OPINION: With tide turning against Gwinnett GOP, a sneak attack emerges

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, shown at a board meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021, looks a lot different than it did just a few years ago. County Commissioner Kirkland Carden (left) is one of the critics of a surprise GOP push to double the size of the Gwinnett county commission. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, shown at a board meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021, looks a lot different than it did just a few years ago. County Commissioner Kirkland Carden (left) is one of the critics of a surprise GOP push to double the size of the Gwinnett county commission. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Call it the rattling death gasps of the GOP in Gwinnett County.

Earlier in the week, a freshman Republican senator from Gwinnett sprung some legislation that would double the size of the county commission and strip the R’s and D’s from the ballot when residents go to the polls voting for school board members. I use the term “sprung” because until Monday the bill was shrouded in the kind of secrecy once afforded the Manhattan Project.

Democrats immediately hollered, saying this was a devious and unscrupulous bit of legislative trickery to snatch power from minority voters who in the past two election cycles have finally — and firmly — taken control of the wheels of power in Gwinnett.

Before 2018′s election, all five county commissioners were white folks of the Republican persuasion. Today, four of the board members are Black and one is of Asian descent. The school board went from five whites in 2018 to two today. Another election is next year and could wipe the slate clean. Of white Republicans, that is.

Besides doubling the size of the county commission, the legislation calls for its chairperson to only cast votes to break ties. The chair — now held by Nicole Love Hendrickson, a Democrat and the first Black woman to hold the seat — currently votes alongside commissioners on the majority of agenda items.

Democrats are accusing their Republican counterparts of subterfuge, hypocrisy and discrimination.

“It’s sneaky, unprofessional, even weaselly,” said County Commissioner Kirkland Carden, who was one of three Democrats elected last year to that board. “Why now? Why is the state Legislature wanting to dilute the county commission? When this county was all Republican, you never heard anything like this.”

Caption
Four Republican state senators, including Clint Dixon (left), vote in committee for a bill to change how school board members are voted on in Gwinnett County. (Courtesy of Georgia Legislative video)

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Four Republican state senators, including Clint Dixon (left), vote in committee for a bill to change how school board members are voted on in Gwinnett County. (Courtesy of Georgia Legislative video)
Caption
Four Republican state senators, including Clint Dixon (left), vote in committee for a bill to change how school board members are voted on in Gwinnett County. (Courtesy of Georgia Legislative video)

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Well, actually, you did. In 2017, state Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, wanted to add two seats to the commission to give minority candidates a shot at snagging some representation. However, the county’s legislative delegation, then still led by Republicans, shrugged and let the effort die. Democrats say Marin’s effort was different, that he did it in broad daylight.

But now the wingtip is on the other foot and Republicans are in a rush to push through legislation that might help get some of their political comrades back into local office. Gwinnett’s legislative delegation has also turned Democratic in the past three years, so the county’s few remaining Republican lawmakers (just six of the 25) have cooked up this plot. They are bypassing the local legislation route and have brought these two bills to the full Legislature, where the GOP still holds sway. The bills passed out of committee this week, by party-line votes, and will head on for further argument.

The senator who brought these bills forward told the Senate panel there were “no shenanigans or trickery included” in the effort.

I spoke with him later and he repeated the purity of his motives. “It’s not set out to be a sweeping power grab for Republicans,” said state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Sneaky Hollow. “I’ve got constituents who’ve pressed me hard saying they don’t feel represented.”

Dixon says the county commission districts are too big, what with only four district commissioners and each one having to look after almost 250,000 constituents. That would be hard for anyone, even a coffee-infused Mary Norwood.

And Dixon added that school board seats should be nonpartisan, telling his colleagues that the schools have been the site of too much polarization. There have been shouting matches about masks and grumbling about “critical race theory” in recent months. The fact the school board now has a majority of Black members and the new superintendent is African American has no doubt caused a number of white residents to worry the curriculum will start leaning left.

Dixon is not wrong about nonpartisan seats. I think they should be that. But one suspects the real reason is that Republicans know having an R after your name on a ballot in Gwinnett is electoral disaster. Perhaps white conservatives might have more of a shot of sneaking onto the school board without the burden of that R.

Caption
State Sen. Clint Dixon addresses a Senate panel concerning changes he wants in Gwinnett County elections. Gwinnett school board Chairman Everton Blair, seated behind him, opposes the measure. (Courtesy of Georgia Legislative video)

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

State Sen. Clint Dixon addresses a Senate panel concerning changes he wants in Gwinnett County elections. Gwinnett school board Chairman Everton Blair, seated behind him, opposes the measure. (Courtesy of Georgia Legislative video)
Caption
State Sen. Clint Dixon addresses a Senate panel concerning changes he wants in Gwinnett County elections. Gwinnett school board Chairman Everton Blair, seated behind him, opposes the measure. (Courtesy of Georgia Legislative video)

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

As to the county commission, several people testifying at the Senate committee hearings Wednesday and Thursday liked to talk about how “diverse” the county is and how the elected board now reflects that. Gwinnett is a racial and sociological gumbo. In 1990, when voters shot down a bid to bring MARTA to the county, there were 353,000 residents, 89% of whom were white. Now, the population is about 35% white, 30% Black, 22% Hispanic and 12.5% Asian.

The commission is now 80% Black, 20% Asian and 0% white. It’s a far cry from the 100% white just three-plus years ago. Remember, this is Gwinnett County, home to Ronald Reagan Parkway and once the shining light on the hill to Georgia’s GOP. Now the Republicans there are left fighting for scraps and having to be wily in doing that.

Pendulum shifts can be brutal.

Lynette Howard, a former Republican commissioner who was defeated in 2018, felt that seismic shift. In 2014, she won her post 61% to 39%. Four years later, she lost 54%-46%. She attributes that to two things: the ground game for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and former Republican Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who called then-Atlanta Congressman John Lewis a “racist pig.”

Hunter’s comment in early 2017 brought sustained protests at commission meetings for more than a year. “The protests never diminished,” Howard said. “That galvanized and activated them like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat, noted in Thursday’s hearing that five of the nine districts proposed by the Republicans would have white pluralities, with 51%, 43%, 49%, 31% and 26%. Yes, 26%. That district would be roughly a quarter white, Black, Hispanic and Asian, a true mix of modern America. Three districts would have pluralities that are Black.

But according to the maps, just two of the nine districts were areas that went for Donald Trump in 2020.

So, Dixon’s contention that this is not “a sweeping power grab for Republicans” is correct. It’s simply an effort for them to worm their way into a sliver of representation.

Everton Blair, chairman of the school board and the first Black person elected to that body, complained that this effort is “both a surprise and is rushed.”

However, he seemed not to worry too much for the long term. “It’s bad faith, bad practice, bad precedent, but we’re still going to win,” he said. “Whatever they’re doing is not going to last.”

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