Two metro Atlanta newcomers oust longtime Georgia House Democratic lawmakers

Zulma Lopez and Mandisha Thomas accomplished what many in their respective state House districts thought was impossible: They ousted metro Atlanta lawmakers who each had nearly 30 years of experience in office.

Supporters said that while they respected the years of service of incumbent state Reps. Sharon Beasley-Teague and Michele Henson, the veteran lawmakers had become complacent and the districts were ready for change.

There are no Republicans running in either race, so Lopez and Thomas will each serve a two-year term.

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Both challengers pulled off upsets after finishing second in their respective primaries. Since no candidate received a majority of the votes, the Aug. 11 runoffs were required.

Thomas, a South Fulton resident who runs a home health care consulting business, challenged Beasley-Teague in 2018 head-to-head, losing by 12 percentage points.

Thomas said she is thrilled to be heading to the Capitol when the 2021 session starts in January.

“I think voters realized that they’ve been underserved,” Thomas said. “And they had the courage to stand up and pull back on continuing to put the old guard in charge.”

Lopez, a 42-year-old immigration attorney who lives in unincorporated DeKalb County, was running her first campaign.

“When I canvassed in the beginning, I spoke to a man who said: ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you challenging someone who’s been in office for so long?‘ ” said Lopez, who began her campaign last year before the coronavirus pandemic reached Georgia.

After the primary, wearing her mask and standing at a distance, Lopez said she went to the same house and spoke with the same voter.

“He said: ‘Oh, you made it. I didn’t vote for you because I thought you had no chance. But now you have my vote,‘ ” Lopez said.

Originally from Oakland, California, Thomas, 45, moved to her South Fulton district 15 years ago. In that time, she said she’s been very involved in her community, organizing an annual fall festival, volunteering with Keep South Fulton Beautiful and serving on her homeowner’s association board.

“It’s important to me to work in communities that are underserved and help give them the resources they need,” she said.

Thomas’ community involvement is what caused Cheryl McKay to support the challenger.

“Since I lived in the district, I never heard the name Sharon Beasley-Teague,” said McKay, who’s lived in Union City for two years. “But every time I turned around, Mandisha was doing something in the community. I met her cleaning up Shannon Parkway. And I always say to myself, the community should be better because you’re there.”

Lopez moved to DeKalb County from Puerto Rico in 2007 and has owned her own practice for about six years. Her husband, DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez, was appointed to the bench in 2010 by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

President Barack Obama nominated him for a federal judgeship in 2016, but his nomination was thwarted by U.S. Sen. David Perdue due to the judge’s participation with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. At the time, Dax Lopez aligned himself with Republicans, but Zulma Lopez said things have changed.

“Since he’s a judge, he’s nonpartisan,” she said. “I’m happy to live in a house that is not divided, and I can say he is no longer a Republican.”

A mother of four — two sons now in college who were 6 and 8 when they moved to Georgia, and two who are now in DeKalb County public schools — Lopez said she wants to ensure children are getting a quality education, no matter what part of the district they live in.

It’s that focus on education that supporter Chandra Robinson said drew her to Lopez.

Robinson, a Stone Mountain resident, said that even though her daughter graduated from high school in 2018, she still did volunteer work in local public schools. Robinson said she paid attention to how her 19-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friends responded to Lopez.

“They were really impressed with her,” Robinson said. “They actually started taking an interest in the process, both local and national. So I said, OK, (Lopez is) on to something.”

Robinson, who’s lived in the district for 16 years, said many of her peers were comfortable continuing to vote for Henson, saying many voters also thought there was no way a challenger could beat the incumbent. But she was ready for a change.

Generally, incumbents have an advantage over most challengers. And in the June primary, they did.

Beasley-Teague, first elected in 1992, nearly won the three-person primary outright, pulling in 49% of the vote. Thomas finished in second place with nearly 37% of the vote.

Henson’s race was closer, with the nearly 30-year incumbent receiving about 41% of the June primary vote, while Lopez finished second with nearly 30% of votes cast in the four-person race.

But Beasley-Teague, 68, and Henson, 73, were unable to hold on to their advantages in the runoff election last week.

According to unofficial results from the secretary of state’s office, Thomas finished with about 58% of votes cast and Beasley-Teague received nearly 42% of the vote.

Lopez received almost 55% of votes cast last week, while Henson pulled in about 45%.

Henson and Beasley-Teague said they didn’t want to comment on the outcome.

Both Lopez and Thomas said they planned to take the next few months to rest, study and prepare for their new roles in the Capitol.

“I’m ready to get to work,” Thomas said.