City DopeNews

The Blue Wave Misses Athens

Spotted at Winterville City Hall: Gov. Brian Kemp dropping off his absentee ballot. Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Dawn Dalton spent her Election Day waving a “Dump Chump” sign at passers-by on Whitehead Road. “We have to show [President Trump] who’s boss,” Dalton said. “We’re the boss.”

Across town in East Athens, Sundra Gartrell cast her vote for Joe Biden at Howard B. Stroud Elementary School with police violence against the Black community on her mind. “We’ve been living through four years of hate, and it’s time for a change,” Gartrell said.

Georgia did show Trump who’s boss by giving its 16 crucial electoral votes to a Democrat for president for the first time since Bill Clinton in 1992. But in Athens, Election Day voters like Gartrell were the exception rather than the rule. After more than 40,000 people cast their ballots early—by mail or in person—less than 10,000 showed up at the polls on Nov 3. The 68% turnout hurt down-ballot candidates and nearly cost Biden his incredibly close win in Georgia.

Perhaps it was a lack of enthusiasm for Biden in a college town where half of Democrats backed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. (By the time Georgia’s 2020 primary, postponed by coronavirus, came around, Biden had the nomination wrapped up.) Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Tim Denson, a veteran of a number of local campaigns besides his own, said the pandemic dampened get-out-the-vote efforts. While campaigns were texting voters to the point of annoyance, there was little of the door-to-door campaigning that’s usually the backbone of local Democratic and progressive nonpartisan campaigns. “That was drastically suppressed by the pandemic,” said Denson, who added that he ordinarily would have knocked on “thousands” of doors this fall but only hit about 120.

In any event, Georgia’s record-shattering turnout did not translate to Athens. (About 7,000 more Athens residents voted this year than four years ago, but 16,000 more people were registered, so turnout was well under 2016’s 76%.) Biden’s win came primarily in Atlanta’s Democratic strongholds and the suburbs that flipped from red to blue in 2018. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, you could go up on a steep hill in Athens and look west to Gwinnett County, and with the right kind of eyes, you could almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave broke and finally rolled back.

After days of counting mail-in ballots solidified the merciless math of Trump’s Electoral College defeat, news outlets finally called the race for Biden on Saturday—first in Pennsylvania, clinching it, then Georgia as the cherry on top. While Trump ranted on Twitter about nonexistent voter fraud and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, held a surreal press conference at the Four Seasons—not the hotel, but a Philadelphia lawn and garden store next to a porn shop—Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was reassuring the nation that every vote would be counted. “We are committed to doing anything and everything to maintain trust in our electoral process here in Georgia, regardless of partisan preference,” he said at a Friday press conference.

Gabriel Sterling, whom Raffensperger put in charge of implementing Georgia’s new voting system, made a joke at the press conference about taking a break for the Georgia-Florida football game on Saturday. And in downtown Athens, that was seemingly all that mattered. On the night when Biden became president-elect, the Arch—where four years ago, thousands gathered to voice their anger at Trump’s election—was deserted, save for a couple of skateboarders. Instead of the joyous celebrations after Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, groups of maskless men in red polo shirts and young women in their going-out clothes crowded outside Clayton Street bars. Call it the World’s Largest Apathetic Cocktail Party.

The sorry turnout in Athens sealed the fate of Democrats running for local offices. Mokah Jasmine Johnson and Jonathan Wallace, running for two swingy state House of Representatives seats, lost by 10-point margins. Those districts are split roughly evenly between Clarke and Oconee, with a little bit of Jackson and Barrow in Johnson’s case. Clarke County’s votes went heavily for Wallace and Johnson, but they were swamped by the 84% turnout in Oconee, which is 70% Republican. Even if turnout in Clarke had matched Oconee, though, both would still have lost.

Their losses pretty much precluded any chance that Democrats might win the 16 seats necessary to take control of the state House, which means that Republicans will be able to redraw districts unilaterally after the 2020 Census and likely cement power for the next decade. This is important: Before Republicans took control of state government, Athens’ legislative delegation consisted of three Democrats and one Republican. Now, due to gerrymandering, it’s four Republicans and one Democrat. The Supreme Court has already struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act protecting Black communities, and with an even more conservative court perhaps poised to void the rest, the GOP could go after the delegation’s last remaining Democrat, Rep. Spencer Frye, giving the Athens majority no voice at the state level whatsoever .

State Senate candidates Zachary Perry and Dawn Johnson never stood much of a chance, given that those districts are dominated by the rural, conservative counties surrounding Clarke, but they weren’t helped by the dismal turnout in blue Athens. Same goes for congressional candidates Tabitha Johnson-Green—a no-show on the campaign trail, just like her first run against Rep. Jody Hice two years ago—and Devin Pandy, who actually tried, but lost to Bogart gun-store owner Andrew Clyde by nearly 60 points.

If a few more voters in Clarke County had turned out, though, progressive Deborah Gonzalez might have avoided a runoff in the Western Circuit district attorney’s race. Gonzalez won 60% of the vote in Clarke County and 48% overall. Oconee County Republicans mostly backed prosecutor James Chafin, who will face Gonzalez in a Dec. 1 runoff. They squeezed acting DA Brian Patterson from the left and the right, leaving him with just 17% of the vote. 

There will also be another runoff on Jan. 5 for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. Democrat Raphael Warnock will face Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who bested fellow Republican Doug Collins in a special election. Sen. David Perdue clocked in at just under 50%, so he and Democrat Jon Ossoff are going into overtime as well. With Democrats currently holding 48 seats, control of the Senate is at stake.

Beyond the statewide results, one of the few bright spots locally for progressives was Jesse Houle’s win over conservative Chad Lowery in a special election to fill out the last two months of the late Commissioner Jerry NeSmith’s term. Houle would have taken the District 6 seat in January regardless, but this win gives Houle some legitimacy after being anointed the winner because of NeSmith’s untimely death just days before the June election.

Alone among local candidates, Democrat John Q. Williams was unaffected by any disparity in turnout, winning the race for Clarke County sheriff by a 40-point margin over Republican Robert Hare. It was a foregone conclusion after Williams, an ACC police detective, bested incumbent Sheriff Ira Edwards in the June primary.