Jennifer Hulsey, former chairwoman of the Polk County Board of Commissioners, is challenging state House Majority Whip Trey Kelley of Cedartown in the Republican primary.

Primary rival focuses on taxes, not lawmaker’s part in ‘tragic situation’

A northwest Georgia lawmaker who made headlines earlier this year for his involvement after a fatal hit-and-run is facing his first primary challenge since being elected nearly a decade ago. His opponent is the woman he defeated in 2012.

After a man hit a bicyclist and left the scene, he called his friend state House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican, according to police documents. Instead of calling 911, Kelley, who is a lawyer, called the Cedartown police chief, who also didn’t call 911, records show.

The bicyclist, Eric Keais, died from his injuries — a death ruled “homicide by vehicle” by the Polk County coroner.

Kelley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he did not initially call 911 because he didn’t know exactly what happened.

“At that time, I still did not know another human being was involved,” he said in a statement. “I fully cooperated with law enforcement.”

Kelley’s Republican primary opponent, Jennifer Hulsey, said she’s made a point not to focus on the lawmaker’s involvement in the September 2019 incident.

“It’s just a tragic situation,” said Hulsey, who resigned from her post as chairwoman of the Polk County Board of Commissioners to run for Kelley’s state House seat. “My heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved.”

The local district attorney planned to present the case to a Polk County grand jury in March, but the coronavirus pandemic has suspended court proceedings.

Kelley declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said his focus has been on helping his constituents navigate needs during the pandemic, such as securing personal protective equipment and getting unemployment, not on his re-election campaign.

“While I am certainly putting in the time, energy, and effort into campaign activities, I’m confident that the best way to earn someone’s vote is to do the job they elected me to do,” he said.

Hulsey supporter Hal Floyd said he hasn’t heard any area residents speak ill of Kelley and his involvement after the fatal hit-and-run, with most waiting to see the results from the grand jury.

“People will wonder what did go on and what did happen. I think there’s some concern that people want to know,” Floyd said. “Everybody is going to have to look down and reach into their heart when they vote.”

Hulsey, a retired middle school teacher, said since her 2012 loss, she’s gotten a better idea of the needs of her district — which lies in Polk, Bartow and Haralson counties — by serving in local government. Kelley defeated Hulsey with nearly 58% of the votes cast.

Despite state law preventing Kelley from accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session, he has far outraised Hulsey. The Legislature suspended the session in March to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Kelley reported having about $65,000 in his campaign account as of last week. He’s raised almost $292,000 for the 2020 election.

Hulsey has raised a fraction of that, reporting about $5,000 in cash on hand and bringing in about $17,000 throughout the campaign.

Democrat Lyndsay Arrendale will face the winner of the June Republican primary.

Hulsey said she believes creativity in campaigning during the pandemic will help her.

“I think that the most important thing is that I’m able to get my message to the voters. I don’t think it costs $300,000 to do that,” she said. “The bottom line is that I’m going to be working every day as I have — reaching out to our constituents and reaching out to all those in our district and letting them know I am the best candidate for the job.”

Hulsey said she feels as though Kelley hasn’t been in tune with the beliefs of people in the staunchly Republican district, many of whom oppose any tax increases. Polk County residents overwhelmingly supported Brian Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race, giving 79% of the vote to the Republican.

Hulsey hit Kelley for his support of a sales tax implemented this year that forces “marketplace facilitators” whose websites or apps are used to sell goods or services provided by someone else to collect and remit sales taxes. That, she said, went against the wishes of those in the district who don’t support tax increases. Supporters say those taxes were already owed, they just weren’t being collected.

“I think that through my experience as a county commissioner, it’s helped me to see some of the things that might not be as visible,” she said.

For example, she said she’s worked to upgrade the county’s emergency call system and, when she was still teaching, established a mentorship program for students.

Floyd, a Polk County commissioner, said Hulsey’s tenacity is what better suits her for the job.

“She’s a very bold individual. She’s aggressive, but in a good way,” he said. “I’m confident that she’ll do the right thing, the just thing and fair thing for our county.”

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