State House and Senate candidates (from left) Beth Moore, Donna McLeod, Jasmine Clark, Zahra Karinshak, Tamara Johnson-Shealey, Shelly Hutchinson, Andrea Stephenson and Aisha Yaqoob pose for a photo at the Capitol before qualifying on March 6. All eight women are Democrats and are running for seats based in Gwinnett County. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM
Earlier this month, Gwinnett County GOP chairman Mike Seigle took to Facebook.
The Republican gubernatorial forum his group had hosted the night before attracted hundreds and he declared it a “great success.” He closed his lengthy post with a sentence that said plenty about the current state of politics in Georgia’s second-largest county — where Democrats are hoping to lead the local version of what’s being touted as a nationwide “blue wave.”
“Just know,” Seigle wrote earlier this month, “this dispels any hint that the Republican party in Gwinnett is not up to the tasks before us.”
Gwinnett County has long been reliably red but, for what feels like just as long, has also been the subject of questions about its potential for turning “purple” or outright blue. It remains primarily GOP-held at every level of government, but more than 60 percent of Gwinnett’s 900,000-plus residents are now black, Latino or Asian, a dramatic shift for the community that was almost exclusively white a few decades ago.The county as a whole voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election — the first time the county went for a Democrat presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 — and local races have grown tighter in recent years.
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Some pundits and politicians have pointed to 2018 as the year that Gwinnett may begin its transition in earnest. It’s a prognostication that, with varying degrees of confidence, includes everything from the county commission and school board to the state legislature and the United States Capitol, where many have pointed to Republican Congressman Rob Woodall’s Lawrenceville-based seat as the next high-profile race to come down to the wire.
The fact that Seigle, Gwinnett’s local Republican leader, felt the need to publicly “dispel” concerns about his party’s readiness for the challenge serves as an acknowledgement that there may be something to be concerned about. And the Democrats are indeed launching an effort that’s believed to be unprecedented in modern Gwinnett, in terms of both confidence and the sheer number of challengers.
“Rome was once powerful and controlled the world, but today where is it?” said Gabe Okoye, the chairman of Gwinnett’s Democratic Party. “… The power shift is in the making.”
Not everyone’s convinced.
“They said Republican rule was over back in 2000,” state Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, said.
‘Taking this bad boy over’
Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint believes that it’s “only a matter of time before Democrats are competitive countywide” in Gwinnett.
“They’re already extremely competitive in southern and central Gwinnett,” he said. “If Dems have a big wave coming in 2018, and indications are they might, this fall could be when that tide begins to turn.”
And whether Gwinnett is really, truly, finally in play for a significant flip this year or not, the Democrats are preparing like it is.
On a recent Tuesday morning, eight women gathered on the staircase in the center of the rotunda at Georgia’s state Capitol. They shook hands and posed for photos. All eight were from Gwinnett, all eight were Democrats and all eight qualified that day to run for seats in the state legislature.
“Gwinnett!” Donna McLeod shouted as they gathered. McLeod will run for a second time for the seat in House District 105, a district voting advocates have claimed is gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. “We’re taking this bad boy over.”
And that, Democratic Party leaders said, is precisely the goal.
Fifteeen of the 25 state House and Senate seats that represent parts of Gwinnett are currently held by Republicans. Earlier this month, Democrats qualified one or more candidates to run for all but four of those 15 seats — an unprecedented number, Okoye believes.
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Whether it be demographics, their own experience or other factors (five current Republican legislators from Gwinnett are vacating their seats in some fashion, leaving no incumbent to contend with), their odds of victory vary. And at least one Gwinnett Democrat already serving in the statehouse — House 101’s Sam Park — is likely to face a tough Republican challenge come November, so current seats aren’t guaranteed to hold.
Okoye, though, said his goal is for Gwinnett’s legislative delegation to flip to a majority Democrats, “however you do that calculation.” He declined to offer further details, but said the party has a well-thought-out strategy to make it happen.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, wasn’t quite as bullish. But he said he would “be surprised if Democrats don’t flip one or more of those seats this year.”
“Where it’s an open seat,” Bullock said, “Democratic prospects will be better.”
‘Someone who will listen’
The race for Woodall’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives will be one that’s watched nationally, and six Democrats (plus one Republican) qualified to try and take him on.
But the truest test of just how Democratic Gwinnett has become may actually be on the local level.
Two seats on the county’s Board of Commissioners are up for grabs this year, and two Democrats have signed up to challenge each Republican incumbent. The commission has one at-large chairman and four district commissioners, meaning that each of the latter represents well north of 200,000 residents — more even than the number of constituents in the average state Senate district.
Democrats may also have a shot at Gwinnett County’s school board, where two of the five seats are up for grabs and the longtime Republican incumbents have elected to retire. Two Democrats and two Republicans have qualified to run for each seat.
Neither the commission nor the county school board have ever had a non-white member. The commission hasn’t had a Democrat elected since 1986.
Republican officials in and from Gwinnett have long balked at the notion that because they’re Republicans — or, more specifically, white Republicans — they are incapable of representing an increasingly diverse constituency.
Count state Sen. P.K. Martin, a Republican from Lawrenceville, among those people. He declined this week to discuss specific political races, but had a piece of advice for his fellow conservatives running for office this fall.
“Any incumbent legislator or newcomer needs to be aware that in a diverse community, with a diversity of backgrounds and diversity of beliefs, it is much more important than ever to engage directly with voters,” Martin said. “People are hungry for someone that cares about their needs, someone who will listen, and someone who will be a champion for their community.”
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is skeptical that the so-called blue wave will hit her county.
“I feel real good about Gwinnnett County because I’ve seen the activism in the local GOP, it’s really accelerated,” Unterman said. “… So I think, yes, the Democrats are charged up, but I think it’s equal that the Republicans are very much engaged too. The difference is the Democrats are very vocal and the Republicans have a tendency to just go to the polls and vote.”
In addition to challengers for county commission and school board seats, Democrats are also fighting for 11 of the 15 state legislature seats currently held by Gwinnett County Republicans.
Those seats include:
Senate District 9 Senate District 40 Senate District 45 Senate District 48* House District 95 House District 97* House District 102* House District 104 House District 105* House District 107* House District 108
*Republican incumbent not seeking reelection this fall.