came out and checked her identification. It’s also THAT kind of small-towny place.

The issue bubbled up during a meeting in March, when Kenerly reportedly whispered to a councilwoman that the city (which has about eight employees) wasn’t ready for a black administrator, even though he was qualified. Councilwoman Hope Weeks overheard the remarks and said the mayor repeated them to her after the meeting, according to a document released by the city in response to an open records request from the AJC.

Weeks, who is a new council member, then told Councilwoman Powers. They took the matter to city attorney Thomas Mitchell, who looked into it and later told city officials to stop putting their concerns in writing.

“I do not think it in the best interests of the city (or the individual elected officials) to continue emailing in this manner,” Mitchell wrote in a March 14 email.

Lawyers hate when their clients create damning evidence. His point was, “Ixnay the iscriminationday.”

The job candidate, who lives in Texas, later withdrew his application to take a job somewhere else. I’m sure attorneys are licking their chops.

In a statement last week, Kenerly called the allegations a “political attack,” adding, “I do not recall making the statement attributed to me regarding any applicant for the City Administrator position, and I deny that I made any statement that suggest prejudice.”

Before Monday’s meeting, I called Cleveland, who was bemused by the blowback. “I’m already getting criticized from New York, Chicago and Canada,” he said.

He said he and the mayor have dug the city’s finances out of the doldrums. He said Hoschton was looking to hire an administrator because growth is coming to the town he calls “rural/suburban.”

But although construction crews are all over and a Florida developer aims to build a fancy senior community with 2,600 homes, Cleveland hinted that the civic mindset change is not complete.

“We had a city manager we had to let go; she was a female,” Cleveland said. “If people complained about a white woman, they’d probably complain about a black.”

I asked about the interracial marriage comments, and Cleveland — a retired AT&T supervisor — said he either misspoke or was misquoted. Then he repeated what he said the other day.

“I go to a fundamental Baptist church,” he said. “We have Asians, we have Hispanics, we have blacks.” Being against interracial marriage “is still our belief,” he said. “It’s a teaching at the church. You keep your races pure.”

“I made my statement and I don’t regret it,” he said. “I have black friends, and I hope I’m still friends with them.”

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