Unterman’s exit spurs six in Gwinnett to vie for open state Senate seat

For the first time in a generation, Georgia Senate District 45 is an open seat, and half a dozen candidates on both sides of the aisle want to claim it as their own.

Three Democrats and three Republicans are running in the June 9 primary in hopes of succeeding state Sen. Renee Unterman, who is stepping away from the Senate after 18 years to run for Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

Democrats sense an opportunity in the 45th District, which covers the northern, more rural half of Gwinnett County, including Buford, Dacula and Sugar Hill. In 2018, for the first time in years, they won a majority of the county’s seats in the two chambers of the General Assembly. Running in their primary are Ernie Anaya, Matielyn Jones and Richard Smith.

But Republicans see it remaining the same conservative stronghold that has been represented since 2003 by Unterman, whose legislative achievements included her work last year in guiding the state’s “heartbeat” abortion law through the Senate. The GOP primary features Sammy Baker, Clint Dixon and Noemi Puntier.


Unterman handily won re-election in 2018 — the first time since at least 2008 that she had faced a challenger — beating Democrat Jana Rodgers by 16 percentage points.

But some Democrats, including Jones, believe that race signals untapped potential for her party.

“(Rodgers) did a very small campaign, self-funded, only spent about $2,000, and she still got 42% of the vote,” Jones said. “That shows me there is an appetite for a Democrat and for a progressive here.”

Jones, an educator from Buford, said her stance as a “Christian progressive” can appeal not just to typical Democratic voters, but religious people who may not see their faith fully reflected in the Republican Party.

“For too long, there has been the association that Christian identity is connected to conservatism. It’s time to remind people that we don’t always agree on how those principles are executed in practice,” Jones said. “It’s important to have balance and remind people that there’s not a prescriptive way to vote if you’re a person of faith. … Some of our best political movements were organized by black progressive Christians. The Martin Luther Kings, the John Lewises, that entire generation were black Christian progressives leading our country and making sure the words in our Constitution applied to everyone, not just a select few.”

Jones has long been involved with Democratic politics, working on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in North Carolina and being an active member of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party. She believes political experience in a swing state and a politically evolving county will help her flip the 45th.

“I saw the work that it takes to do it,” Jones said. “My district is more purple than blue, but it could easily be blue in a few years. We just haven’t spoken enough to the purple that is here.”

Smith also feels his message can reach across the aisle in the 45th District. He sees his priorities — including increasing state tax revenue through legalizing marijuana and gambling — as issues that can appeal to more than just Democrats. As Georgia braces for a hit to its revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, that argument is more salient than ever, he said.

“Even before the pandemic hit Georgia, it was nothing but budget cuts we were dealing with in the General Assembly,” Smith said. “Even more so now it will be like that and continue to be like that for the next couple of years. I think politicians are focused on more national aspects of our politics, but we need to focus on generating more state revenue.”

This is Smith’s second run at public office — he ran as an independent for state House District 102 in 2018. The “grueling process” of getting on the ballot the first time motivated him to keep trying. If he were to win the Senate seat, he said, making ballot access easier for candidates would be a top priority.

Economic issues are top of mind for Anaya. His three-pronged plan focuses on growing new, tech-focused companies and jobs in Gwinnett, creating a “green economy” to combat climate change and lowering health care costs. Anaya did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking an interview.


While Democrats are eager to flip the 45th, Republicans see the district remaining red. Baker believes voters are looking for someone with “common sense” and “conservative values.”

The owner of a pest control business, Baker said he can take lessons learned from the private sector and apply them to make the state more efficient.

One of Baker’s ultimate goals if he makes it under the Gold Dome is to usher in term limits. He believes public officials should serve no longer than eight years in a position in order to keep fresh ideas flowing and decrease the influence of special-interest groups. He plans to hold himself to the same standard, whether or not term limits are passed.

“Sometimes people stay in power to stay in power, not to achieve goals,” Baker said. “Once those goals are achieved and moved forward, new people can come in.”

Dixon also hopes to be an independent voice for the district’s residents.

“I think the voters are looking for some new, energetic, conservative leadership in the area,” said Dixon, a Buford real estate entrepreneur. “They want someone who will put our families first in every decision and not be beholden to interest groups or petty politics.”

This is Dixon’s first run for public office, but he’s served in government before as a board member for the Gwinnett Water and Sewerage Authority and on the Gwinnett County Planning Commission. By the end of nine years on the commission, Dixon had reached the role of vice chair.

Dixon is a strong believer in local control and believes “innovative traffic solutions” would be a better fix to congestion in Gwinnett than a MARTA expansion; most precincts in the 45th District helped defeat the county’s 2019 transit referendum, with many voting against it by a 2-to-1 margin. Dixon cites previously proposed traffic plans, including extending Ronald Reagan Parkway and Sugarloaf Parkway, as potential solutions.

Puntier, a Hoschton attorney, also brings her personal experience into the campaign. Running her own law firm has led her to support cutting regulations that affect small businesses, and becoming a U.S. citizen after immigrating from the Dominican Republic as a child reinforces her support of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Puntier did not respond to calls or emails requesting an interview.

Early voting for all primary elections is underway, and election day is June 9. Ballots can be cast in person, or absentee ballots can be mailed or dropped in one of the county’s nine drop boxes.