September 27, 2017

Is Mayor Nancy Denson a True Democrat?

City Dope

For years, the question has lingered: Mayor Nancy Denson is a Democrat, but is she really a Democrat?

She may not be for long—or at least, she may lose her post on the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee. The committee has scheduled a vote to remove her on Sept. 28, based on allegations that she violated a bylaw stating that committee members cannot support candidates from other parties.

At issue is a fundraiser Denson hosted for Houston Gaines, the Republican candidate in the upcoming House District 117 special election, at her home in Forest Heights. The event was a who’s who of elected officials from both parties in both Clarke and Oconee counties, rubbing elbows with deep-pocketed political donors, many of them developers. Half the ACC Commission—Mike Hamby, Jerry NeSmith, Andy Herod, Sharyn Dickerson and Diane Bell—was there.

It’s no surprise that Denson would support Gaines, who managed her 2014 re-election bid. In fact, Denson told Flagpole that had a special election not been called—necessitated by Rep. Regina Quick’s resignation to accept an appointment as Superior Court judge—she would have resigned from the committee in order to back Gaines. (There is some dispute over whether the bylaw’s language includes special elections, or just regular general elections.) Like many Democrats, she also supported Quick in her primary race against Rep. Doug McKillip in 2012, although there was no Democrat running then.

“As an American, as a Georgian and an Athenian, I want the best candidate,” she said.

That’s struck many people as a reasonable position, but ever since she first ran for mayor in 2010, many others have suspected that Denson is a Republican in blue clothing. “She’s not a Democrat. This just confirms it for the millionth time,” said Russell Edwards, former chairman of the ACCDC and a candidate for Commission District 7 against Bell.

After all—considering that the overlap between Republicans and Gwen O’Looney or Tim Denson voters is about as small as the overlap between Trump supporters and Rosie O’Donnell fans—the majority of her support likely came from the GOP. Since local elections are nonpartisan, she was able to run as a “lifelong Democrat” but also call herself the “common sense choice,” a wink and a nod at Republicans that developers could run wild, and the era of frou-frou extravagances like bike lanes and public art would be over. (To be fair, the SPLOST-funded public art program has continued, and she appointed a committee to update the county’s bike master plan.) Sprinkle in a majority of African-American voters and juuuuust enough white Democrats, and she unlocked the winning coalition that eluded Charlie Maddox in 2006.

In defending her record, Denson pointed to the numerous fundraisers she’s held over the years for Democratic candidates, including former Sen. Max Cleland, Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Rep. John Barrow. “I’ve probably been more active than many of the people on the committee now,” she said.

As for the aforementioned five commissioners, I would describe at least three of them—Herod, Hamby and NeSmith—as left of center, at least on state and national issues. As NeSmith explained to me on “Athens News Matters” last week (shameless plug: the show runs at 1 p.m. Fridays and noon Sundays on WUGA 91.7 and 94.5 FM), he attended the Gaines fundraiser in hopes of heading off McKillip, who’s further to the right and angered many Democrats by switching parties in 2010. (McKillip considered running to regain his old seat but has now endorsed Gaines—which could backfire on Gaines by tarnishing his reputation as a moderate.)

Edwards contended that when Democrats back Republicans, “it undermines faith in the party,” and it’s “disrespectful” to the Democrat in the House District 117 race, Deborah Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, though, said she’s unfazed. “I understand,” she said. “They watched Houston grow up.” But “I just hope Democrats understand that a Democrat can win,” she added. “They need to come out and vote.”