In Athens, a political ‘earthquake’ shakes as Democrats shift to left

A recent protest in downtown Athens, the scene of a “political earthquake” in Georgia’s May primary vote. Curtis Compton/

A recent protest in downtown Athens, the scene of a “political earthquake” in Georgia’s May primary vote. Curtis Compton/

They’re calling it the great political earthquake. And the other day, the victors of the upheaval gathered at a local library to celebrate — and prepare for the challenging terrain ahead.

“We are moving to a new era of Athens politics,” said Mariah Parker, a hip-hop artist and doctoral student in linguistics who is now one of Athens-Clarke County’s newest commissioners.

That’s no hyperbole. Georgia Democrats overwhelmingly endorsed a slate of more progressive candidates in May, headlined by Stacey Abrams for governor, but no place leaned further to the left than Athens. And it’s here where the limits of the party’s shift will be tested as the victors prepare to govern.

Voters offered a preview of the liberal lurch last year, when frustrated Democrats exiled the mayor from the county party for cozying up to the GOP — and then soundly defeated two Republicans in special election contests in districts considered so conservative that no Democrats had bothered to run in years past.

In the May primary, though, the real revolution came. Voters elected five new commissioners and a new mayor, rejecting contenders considered too moderate and replacing them with progressives promising a liberal overhaul.

The remake continued further down the ticket, where voters ousted a former Republican lawmaker tapped by Gov. Nathan Deal for a judgeship and tossed out a school board member. Nearly every candidate endorsed by a powerful new progressive group was swept into office.

They ran on expansive platforms that offered a local twist of the policies pushed by Abrams, who broke with decades of party strategy by veering away from centrist stances on some of the state’s biggest divides.

They promise no-fare bus services, more affordable housing, stronger environmental rules, friendlier policies toward immigrants and new civil rights protections. And they seized on frustrations of voters in this Democratic stronghold, where politics was long dominated by more mainstream candidates.

The victories show the fruits of the kind of robust get-out-the-vote strategy that Abrams and other Democratic leaders say can yield victories across the state. But they also point to the risks of alienating some voters — and the challenges in fulfilling the sweeping promises they campaigned on.

“They were effective and organized, and to the victors go the spoils,” said Doc Eldridge, a former Athens mayor and local chamber of commerce leader. “But it’s like the dog chasing the car — they have to govern now. And they’ll run into budgetary constraints, constituent concerns.”

The duality of Athens

Athens has always been a deeply Democratic bastion — the “blue island in a sea of red” axiom was uttered by more than one local activist — but a strange duality is at play here that has helped shape the city’s politics.

It is at once the home to the most progressive local government in Georgia and the backyard for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor who landed in the July 24 runoff against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle thanks to conservative stances on guns, immigration and abortion.

And Republicans have represented parts of Athens in the Georgia Legislature for more than a decade, relying on districts that include deeply conservative rural stretches outside the campus town. Locally, government was long run by more moderate Democrats wary of taking strident positions on some issues.

But the Occupy Wall Street movement earlier this decade helped forge a new brand of activist. Tim Denson, a leader of a local Occupy offshoot, waged a long-shot campaign against the mayor in 2014 and used his concession speech to launch a progressive movement whose seeds are flowering now.

The group, Athens for Everyone, recruited candidates, trained volunteers, staked out policy positions on affordable housing, poverty and other pressing community concerns, and hosted gatherings that attracted hundreds. The organization has grown so quickly it now boasts an office with two part-time staffers to coordinate its 1,200 members.

“We can win the governor’s race, but if we aren’t focused on local issues, it’s not enough. This change has to come from the ground up,” said Denson, who was elected as a commissioner in the May vote. “We had all these regular people who just came together and did it. And hopefully we can inspire others to do the same thing.”

‘What just happened?’

The shift to the left accelerated last year when two-term Mayor Nancy Denson — no relation to Tim Denson — was ousted from the local Democratic Party after more than three decades because she openly supported Republican Houston Gaines during his bid for a Georgia House seat.

A few months later, in a special election, voters defeated Gaines and other Republicans to install left-leaning Democrats in two House seats that had long been in GOP hands. Gaines, who is running again, is casting himself as a “reasonable” conservative.

“After Tuesday, I kept getting calls from people saying, ‘What just happened?’ The far left won these elections, and you’ve got to hand it to them,” said Gaines, a 23-year-old former student body president at the University of Georgia who ran Nancy Denson’s re-election campaign.

“But it’s a reminder we’ve got to do our part to make sure we’re keeping another voice at our table,” he said. “And it’s critical we have more responsible and reasonable people in government.”

The district he's aiming for, held by state Rep. Deborah Gonzalez, stretches east from Athens to more conservative rural territory. It's drawn to favor Republicans, but Gonzalez won with high turnout in Athens from liberal voters energized by her pitch to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage.

“The people I talk to understand now if you don’t get active, you lose,” said Eldridge, who was defeated in 2002 by a more liberal opponent. “You’ve got to tip your hat to them. They got people to the polls — and didn’t chase votes from people who weren’t going to give them.”

That echoes the strategy Abrams is pursuing to flip the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in 16 years, with a focus on trying to mobilize core Democratic voters rather than appealing to moderates who vote for Republicans.

In Athens, the tack to the left has paid dividends: Blake Aued, the news editor of Athens-based Flagpole Magazine, calculated that 72 percent of voters in the May 22 race picked up a Democratic ballot. That’s about 6 percentage points higher than usual.

“There’s definite energy and enthusiasm,” Aued said. “But it’s a lot easier to turn out 2,000 extra voters than it is to turn out an additional 200,000 — which is what Stacey Abrams needs. It will take such an incredible effort statewide, and that’s the November question for her.”

‘Everything got shaken’

The newly elected commissioners say their playbook is ripe for replication.

Russell Edwards, who beat two opponents without a runoff, said he grew tired of watching Atlanta and Clarkston lead the way on progressive issues such as decriminalization of marijuana and ending cash bail. He talked about a “live-and-let-live” policy for immigration and positioning Athens as a trailblazer for progressive issues.

“We had eight years of status quo,” he said. “Other cities have led the way, and it was time for us to act.”

Others were no less ebullient at a party meeting that doubled as a victory lap. To a standing-room-only crowd, Tim Denson talked about how his frustrations with the Democratic Party melted away with the voters’ embrace of progressive platforms.

“We just took over City Hall,” he said. “And we’re going to get things done, first and foremost.”

Parker, who goes by the stage name Linqua Franqa, may have had the toughest battle. She edged out an opponent who was handpicked by the retiring incumbent by 13 votes, turning her home near downtown Athens into a “tornado of electoral fury” with volunteers and supporters surging in and out.

She pledged to be a voice for her district, an economically struggling swath of east Athens that lacked some of the same amenities that other parts of town enjoyed. She knows, she added, that her election was the easy part.

“We pulled off incredible things here because we got tired of waiting around for a hero to save us,” Parker said. “Everyday folks can go out and do this work.

“It’s an earthquake. Everything got shaken up. But it needed to.”