Republican Houston Gaines.
Athens Democrats are hoping to win back a conservative-leaning seat in the state House of Representatives on Nov. 7, while Republicans could not only defend the seat but launch the political career of a promising young candidate.
On the Republican side in House District 117—vacated by Regina Quick, who was named a Superior Court judge—is Houston Gaines, the 22-year-old scion of a prominent Athens family whose grandfather was also a judge. Gaines started his political career by managing Mayor Nancy Denson’s successful re-election campaign in 2014, and went on to serve as vice president and later president of the University of Georgia Student Government Association.
On the Democratic side is Deborah Gonzalez, a grandmother and relative newcomer to both Athens and politics, a New Jersey native of Puerto Rican descent and the daughter of an Army sergeant who put herself through college and law school at night in New York City while working and raising two children, and went on to a successful 20-year career as a lawyer and college administrator.
Their political views are mostly as different as their biographies. But that’s been largely overshadowed by someone who’s not even running: Denson.
The mayor has donated to Gaines’ campaign and hosted a fundraiser for him at her home in August, prompting the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee to vote to remove her from her post on the committee because she violated a bylaw prohibiting members from supporting other parties’ candidates. The situation galvanized support for Gonzalez among many Democrats, but it has also allowed Gaines to paint the party as “extreme.”
Gaines’ association with Denson, as well as his work on the issue of discrimination against minorities at downtown Athens bars while SGA president, has given him an aura of bipartisanism. But as the campaign has gone on and Gaines has staked out positions on more issues, he’s looking more like a standard-issue Republican candidate.
“I’m going to do what I can to support our Northeast Georgia values, whether that’s defending the Second Amendment, whether that’s protecting innocent, unborn children, doing what we can to ensure those important efforts that we’re not overspending what we’ve got in our state coffers, the importance of a balanced budget, and living within our means at the state level,” he said at an Oconee County GOP forum last month.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez is working out of the Bernie Sanders playbook, supporting a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all at the federal level and expanding Medicaid at the state level. “Now is a wonderful time to show that we’re the party of the working families and the working class,” she told Flagpole.
On health care, Gaines told Flagpole in an email—he declined an in-person or phone interview—that he would support seeking a federal waiver for a more conservative version of Medicaid expansion, but only if he’s certain Congress is not going to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As for raising the minimum wage, “we all know what that would do to our economy,” he warned attendees at the GOP forum.
On some issues, Gaines has been hard to pin down. For instance, he has acknowledged UGA faculty, staff and students’ concerns about campus carry, as well as gun-rights advocates’ concerns about the law’s restrictions on where guns are allowed, and has only said that the legislature should review the law during next year’s session. (Gonzalez opposes campus carry.) When asked at an Oct. 9 forum if he would vote for President Trump, Gaines did not give a definitive answer, but said, “I do support what our president is moving forward on, tax reform and other issues of the day,” before pivoting again to local Democrats removing Denson from the committee and asking Gonzalez to “disavow” that action.
Gonzalez noted that the committee’s job is to elect Democratic candidates. “If she wanted to support my opponent, all she had to do was resign from her position and support my opponent,” Gonzalez said. “She did not have to create the rift that she did. It was her choice.” Later, Gonzalez name-checked a more progressive former mayor, Heidi Davison, in response to a question about what the candidates have learned from Denson.
Some Denson supporters have raised the fact that Gonzalez voted in the GOP primary last year. In response to a follow-up question from Flagpole, Gonzalez said she voted against Trump in the primary because she was fine with either Hillary Clinton or Sanders as the Democratic nominee but felt Trump was particularly dangerous among Republicans. She went on to criticize Trump’s anti-birth control and anti-transgender policies, as well as his leading the country “so close to war” and the lackluster response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where her family is from.
Experience is another issue in the race. Gaines has packed quite a bit of it into his brief civic life. Gonzalez has, too—most of it behind the scenes. An internship with Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak spurred her into a career in media law, representing musicians, video-game designers and other artists and entertainers. In addition, she has worked as an advocate for Latino immigrants, at the UGA Office of Institutional Diversity and, during a three-year stint in Duluth, as vice president at Georgia Perimeter College, as well as participating in the Protect Athens Music Conference, serving as president of the Georgia Music Industry Association and lobbying the state legislature on net neutrality, cyber-bullying and child sex trafficking.
“Nobody knew about it, because that’s not the way I worked,” she said at the Oct. 9 forum. “I just did the work I had to do to protect the children that needed to be protected.”
Gaines is also trying to turn his youth to his advantage. “As you can tell by looking at me, I’m not your typical candidate in a lot of different ways, but people are excited about the next generation getting involved,” he said. “People want new leadership and fresh perspectives on various issues.”
One thing the candidates agree on: District 117 is gerrymandered. “Our district kind of looks like Pac-Man,” Gaines said, something he said he’d “look closely at” after the 2020 Census, when districts will be redrawn. Gonzalez spoke about several lawsuits alleging that various states’ districts—including Georgia’s—are unconstitutionally partisan. The Supreme Court will soon rule on one of those cases involving Wisconsin. Representatives should not choose their voters; voters should choose their representatives, she said.
District 117 is made up of Clarke County roughly south of Tallassee Road and west of the UGA campus, as well as three North Oconee precincts and slivers of eastern Jackson and Barrow counties. While House Republicans redrew the district from a Democratic one to a Republican one in 2012, it is now tilting back to the left. Trump won it by less than 4 percentage points in 2016. Democrats are “fired up about this election, and they’re coming after this seat,” Gaines warned fellow Republicans.
“I just hope Democrats understand a Democrat can win,” Gonzalez said. “They need to come out and vote.”