Rockdale runoff candidate has a ‘D’ by her name, but Dems fear it means deception

Democratic leaders worry former GOP legislator JaNice VanNess could be trying to fool voters in a race to lead a deep-blue metro Atlanta county.
JaNice VanNess, shown speaking Tuesday at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Conyers, was a Republican when she represented Rockdale County in the state Senate. Now, she's running to lead the deep-blue county's commission as a Democrat. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

JaNice VanNess, shown speaking Tuesday at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Conyers, was a Republican when she represented Rockdale County in the state Senate. Now, she's running to lead the deep-blue county's commission as a Democrat. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

CONYERS — A few minutes into a Rockdale County forum, Brian Jenkins sighed heavily, peered out at the crowd and carefully chose his words. He promised he wasn’t going to “sugarcoat” what came next.

Just a few weeks earlier, JaNice VanNess had been one of the county’s best-known Republicans. Now she was running as a Democrat for Rockdale’s most powerful post. And Jenkins was baffled.

“I would love to welcome her to the party. I think we should welcome her to the party. But the problem is, after the polls close, will that person remain?” he said, scanning the room. “Democrats in this county shouldn’t be fooled.”

Welcome to one of the most intriguing races in Georgia. Once a rising GOP star, VanNess is battling to lead the County Commission in one of Georgia’s most liberal bastions. And she’s running as a Democrat.

VanNess bested Jenkins and two other rivals in last month’s primary, forcing a June 18 runoff against Rockdale County Commission Chair Oz Nesbitt. The winner is guaranteed to capture the seat in November, which is why VanNess ran with a “D” by her name.

After stints as a commissioner and GOP state legislator, VanNess tells audiences she’s a reluctant candidate, only joining the race when another contender she supported dropped out. But she felt compelled to run because someone needed to bring “smart growth and responsible leadership” to her native county.

Democrat Oz Nesbitt faces a tough challenge in his reelection bid as Rockdale County chair. (Leon Stafford / leon.stafford@ajc.com)

Credit: LEON STAFFORD/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: LEON STAFFORD/AJC

She calls herself an independent-minded Democrat who backs Medicaid expansion and supports lower taxes. She said she won’t vote for Donald Trump but won’t yet endorse Joe Biden either.

Of all the races featuring conservative figures running as Democrats — and there are several of them — party leaders are most worried about VanNess’ quest to lead Rockdale’s County Commission.

And for good reason. Her victory would give VanNess great influence over one of the fastest-growing counties in metro Atlanta. And she has a strong chance of winning in two weeks by capitalizing on voter frustration with the incumbent.

“It’s very unpredictable. Rockdale has never been a divisive political county,” said state Rep. Rhonda Taylor, a local Democrat who is staying neutral in the race. “And we really don’t know what will happen.”

Deep roots

Perhaps that’s why party leaders are rallying behind Nesbitt, a former law enforcement officer first elected to the County Commission in 2008 and as the county’s chief executive in 2016.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic Party, accused VanNess of trying to “deceive Georgians about her true partisanship in order to win votes.”

And Cheryl Miles-Board, a former chair of the local party, is organizing an event Thursday to highlight VanNess’ partisan history. Her mission: “We refuse to allow someone pretending to be a Democrat to use us for political gain.”

VanNess isn’t exactly trying to hide her GOP roots. A fourth-generation Rockdale native, VanNess has stayed active in civic groups after serving two terms on the Commission and a short stay in the Legislature. In a county of roughly 100,000, her Republican background is common knowledge to local leaders.

Former Republican state Sen. JaNice VanNess (center) is running to oust County Commission Chair Oz Nesbitt in the June 18 Democratic primary after recently switching parties. Democratic leaders are worried she could switch back to the GOP if she wins. While she says she won't vote for Republican Donald Trump in this year's presidential election, she also has not endorsed Democratic President Joe Biden's bid for reelection. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But she isn’t emphasizing her partisan history either as she appeals to voters upset over the county’s growth and tax policy. She refers to herself constantly as a “fiscal conservative” — a favorite GOP description — while steering clear of divisive issues such as abortion.

“I won’t change back to the Republican Party. I’ve made my choice moving forward,” VanNess said, maintaining that her party affiliation shouldn’t matter much in a local contest where the biggest divides revolve around zoning issues and tax rates.

“When I’ve served in office, I never ask what party people are in,” she said. “I think about how I can fix their problems.”

Yard signs like this one have sprouted on lawns in Rockdale County advertising JaNice VanNess' GOP background ahead of the June 18 runoff in the Democratic primary for chair of the County Commission. (AJC file)

Credit: File

icon to expand image

Credit: File

Democratic officials tell supporters VanNess’ approach is an elaborate ruse. Yard signs have sprouted on lawns featuring VanNess alongside Trump that warn voters not to be “fooled” -- a message that Nesbitt gladly embraces.

“The audacity to disrespect the local Democrats of Rockdale County is appalling to say the least,” Nesbitt said. “We simply don’t have room for divisive politics and selective community engagement. Her track record clearly speaks for itself.”

‘They cannot win’

The county’s political transformation is an undercurrent of every conversation about the runoff.

Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Rockdale in more than a generation in 2008. His victory was coupled with a win by Richard Oden, a fellow Democrat who became the first Black man elected chairman and chief executive of the county.

In 2012, Oden assembled a “slate of eight” Black Democrats who leveraged Rockdale’s changing demographics — an influx of new Black residents and an exodus of some white ones — to sweep every countywide office, from coroner to sheriff.

Richard Oden in 2008 became the first Black man to be elected chairman and chief executive of Rockdale County. He led the way as the the former Republican stronghold elected Democrats to every countywide office in 2012. (AJC file)

Credit: AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: AJC

Democrats have only consolidated their grip on the county since. Democrat Stacey Abrams captured about two-thirds of the county’s vote in her 2018 bid for governor, and Joe Biden won 70% of Rockdale County’s vote in the 2020 presidential race. Abrams managed to improve on that margin in 2022 by garnering 71% of support. Keeping it Democratic is a matter of pride.

“I’m one of the ones who helped turn this county blue,” said Miles-Board, the former Rockdale party chair. “And I will fight to make sure that we stay that way.”

Still, VanNess was a rare, if fleeting, GOP bright spot amid the county’s leftward march.

A year after she lost her commission seat in 2014, she competed in a special election for an open state Senate seat — and prevailed by just 84 votes. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal and other Republicans trumpeted her surprise victory as proof that conservatives can win even in the bluest parts of the state.

Though she was a reliable GOP voter, VanNess didn’t vote in lockstep with party leaders. She was the only Senate Republican to vote against a “religious liberty” measure in 2016 and, she said, entertained overtures to cross party lines that she ultimately turned down.

Her time in the Legislature was short-lived. In the 2016 general election, she lost to the same opponent she bested a year earlier by 41 percentage points. Almost 10 times as many people voted in the November contest as did in the special election she won a year earlier.

Low turnout has Democrats concerned this cycle. Fewer than 13,000 voters cast ballots in the May primary, and fewer still are expected to vote in the runoff. Worried that lower participation favors VanNess, Democrats are revving up their get-out-the-vote machinery.

“If she wanted to put her name on the ballot as a Republican for chairman, that’s OK,” said Phyllis Hatcher, who heads a local Democratic women’s group. “But Republicans know that in Rockdale County they cannot win.”

‘My ministry’

On the campaign trail, Nesbitt paints a rosy picture of Rockdale’s future, mindful that many of VanNess’ supporters are frustrated with the county’s growth and expanding budget. He speaks of his reelection campaign almost as a passion project.

“We now have a higher median household income that’s trending in an onward and upward direction,” he said. “My opponent’s interest in the chairman’s office is purely personal. This is not a job for me. It’s my calling. My ministry.”

Rockdale County Commission Chair Oz Nesbitt, now running for reelection, touts the county’s growth and expanding budget. “We now have a higher median household income that’s trending in an onward and upward direction,” he said. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Dexter Bowman Photography; LLC

icon to expand image

Credit: Dexter Bowman Photography; LLC

VanNess, by contrast, is more of a policy wonk who boasts of being called a budget hawk by a former Democratic county leader.

Her campaign consultant, former county official Jorge Diez, put it this way: “This is the Democratic primary, but at the end of the day, it isn’t about red or blue. It’s about green.”

That’s how some VanNess supporters see the race, too. Franklin Beauford, an 82-year-old MARTA retiree, has reliably voted for Democrats since backing John F. Kennedy for president in 1960. But he said VanNess has a more thoughtful fiscal approach than Nesbitt.

“I don’t care that she ran all her life as a Republican,” Beauford said. “I hear the criticism about her. But I wish more people supported the person rather than the party.”

At a Kiwanis Club meeting on Tuesday, partisan politics didn’t come up at all. But plenty of parochial issues did, such as the county’s efforts to address homelessness, construction of a new $140 million courthouse complex and potential changes to Rockdale’s government structure.

As VanNess wrapped up her remarks, she talked about serving on a committee for a local initiative even though she was skeptical of the idea. Her explanation might as well have summed up her party-switching philosophy.

“I’d rather be in the game,” she said, “than on the sidelines complaining.”

Former Republican state Sen. JaNice VanNess has stressed a need for “smart growth and responsible leadership” for running as a Democrat for deep-blue Rockdale County's most powerful post. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC