White candidate steps away in Gwinnett race, promotes Black leadership

With just 669 more votes — out of more than 103,000 cast — Nicole Love Hendrickson would have avoided a runoff to be the Democratic nominee for chair of the Gwinnett County commission.

So her opponent in the Aug. 11 race decided there was no reason to have one. While the race will still be on the ballot, Lee Thompson Jr. said Thursday that he would suspend his campaign, and urged people to vote for Hendrickson instead.

Thompson Jr. didn't know for certain that he would be a contender in the runoff until earlier this week. That's when the county finished a recount that gave him a 13-vote lead over Curt Thompson, the third-place finisher.

But Thompson Jr. said he had been thinking about stepping aside since shortly after the June 9 primary, as he saw how close Hendrickson was to winning outright. He received just shy of 14% of the vote.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “She needs to be the nominee.”

Hendrickson said Thompson Jr. called her Wednesday to tell her what he planned.

“I thought it was very honorable of him, very big of him,” she said. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

In a long Facebook post regarding his decision, Thompson Jr. said he had run on a platform of inclusion and on giving a voice to those who felt excluded by local government. So when he saw how many people voted for Hendrickson, who is Black, Thompson Jr., who is white, said he saw it as an opportunity to act as he had campaigned.

“I’ve been involved for 30 years,” he said. “This gives the opportunity for someone who’s younger, a woman, African-American to step into a leadership role. I don’t want to be somebody who hinders that process.”

Gwinnett County is the most diverse in the state. A quarter of all residents were born outside the United States and less than half of residents are white. Thompson Jr. said thousands of voters had never cast ballots in a primary before, and voted in the hopes of seeing more broad representation on the five-person board of commissioners. Three white Republicans are not seeking reelection and two Democrats — one Black and one Asian — are not on the ballot this year.

“There’s been systemic racism in the system through the years,” he said. “Hopefully, we can start solving those problems. It’s going to involve people who were in positions of leadership to step aside and let new folks take over.”

If she does win the runoff, Hendrickson will face Republican David Post, who is white, in November.

With his move, Thompson Jr. said he hopes to mobilize Democrats behind Hendrickson and avoid a prolonged fight.

For her part, Hendrickson said she thought it was important for leaders to have lived experience that reflects the diversity of communities they represent. It makes them more likely to create policies that will help people, she said.

As the county continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, as well as protests regarding race and police brutality, Hendrickson said she thinks it’s important for people to feel safe in their community.

“So long as white community members are leading efforts without lived experiences, how can they create policy that includes the needs, desires, wants of all people?” she asked. “It’s incredibly important to re-position all leadership, at all levels.”