Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
Rep. Deborah Gonzalez at the Aug. 23 grand opening of the Athens-Clarke County Democrats’ campaign headquarters
For the second year in a row, Republican Houston Gaines and Democrat Deborah Gonzalez will face off to win an Athens-area seat in the state House of Representatives.
Last time, Gaines had seemingly bipartisan support and a quarter-million dollars in the bank, and Gonzalez was the underdog. After pulling off a 53-47 win in a 2017 special election, now Gonzalez is the incumbent who says she has “unfinished business in the Capitol,” and Gaines is going on the attack.
“I’ve noticed on my opponent’s side, she says ‘experience matters,’ and I think her experience is the reason I’m running again, because she hasn’t accomplished anything in the legislature,” Gaines said. “I’m going to go to Atlanta and get something done.”
The main issues Gonzalez hopes to address include implementing a living wage, preventing wage discrimination, expanding Medicaid and pushing for more funding for Georgia schools, specifically towards transportation, so schools can spend more money on education.
Gaines said he hopes to tackle issues such as “passing the largest income-tax cut in state history,” economic development, preserving the HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships, improving Highway 316 and other local infrastructure, and providing more funding and resources for public safety.
Although she represents what was drawn to be a red-leaning district consisting of parts of conservative Oconee, Barrow and Jackson counties, as well as Clarke, since taking office Gonzalez hasn’t hesitated to take a progressive stance on issues such as immigration and health care. In January, she criticized Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards for holding undocumented jail inmates for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport—a policy he later reversed—and later that month, she co-sponsored a bill to expand Medicaid.
Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
Gaines criticized her actions on those topics during a UGA College Republicans meeting on Aug. 29. “Public safety is where you’ll see a lot of difference between me and my opponent,” he said. “If someone is here illegally and committed a violent crime, they should be deported. My opponent strongly disagrees with that, and has publicly attacked the sheriff in Clarke County about doing their job.”
Gaines believes expanding Medicaid “would devastate small businesses’ bottom lines and dramatically raise our taxes,” according to his website.
Discussing 316, Gaines named the highway “one of the most dangerous roads in the state” and said he would make it his top priority to improve if elected.
“This idea of 316 being a limited access highway is in the plans, and has been in the budget for 10 years,” Gonzalez said. “It’s already being done. It’s not something new.” On transportation, she said she’s focusing on light rail and autonomous vehicles. Gonzalez and Rep. Jonathan Wallace (D-Watkinsville) introduced a bill to study “alternative ways of transportation from Athens to Atlanta,” she said, but it didn’t pass.
As a member of the minority party, it’s difficult to get legislation passed—something Gaines has latched onto. “The biggest thing is, if you look at the pieces of legislation she passed, it’s zero,” he said. “I would like to have someone who is going to go to Atlanta, get things done and make a difference.”
Gonzalez, a lawyer, asked voters to “take a look at my record,” recounting how she defeated a bill twice on Crossover Day by giving a speech, which is rare for a freshman, and citing her reputation as being a thorough cross-examiner in committee hearings.
She added that Gaines shows “a lack of understanding of the true process of governing” by implying that not passing pieces of legislation means a politician is unsuccessful. “When you want things to last, it takes a little bit longer to create that foundation,” she said.
Gaines, a 2017 UGA graduate who ran Mayor Nancy Denson’s re-election campaign as a freshman and served as president of the Student Government Association his senior year, has faced questions about his experience. He currently works as a client advisor for Cannon Financial Institute in Athens and a consultant for Lighthouse Counseling, a Tennessee-based nonprofit.
Despite his youth, Gaines had an air of invincibility early in the 2017 campaign, with endorsements from Denson and other notable figures on both sides of the aisle, as well as donations from deep-pocketed Atlanta business interests. But Denson’s endorsement angered many Democrats, who removed her from the county party’s executive committee, and some who supported Gaines early on switched sides after they got to know Gonzalez, who was then a political newcomer. Gonzalez wound up winning by six points in a district that had gone for Donald Trump by four points in 2016 and was considered so conservative that no Democrat had run in the previous three elections.
Despite being the incumbent, Gonzalez may be underfunded again this year compared to her opponent. Gaines had $169,450 on hand as of June 30—the most recent campaign finance disclosure filing—while Gonzalez had $23,500. Legislators are not allowed to raise campaign funds while the General Assembly is in session each spring, putting Gonzalez at a disadvantage.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6. Early voting starts Monday, Oct. 15.