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Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz Cruises to Re-election

Commissioners (clockwise from bottom) Mariah Parker, Russell Edwards, Carol Myers, Jesse Houle and Tim Denson celebrate with Mayor Kelly Girtz, who won a second term Tuesday. Credit: Blake Aued

1:43 a.m.: Among the last races Flagpole‘s vast election bureau is watching is the 10th Congressional District, where Athens resident Jessica Fore has a 300-vote lead over Phyllis Hatcher for the second spot in a Democratic runoff with Tabitha Johnson-Green, who fell to Rep. Jody Hice in 2018 and 2020 without appearing to even try. About 95% of precincts are reporting, and Fore seemed confident at the Athens Democrats’ watch party.

Hice left his safe Republican seat to run for secretary of state against Brad Raffensperger, trumpeting the lie that the election was stolen for Trump. Raffensperger won the four-man race outright with 52% to Hice’s 34%.

On the Republican side, Trump-endorsed Vernon Jones, a former Democratic state representative and Dekalb County CEO who doesn’t live in the district, will be in a runoff with Mike Collins, son of the late congressman Mac Collins, who is best known for driving a big rig with “Trump Agenda” painted on the side. Collins had 26% and Jones 21% in an eight-man field. Paul Broun of Oconee County, who represented the district until leaving his seat for a failed Senate run in 2014, finished fourth with 13%.

In another race with local ties, UGA law school graduate Charlie Bailey won 17% of the vote in the Democratic race for lieutenant governor and will be in a runoff with former Atlanta city council president Kwanzaa Hall, who received 30%. Bailey was originally running for attorney general but switched over to clear the field for state Sen. Jen Jordan.

12:25 p.m.: Shouts of “Run-off! Run-off!” rose up from Matt Pulver’s campaign at Democrats’ Little Kings watch party when Athens-Clarke County posted final election results showing that Dexter Fisher had fallen short of 50% in Commission District 5. Fisher finished with 49.6% to Pulver’s 29%, setting up a June 21 contest. Former commissioner Jared Bailey finished third with 21%.

The biggest surprise of the evening was John Culpepper’s 55%-45% victory over Allen Jones in Commission District 7. Culpepper is believed to have shattered the fundraising record for a commission campaign with about $55,000, although Jones more than held his own in that regard. Culpepper was the only candidate backed by the conservative Athens Classic group and Athens Clean & Safe PAC to win, while Jones was the only candidate backed by local Democrats and progressives to lose.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport easily won re-election over Audrey Hughes with 59% of the vote. In District 3, Tiffany Taylor topped Asia Thomas with 54%.

In school board District 1, Heidi Hensley overcame James Alexander with 55%, while Mark Evans narrowly beat Elder Johnson IV with 51% in District 9. Commissioner Tim Denson—drawn out of his district by Republicans—won the District 5 BOE seat with 75% over Deston Bernard Anderson, who did not campaign.

Final numbers in the mayor’s race: Kelly Girtz 59%, Mara Zuniga 25%, Pearl Hall 5%, Mykeisha Ross 5%, Fred Moorman 3% and Bennie Coleman III 3%.

11:14 p.m.: Commissioner Tim Denson has called the mayoral race for incumbent Kelly Girtz. He has 59% of the vote with 22 of 24 precincts reporting. His closest competitor, Mara Zuniga, has 25%.

In his victory speech, Girtz thanked his wife Andrea and son Noah for their patience during the campaign. “Thank you for not, like, sending me to a tent in a backyard, which would have been the right move.”

He also thanked his campaign staff and his opponents, “even when they’re dropping their drawers,” a joke referencing Fred Moorman’s arrest on a Georgia beach.

“Show us your buttocks!” Commissioner Jesse Houle shouted at the raucous Little Kings gathering.

“It’s just not in my skill set,” Girtz responded.

On a more serious note—as supporters chanted “four more years!”—Girtz vowed to continue the work of bringing jobs with dignity, affordable housing and safe transportation to Athens.

“What we’re doing here is setting up a strong foundation, an unassailable foundation, to support people in living better lives every day,” he said. “Everyone is valuable in this community.”

On Bob Dylan’s 81st birthday, Girtz also quoted one of his musical heroes: “I can see the master’s hand/ in every leaf that trembles/ in every grain of sand.”

This writer, also a Dylan fan, tends to disagree with hizzoner about the merits of Dylan’s Christian period, but “Every Grain of Sand” is one of the highlights of that era nonetheless.

10:31 p.m. With about half of precincts reporting, Mayor Kelly Girtz’s strongest opponent, Mara Zuniga, trails badly with 24% to Girtz’s 62%. Pearl Hall, Mykeisha Ross, Fred Moorman and Bennie Coleman III, who dropped out three weeks ago, are all under 5%.

In Commission District 1, incumbent Patrick Davenport leads challenger Audrey Hughes 59%-41%.

In Commission District 3, Tiffany Taylor leads Asia Thomas 55%-45%.

In Commission District 5, Dexter Fisher could avoid a runoff with 50.5% of the vote. Matt Pulver has 27%, and Jared Bailey has 22%.

In Commission District 7, John Culpepper leads Allen Jones 55%-45%.

In school board District 1, Heidi Hensley leads James Alexander 55%-45%.

In BOE District 9, Mark Evans leads Elder Johnson IV 51%-49%.

10:17 p.m: Cheers went up at Little Kings shortly before 10 p.m. as the first batch of Athens-Clarke County election results were released, showing Mayor Kelly Girtz in the lead with 62% of the vote and 14,000 votes counted.

“It feels pretty good,” Girtz told WUGA, where he was conducting an interview at the time. “That would mean I overperformed what happened four years ago [when he received 60% of the vote]. I would hope that’s the result of hard and good work in the community, and the goodwill that comes back from that.”

9:38 p.m.: David Perdue has conceded to Gov. Brian Kemp, and Herschel Walker has won the Republican U.S. Senate primary, per the AJC.

8:53 p.m.: The District 5 commission race was mistakenly left off the ballot for 24 voters who live on Hunnicut Drive, according to Board of Elections Chairman Rocky Raffle. This was not unexpected, as Director of Elections Charlotte Sosebee had warned that if Republican legislators drastically redrew commission districts at the last minute, it would increase the likelihood of errors as poll workers rushed to update their database.

In statewide races, with 11% of precincts reporting, former Bulldog football star Herschel Walker has 69% of the vote in the Republican U.S. Senate race. Gov. Brian Kemp, an Athens native, leads David Perdue 73% to 22%. In another closely watched race, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger holds a 51%-33% over outgoing U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who represents Athens and falsely claims the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Patty Durand leads Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Russell Edwards 60%-40% in the Democratic primary for Public Service Commission. Edwards suspended his campaign several weeks ago.

In the 10th Congressional District race, Mike Collins leads among Republicans with 29%, followed by Vernon Jones at 19%. Former Athens congressman Paul Broun is essentially tied for third with Timothy Barr at 14%. On the Democratic side, Tabitha Johnson-Green leads with 38%, followed by Phyllis Hatcher at 22% and Athens resident Jessica Fore at 19%.

7:05 p.m.: Polls have closed in Athens and the rest of Georgia amid record turnout statewide for a primary election.

More than 850,000 people voted early, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, more than twice as many as in 2018. Earlier this afternoon, state election official Gabriel Sterling said Georgia was on track to break the record turnout of 1.2 million in the 2018 primary.

About 57% of early voters chose Republican ballots, including about 7% of Democrats, according to the AJC. Locally, about 10,000 people voted early, with about 60% choosing Democratic ballots, 40% choosing Republican ballots and a handful voting only in nonpartisan races. Athens-Clarke County Director of Elections Charlotte Sosebee estimated that about 10% of local voters were Democrats crossing over to vote in the GOP primary.

Voters said they had an easy time at Barnett Shoals Elementary School. Though none would say who they voted for, issues like child care, health care and marijuana decriminalization were on their minds, as well as support for the TSPLOST transportation initiative, Flagpole intern Violet Calkin reported.

Across town, District 5 commission candidate Matt Pulver and school board candidate Tim Denson were waving signs for themselves and Mayor Kelly Girtz near the intersection of Oglethorpe and Hawthorne avenues. At Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School, a line of about 50 people was snaking out the door by 5 p.m., and more than 500 voters had already cast ballots. Poll workers said the line was moving slowly because the ballots were so long, it took voters a while to fill them out.

Check back for local election results as they come in.