Democratic Georgia Senate retirements open seats for first time in decades

Democratic state Sens. Horacena Tate of Atlanta, from left, Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain and Valencia Seay of Riverdale are all retiring from the Georgia Senate this year after each served at least 20 years in office. AJC file photos

Credit: Maya Prabhu

Credit: Maya Prabhu

Democratic state Sens. Horacena Tate of Atlanta, from left, Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain and Valencia Seay of Riverdale are all retiring from the Georgia Senate this year after each served at least 20 years in office. AJC file photos

When three metro Atlanta Democrats retire from the state Senate at the end of this term, the chamber will lose more than 60 years of institutional knowledge, harkening back to when Georgia Democrats still controlled it.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, and state Sens. Valencia Seay of Riverdale and Horacena Tate of Atlanta all announced their resignations earlier this year. Each has been in office more than 20 years.

Senate Democrats lost power shortly after the three senators joined the chamber, which vastly limited the impact the trio could have on the state.

Now, their departure creates an opening for new leadership for the first time in decades. As a result, 20 people — 18 Democrats and two Republicans — have signed up across Districts 34, 38 and 55 to fill the seats being vacated. Tuesday’s primary will be especially vital to Democrats, who are expected to easily retain all three seats.

Several candidates said they respect the work each lawmaker has contributed and are eager to bring change to the state, while others say the retirements were long overdue.

They point to Tate, who has rarely been seen in the chamber since 2020. In 2021, Tate missed the entire session. At the time, Tate told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a statement that she began treatment for an illness in December 2020 and was hospitalized. She did not specify her illness, other than to say that it was not COVID-19.

Tate, 68, is the daughter of former state Sen. Horace Tate, who served 16 years in the chamber and has a section of I-75 named after him. The elder Tate died in 2002.

“For a woman to be able to hold this seat (for decades), that is an incredibly powerful, impactful opportunity for whoever comes next,” said Nkoyo Lewis, who is running for Tate’s seat.

Tate, who was elected to the same district as her father, returned to the chamber in 2022 and was reelected that year for another term. She was not present for much of the 2023 legislative session and was on the Senate floor a handful of times this year.

That absence was a detriment to her constituents, said Ralph Long III, who served in the Georgia House from 2009 to 2013.

“She got sick. She couldn’t go to the session,” said Long, who is vying to take over her seat. “That was three years of not being able to vote on our behalf. Her absence in voting has cost us.”

Tate did not respond to an AJC interview request.

Butler, 82, became the first Black woman to be caucus leader when she was selected by her peers in 2020 after serving 19 years in various caucus leadership roles. When she was elected to Senate District 55 in 1998, she told herself she wouldn’t stay in the chamber more than 10 years.

Her proudest legislative accomplishment came as a freshman lawmaker, when she sponsored a bill that made it easier for people needing inhalers to get them through their insurance, she said. Shortly after, she also passed a bill that allowed students to carry their inhalers, instead of having to leave them with a school nurse.

“Somehow, you tend to forget about those things until they remind you — and it makes you feel good to help someone,” Butler said. “Plus, I liked the job.”

Butler attempted to navigate the partisan gridlock but was unable to pass key Democratic priorities, such as enrolling more people in government health care plans. Expanding Medicaid, the public health program that provides care to people with low incomes or disabilities, to more people who don’t have insurance is one thing Butler said she is disappointed she wasn’t able to achieve before leaving office.

Candidates vying to replace the outgoing senators are trying to differentiate themselves from the packed crowd. Several have either served as an elected official or been an advocate.

The three senators’ retirements “open the door for greater opportunities,” said former state Rep. Valencia Stovall, who is running for Seay’s seat.

Butler’s open Senate district, which includes parts of DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, has drawn five Democratic and one Republican candidate. She hasn’t endorsed a successor.

Robin Biro, a government consultant and U.S. Army veteran who lives in Tucker, said state Sen. Kim Jackson, a Pine Lake Democrat, encouraged him to run to succeed Butler.

“I think (Jackson) just knew that I could bring that fighting spirit,” Biro said. “I feel (Butler) when she describes the burnout of trying to reach out across the aisle at people who are unwilling to hear her out, unwilling to even listen. That’s where I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll listen to me. I’m a veteran.’ ”

Seay entered politics by serving on Clayton County’s school board for eight years. She was nervous about running, but her pastor persuaded her to go forward as a representative of her community.

“It was new, and it was a little bit frightening,” she said.

Seay, 70, was elected to the Georgia House in 2002, serving two years before switching chambers and winning election in a Senate district representing Clayton County and south Atlanta voters.

She said the Senate chamber “has become a boys club,” and “from my perspective, a lot more mean-spirited.”

Often, “it was just a no-win situation,” she said. “One or two of the men would make remarks that I found not only offensive, but something that somebody who is leading our great state should not have in their vocabulary.”

But Seay said she’s still committed to public service.

“It’s been a journey,” she said. “Nobody said it would be easy. But if you’re called, you answer the call.”

One of the candidates answering the call is Herman “Drew” Andrews, a Jonesboro resident who serves on the Clayton County Library Board of Trustees.

Andrews, who unsuccessfully ran two years ago for a vacant House seat, said district residents need leaders who are established figures in the community.

“(Seay) has cemented her legacy,” he said, “and it’s time for a new one.”

This article was updated to correct Gloria Butler’s title.