The ‘90s R&B classic “Return of the Mack” blared on the Little Kings sound system as supporter J.R. Green poured Mayor Kelly Girtz a glass of champagne at the Athens-Clarke County Democrats’ election watch party last Tuesday. The first batch of results had just come in, showing Girtz well on his way to re-election.
While the consensus among most political observers was that Girtz would likely win without a runoff, some progressives were still nervous that a wave of conservative money could sweep Republican-backed candidates into office. Except in one race, it didn’t happen. Girtz wound up with 59% of the vote, just a point off his 2018 showing, despite five candidates running against him. His closest competitor, Mara Zúñiga, finished with 25%. Pearl Hall, Mykeisha Ross, Fred Moorman and Bennie Coleman III all received 5% or less.
The through-line of all those opponents’ messages was that the people weren’t being heard. But as he did four years ago, Girtz finished first in all 24 precincts. He won an outright majority in 21 of them, nowhere polling less than 44% (that was in 6A, Cleveland Road Elementary in the far western part of the county). More than 21,000 people voted, compared to about 18,000 in 2018.
Girtz started his victory speech by thanking his wife Andrea and son Noah for “not, like, sending me to live in a tent in the backyard” during the campaign. He went on to thank other family members, campaign staffers and others, including his opponents, “even when they’re dropping their drawers,” a joke referencing Moorman’s recent arrest for sunbathing nude at a St. Simons beach.
Switching to a more serious tone, Girtz pledged to spend the next four years working to bring well-paying jobs, affordable housing and safe transportation to Athens. “What we’re doing 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.”
Zúñiga had criticized ACC’s current leadership over its handling of homelessness, a perceived lack of support for law enforcement and rising property tax bills. However, none of the candidates offered much in the way of specific policy alternatives.
“Even though last night did not turn out the way we hoped, I still feel victorious,” she posted on her campaign’s Facebook page. “I have been able to meet so many people and hear so many stories. I feel as if my campaign truly started bridging the gap between so many Athens communities, and this is only the beginning. Thank you again for believing in me and for supporting my campaign. Athens, this is not the last you will hear of Mara Zúñiga!”
All in all, four of six candidates endorsed by the ACC Democratic Committee won, and in the Commission District 5 race, both candidates the committee labeled “Democrats in good standing,” Dexter Fisher and Matt Pulver, are in a runoff. Fisher was supported by both local Democrats and Athens Classic, a group of business leaders formed to oppose defunding the police that started a political action committee pledging to raise over $200,000 to defeat progressive candidates. Two other candidates that organization backed—Zúñiga and Asia Thomas in Commission District 3—lost. But John Culpepper in District 7 won a surprising victory over progressive Allen Jones 55%–45%.
Jones had on his side a long track record of involvement on various citizen committees and civic groups, endorsements from well-known progressives like former mayors Heidi Davison and Gwen O’Looney, and detailed policies on a variety of issues. Culpepper ran primarily on vocational education, which is a school district issue. However, he also reported raising an astonishing $55,000 in his May campaign finance disclosure. Much of Athens’ Black leadership is cozy with Republicans, and Culpepper had the support of key pastors in the Timothy Road area. He also benefited from the backing of former mayor Nancy Denson and former commissioner Kathy Hoard, as well as his family name.
“The name Culpepper, the heritage, the work his father did, that had an influence here,” said Russell Edwards, the current District 7 commissioner who was drawn out of his seat by Republican state legislators. John’s late father, E.H., a former candidate for mayor and state representative, is fondly remembered as a relentless booster for Athens-to-Atlanta rail. “One can hope that John will honor that legacy with some forward-thinking ideas of his own,” Edwards added.
In Commission District 1, incumbent Patrick Davenport won re-election over challenger Audrey Hughes with 59% of the vote. “The people, I guess, believe in me and in the message I’m trying to provide,” Davenport said. “The fact I had a DUI and [am] in a new district, it’s a blessing.”
In the all-new Commission District 3—shifted from central Athens to the Winterville area during redistricting—Tiffany Taylor edged out Thomas 54%–46%. Thomas had been favored by progressives at the beginning of the race, but some supporters backed away when she cashed a large check from Athens Classic co-founder Steve Middlebrooks, and Taylor received the Democrats’ endorsement.
In Board of Education races, Commissioner Tim Denson—who was prevented from running for re-election by redistricting—won the District 5 BOE seat with 75% of the vote over Deston Bernard Anderson, who did not actively campaign. Heidi Hensley defeated James Alexander with 55% of the vote in District 1, and Mark Evans squeaked by Elder Johnson IV with 51% in District 9.
Three incumbents were unopposed: District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton and school board members Linda Davis in District 3 and LaKeisha Gantt in District 7.
Almost 68% of voters approved of continuing TSPLOST, a 1% sales tax for transportation. The next five-year round is expected to raise $145 million for fare-free transit, road repaving, bike lanes, sidewalks, trails and other projects.
Now, attention turns to the Commission District 5 runoff on June 21. Fisher almost avoided it, but ended up with 49.6% of the vote. He’ll face Pulver, who won 27%. Former commissioner Jared Bailey finished third with 23%.
Voters will also be returning to the polls to choose Democratic and Republican nominees for the 10th Congressional District. On the GOP side, the top two finishers were Mike Collins with 26% and Vernon Jones with 22%. Meanwhile, Democrats will choose between Tabitha Johnson-Green (42%) and Jessica Fore (19%).
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