City DopeNews

Recent Election Results Tilt the ACC Commission to the Right, Again

Stephanie Johnson is set to replace Jesse Houle on the Athens-Clarke County Commission in January.

For the second election cycle in a row, conservatives gained ground on the Athens-Clarke County Commission, as a Republican-backed candidate took an open seat currently held by one of the commission’s most progressive members.

Stephanie Johnson won 58% of the vote in District 6 against 42% for Rashe Malcolm, who was endorsed by the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee in a race that most observers thought would be closer. One would think that an entrepreneur who’s active in the chamber of commerce would appeal to conservatives over a former government bureaucrat. But by the time Malcolm got in, Johnson had been laying the groundwork for months, and had already sewn up the support of local Republicans while retaining enough Democrats to put her over the top. Johnson also raised nearly $24,000—not including the last three weeks of the campaign—compared to just over $3,000 for Malcolm. And Johnson had support from the Republican-affiliated political action committee Athens for All, which sent out several mailers on her behalf.   

Of course, Atlanta Highway and the surrounding neighborhoods outside the Loop are more Bogart than Boulevard—still majority Democratic, but tilting less to the left than some other parts of the county. Houle actually lost to the more moderate incumbent, Jerry NeSmith, in 2022, but was awarded the seat because NeSmith died in an accident just a few days before the election. But NeSmith and previous officeholders like Carl Jordan and Ed Robinson were generally considered to be on the progressive end of the spectrum.

Malcolm could have amplified questions about Johnson’s performance as ACC internal auditor—a job the mayor and commission fired her from in 2021—as well as Johnson’s subsequent lawsuit against Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams, which was settled during the campaign after Johnson could not produce evidence that she was dismissed because she was about to expose financial malfeasance by Williams, and her threat to file a restraining order against a local journalist. Instead, Malcolm took the high road and ran a positive campaign.

Malcolm emphasized that she will still be a presence in the community through her businesses and nonprofit work. “Congratulations to Ms. Johnson,” she said at local Democrats’ Election Night party at the downtown bar Little Kings. “I look forward to working with whoever is on the commission.”

How Johnson will fit in remains to be seen. She’s joining a commission that still includes six members who voted to fire her, plus Girtz, and will be partially responsible for overseeing Williams’ work and deciding whether to renew his contract.

“This has been quite a journey. I am ending this campaign the exact way I started it: Declaring that I will ALWAYS put People over Politics! When I take office, you will know where I stand. You will have an advocate behind the rail. You will feel engaged, supported, and heard,” Johnson posted on social media.

In two other commission races, progressive incumbents won overwhelmingly: Melissa Link defeated Jason Jacobs 68%–32% in District 2 (mainly Boulevard and Normaltown), and Carol Myers fended off Sidney Waters 72%–28% in District 8 on the Eastside.

Jacobs significantly outraised Link, posting a total of about $22,000 for the period ending Apr. 30—not counting mailers paid for by Athens for All—compared to Link’s $7,000. “Despite the tens of thousands of dollars this guy dumped in the garbage, it shows the voters in District 2 ain’t buying the Republican bullshit,” Link told Flagpole.

Conversely, Myers had a significant fundraising advantage over Waters. Rather than credit that edge for her win, Myers cited her campaign team and her willingness to work hard both behind the rail and on the campaign trail. “I do the kind of campaigning you need to do, and I do the kind of commission work you need to do,” she said.

If the election were indeed a referendum on crime, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declared, Sheriff John Q. Williams would have lost. He weathered criticism of the way the jail handles undocumented immigrants in the wake of Laken Riley’s murder as he coasted to a 30-point victory over Tommy Dorsey. Waters’ criticism of Athens as a “sanctuary-style city” also fell flat with voters, as did Jacobs’ assertions that homeless individuals are attracted to Athens by its social services. 

In the end, though, the commission now has just four of 10 commissioners—Link, Myers, Patrick Davenport and Tiffany Taylor—who were not elected with at least tacit Republican support. It started in 2022, when commissioners Mike Hamby, Allison Wright and Ovita Thornton opened the door for Athens’ Republican state legislators to unilaterally redraw commission districts and oust three progressive commissioners. Link later regained a seat in a special election. With Republican backing, Dexter Fisher and John Culpepper dispatched progressive opponents. Republicans opted not to challenge Wright, Hamby or Thornton.

Without a high-profile race like governor or senator at the top of the ticket, turnout May 21 was less than 20% of registered voters, and in a low-turnout race, “anything can happen,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said. Yet it was just six years ago that a blue wave swept the most liberal commission in Athens history into office. Even though the mayor is term-limited, he acknowledged that Republicans are currently better funded and better organized, and told Flagpole he’s determined to reverse the rightward trend in 2026 by “making sure people who share Athens values are on the ballot,” and forming a group to do something akin to what Athens Grow Green did in the aughts and Athens for Everyone did in the 2010s. He cited Myers as a “thoughtful and forward-looking” commissioner who’s a “bellwether” for Athens.

“We’re definitely in an era where Republicans are putting a lot of money into these races, they themselves or through their PAC,” Girtz said. “It’s also a similar case that there’s no progressive movement that’s a counterbalancing influence.” 

In other races, J.P. Lemay was elected tax commissioner over Brant Spratlin, and Michael Eberhart won the coroner’s race over William Gaulden Jr. State Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) and Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville) easily fended off primary challenges. Lexy Doherty will be the Democratic candidate against U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, defeating Jessica Fore.