Former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones headed for state House win

Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones headed for a comeback victory Tuesday, winning a seat in the Georgia House. Jones served in the state House from 1993-2001 before getting elected to run DeKalb County’s government. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones headed for a comeback victory Tuesday, winning a seat in the Georgia House. Jones served in the state House from 1993-2001 before getting elected to run DeKalb County’s government. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones completed a political comeback Tuesday, winning a seat in the Georgia House, where he once served for nearly a decade.

Also Tuesday, a metro Atlanta state senator lost her re-election bid, and a longtime South Georgia state House member who switched to the GOP in 2010 appeared in trouble. Two Gwinnett County lawmakers also were down in the early vote count.

Meanwhile, voters downstate re-elected an incumbent facing the wife of a state House leader, nixing the opportunity to give Georgia its first husband-and-wife legislative team in recent memory.

While the presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton got most of the attention this election season, state politicians were keeping a close eye on the dozens of lawmakers who faced re-election Tuesday.

Most won easily, and the majority Republican Party plowed big money into select races where they thought incumbents were vulnerable or where they thought they could pick up seats.

They appeared to pick up a seat held by the House’s only independent, Rusty Kidd, who retired this year. Milledgeville funeral director Ricky Williams beat former Democratic state Sen. Floyd Griffin for that post.

When the 2016 General Assembly session ended, House Republicans were a couple of seats short of having a two-thirds majority, and the Senate was a couple of seats above that goal. Having a two-thirds majority is important in the Legislature because it means the GOP can pass proposed constitutional amendments without Democratic support.

Sen. JaNice Van Ness, R-Conyers, lost her seat to former Democratic state Rep. Tonya Anderson. Van Ness narrowly beat Anderson last year in a special election for a seat held in the past by Democrats.

DeKalb County’s Jones had run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and county sheriff since ending his second term as CEO in 2008. He served in the House from 1993-2001.

Jones was a controversial figure when he led DeKalb County. A special grand jury in 2013 recommended an investigation of Jones for bid-rigging and theft when he was CEO, but District Attorney Robert James said earlier this year that he lacked evidence to show any crimes had occurred.

Democratic Rep. Taylor Bennett of Brookhaven appeared to be in big trouble in his race to hang on to the seat he unexpectedly won last year in a Republican-leaning district. He was facing a stiff challenge from lawyer Meagan Hanson, and the Republican led in late vote counting.

In Gwinnett County, Rep. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson, was behind in early vote counting against Democrat and chemical engineer Donna McLeod of Lawrenceville.

Chandler was in the news recently because the IRS has filed more than $500,000 in liens against her and her husband. Chandler denies they owe as much as the IRS says.

A former Gwinnett lawmaker, Republican Clay Cox of Lilburn, was trying to return to the state House. Cox served in the House from 2005 to 2011 before leaving to run, unsuccessfully, for Congress. His race was close in early vote counting.

Downstate, Rep. Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta, beat Republican Deidra White, the wife of House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla.

Sharper’s district was overwhelmingly won by President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election and was always expected to be a tough district for any Republican to win.

But White raised more than 10 times as much money as Sharper, including about $55,000 from Powell’s colleagues, lobbyists and Capitol special interests. More than 90 percent of her money came from those groups.

Also downstate, longtime Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, who switched parties in 2010, appeared in trouble in his toss-up district against former Americus Mayor Bill McGowan. Cheokas has raised more than $152,000 since the General Assembly session ended in March, almost all of it coming from lawmakers and Statehouse special interests. But the district has been closely contested in past races.