Primary opposition is nothing new for state Rep. Erica Thomas, a Mableton Democrat running for her fourth term.
She’s faced an opponent in every House District 39 race since she first was elected in 2014.
But this year, after a national spotlight garnered Thomas some negative attention last summer, her opponent has called her temperament into question. Thomas said she is passionate about her work and has put the incident behind her.
Thomas drew national headlines last year when she posted a video on social media after a man berated her for having too many items in the quick checkout lane of a grocery store and she said he told her to "go back" to where she came from. The man denied making the statement, and Thomas later appeared to hedge her comments by saying he made "those types of references."
Thomas, at the time, was two weeks away from giving birth to her second child, she said, and didn’t want to undergo additional stress, opting to move on.
“This (election) is about the work, it’s not about something that can get blown out of proportion by the media,” said Thomas, who held a press conference to talk about the incident after posting it on social media. “I think that’s the biggest thing about running for office — doing the work for the last six years and not about what happened last summer.”
Terry Cummings, a first-time candidate who is challenging Thomas, said the incumbent did not handle the confrontation well.
“I had absolutely no issue with what happened the day of the issue, because that guy had absolutely no business approaching her,” Cummings said.
However, Cummings said she faulted Thomas for posting the video accusing the man of using racially charged language. “That was poor judgment,” she said. “And then to come back the following day in 90-degree weather when you’re pregnant and call a news conference was just poor judgment. It blew it totally out of proportion.”
Rich Pellegrino, a Mableton activist, said even though he is friends with Thomas, he believes in term limits and was open to supporting Cummings this time. But, he said, he doesn’t like that Cummings has made last year’s incident at the grocery store a focal point of her campaign and is supporting Thomas again this year.
“(Cummings) sent out a mailer that was just nasty,” Pellegrino said. “I was going to do my due diligence and consider voting for her, but seeing this mailer, I just can’t support that kind of campaigning.”
Cassandra Brown, an information technology sales director and Cummings supporter who lives in Mableton, said she was already turned off by the grocery store incident when she met Cummings through a mutual friend.
“We don’t need a ‘shrill’ black woman out here making unsubstantiated claims,” said Brown, who is black. “It feeds into a negative image and stereotype. (Cummings) has a better temperament. And she has the skills based on her prior role at the Department of Justice.”
Cummings said the incident at the grocery store was one of several reasons the retired U.S. Department of Justice attorney decided to run for office, including a desire to use her experience to help with revamping the criminal justice system.
Since retiring, she’s worked to help people who’ve been released from prison find jobs through career fairs.
“It’s a complete 180 from what I used to do,” Cummings said.
She also said she wants to find ways to support people who have been evicted by passing legislation that would require belongings to be stored for a period of time instead of placed outside the residence.
Thomas, a marketing consultant and children’s book author, said she prides herself on her accessibility and her record of community outreach through events such as Mother’s Day teas, back-to-school giveaways and providing Thanksgiving meals.
“For me, legislation is three months out of the year,” said Thomas, who is vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus. “But the biggest thing for me is being out in the community.”
Thomas’ campaign is also under some scrutiny after either missing filing deadlines or filing incomplete documents. Thomas has not reported any contributions since before the 2018 primary, but a search of campaign filing records found she’s received at least $33,000 in contributions from lobbyists, political action committees, businesses and other candidates since then.
Thomas said she has hired an accountant to update her campaign reports.
This year, Thomas said, she is running without any funding. State law prohibits lawmakers from accepting donations while the Legislature is in session, and she said she had no money in her campaign account heading into January. Lawmakers suspended the session in mid-March in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Cummings has reported raising about $21,000, including a $1,000 donation from her husband on May 6. An April 30 filing showed her having negative $217 in her campaign account.
The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will face Republican Jim Hickey in November.