Metro Atlanta incumbents draw challenges from the left — even in ‘burbs

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, left, is a veteran Republican operative. This year, he's facing competition from Dontaye Carter, an outspoken liberal, as Democrats are fielding candidates for local government offices that were once held by staunch conservatives. Credit Keven Lowery; Image of Rusty Paul Credit Bob Andres

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, left, is a veteran Republican operative. This year, he's facing competition from Dontaye Carter, an outspoken liberal, as Democrats are fielding candidates for local government offices that were once held by staunch conservatives. Credit Keven Lowery; Image of Rusty Paul Credit Bob Andres

Three years ago, Democrats flipped a slate of suburban legislative seats once considered so conservative that many Republican incumbents never faced a challenge. Now, left-leaning candidates are targeting municipal races across metro Atlanta in places once thought to be staunchly conservative.

Politicos, candidates and experts all agree that shifting demographics and backlash against national Republican politics have given Democrats a realistic chance to challenge incumbents in nonpartisan races in the ‘burbs.

In Sandy Springs, the veteran Republican operative who has served as mayor for two terms faces a challenge from an outspoken liberal. Democrats have effectively formed a team to compete in the wealthy north Fulton County town of Johns Creek. The party is fiercely competing to win a mayor’s race in Tucker and council posts in suburbs across the Northside.

“We don’t have off years anymore,” said Adrienne White, the state Democratic Party’s vice chair of candidate recruitment. “People are stepping up to run in their communities, and they’re stepping up to reflect their values.”

Republicans have taken note, too. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul remarked on the Democratic “surge in the suburbs” caused by the nationalization of local suburban politics and changing social values. He wondered aloud about the effect of New York or Illinois transplants or film workers from California “bringing the politics with them” from the states they fled.

“They have this sense that this is where the country is going,” he said. “But we’ll see on Tuesday.”

Democrats have already managed to flip the suburbs in presidential and statewide races, along with winning many countywide posts. Brenda Lopez Romero, who heads the Gwinnett County Democrats, said it makes sense to intensify a focus on down-ticket races.

“These seats are closest to the issues and polices that people most care about,” she said. “They help create a bench for the party. And they help elect people more aligned with our county’s values.”

Adrienne White -- shown in 2016 with Anne Holton, the wife of Tim Kaine, the then-Democratic candidate for vice president -- is the state Democratic Party's vice chair of candidate recruitment. She says teh party is seeing more of its members running in down-ticket races. “People are stepping up to run in their communities, and they’re stepping up to reflect their values,” White said. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

While much of the local and national attention will inevitably focus on the race for Atlanta mayor, these down-ticket contests will also help shape the region’s direction. And both parties are pouring in resources to compete.

Democratic activists and volunteers have made more than 35,000 calls and tapped out more than 125,000 texts encouraging supporters to turn out ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Volunteers with the Republican National Committee spent the past weekend making calls and knocking on doors to mobilize GOP voters in Dacula, Johns Creek and Roswell.

And this past Tuesday, the RNC hosted an event in Gwinnett that featured small business owners critical of President Joe Biden’s administration and a plea for GOP voters to stay engaged.

“We feel there’s going to be a sea change,” said Matthew Holtkamp, the owner of a heating and air conditioning company who predicted distress with Biden’s policies will trickle down to lower-profile contests. “Everything that’s going on right now will be reflected in the next election.”

Matthew Holtkamp, the owner of a Gwinnett County heating and air conditioning company who participated in a Republican National Committee round table of businessmen who oppose President Joe Biden's policies, says what's going on nationally could have implications in local elections Tuesday. “We feel there’s going to be a sea change,” Holtkamp said. “Everything that’s going on right now will be reflected in the next election.”

Credit: File

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Credit: File

‘An extreme wedge’

The last election cycle gave Democrats a foundation to build on.

Nearly every precinct south of the I-75/85 split leaned toward Biden during the 2020 presidential race, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal Constitution. The three southern precincts that did go for Donald Trump were Chattahoochee Hills precincts that drew less than 400 voters.

And in the inner suburbs, Democrats improved on their solid 2016 performance, capturing Cobb, Gwinnett and Henry counties by wide margins in statewide races. That helped make Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992, and it fueled the flip of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats earlier this year.

These local races have become a laboratory of the tactics expected to surface in 2022. Candidates in some races are emphasizing anti-immigration stances, an issue that’s guided by federal and not local policy. Others have vilified Stacey Abrams, the Democratic leader who is expected to run for governor next year.

And Republican groups and their allies have sent tough-on-crime messages that critics see as racist dog whistles. A flyer that the Fulton GOP sent to conservative-leaning voters in Sandy Springs was replete with stock photos of protesters in other states under the headline: “We can’t let Sandy Springs turn into Atlanta.”

And residents in Johns Creek, where the median household income rises well above six figures, received mailers from an unknown source that warned of a “partisan group targeting Johns Creek to radically change our quality of life.”

“It draws an extreme wedge in our community,” said Dontaye Carter, a former Fulton Democratic official vying to oust Paul, a Republican, as mayor of Sandy Springs.

He accused Republicans of amplifying anti-crime messages to target his candidacy because he’s Black.

“They haven’t exactly said those words, but why else would you align me with crime?” Carter said.

Fulton GOP Chairman Trey Kelly said there’s no racial bias involved in the flyer, which carries his organization’s logo. He said the party is trying to energize supporters “running as a slate” in north Fulton cities in elections that are traditionally nonpartisan. Paul said the Democratic rivals running next week are some of the most liberal to ever run in Georgia.

The tactic has also infuriated Brian Weaver, a Black law enforcement professional with four decades of experience. The Democrat was one of the first hires of the Johns Creek Police Department shortly after it became a city, and he’s now running for an open mayoral seat.

He said his rivals are putting “conspiracy theories out there that place fear in people.”

John Bradberry, whose Johns Creek mayoral bid is supported by the Fulton GOP, denied being involved with the flyer. He told the AJC he believes a group of residents who don’t want Democratic-aligned candidates taking over the city created it.

‘At every level’

There are other flashpoints across the suburbs. Cobb Democrats are competing in a sweep of local races, often mining advisory boards and oversight committees for potential candidates, party officials say.

One of the five candidates for Peachtree City mayor, in Republican Fayette County, is being labeled a “socialist” because he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and doesn’t oppose denser developments such as purchasable multifamily housing — the kind of pedestrian things that barely blip on radars in Atlanta.

“I’m not going to apologize for taking that stance when half of my Christmas photo is brown and dark,” said Nick Ferrante, whose wife is Jamaican.

Ferrante, the only nonretiree running for mayor in Peachtree City, has Libertarian leanings and cut his ties to the GOP over the past four years. “They left me long before I decided to leave them,” he said.

Steve Brown, the former Peachtree City mayor, said non-Republican challengers became rare after the Republican wave took over Georgia in the early 2000s. But, he said, Ferrante seriously threatens the values of many locals.

“It’s been a pretty conservative city by Georgia standards,” Brown said. “And I think he’s just kind of awakened something in the voting population.”

‘Frustrated’

DeKalb County Democrats are backing more than a half-dozen candidates for local races, including in Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville.

But John Jackson, the county party’s chair, is particularly attentive to the mayoral race in Tucker. That contest is driving the highest turnout in DeKalb now and pits incumbent Frank Auman, a former DeKalb GOP chair, against Robin Biro, a veteran Democratic operative.

“We can’t let the Republicans build their bench off of nonpartisan offices. That’s why we’re contesting them at every level,” Jackson said. “We find that these races are just as important as the presidential election and the runoffs.”

Frank Auman, left, is a former DeKalb County Republican Party chairman. He's facing Robin Biro, a Democratic operative, in the race to be mayor of Tucker.

Credit: Frank Auman / Robin Biro

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Credit: Frank Auman / Robin Biro

Sometimes, the electoral clash threatens to deepen a rift among Democrats.

South Fulton City Councilman Khalid Kamau, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is among three challenging incumbent Mayor Bill Edwards, a more traditional Democrat who represented the area on the County Commission before the city formed in 2017.

Kamau said he worries that as Democrats contest more seats in the suburbs “they are also shifting the Democratic Party itself” toward more centrist ground. He and other liberal candidates have started a “millennial leaders” group chat of those willing to challenge the party establishment.

“I think whether we all prevail or not, the number of us that are competing is in itself an expression of an electorate that is frustrated with the status quo,” Kamau said. “Win, lose, draw, folks have to pay attention to that.”


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