NewsNews Features

Athens State Senator Draws Democratic Challenger

For the first time since 2012, state Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) is facing a Democratic opponent. Dawn Hawkins Johnson squares off with Ginn in a campaign focusing on public education, health care, small business and poverty.

The two campaigns travel along the well-worn and increasingly wide fault lines that differentiate Republican and Democratic politics. For example, Ginn points proudly to the increase in jobs during his term and the current low unemployment rate. Johnson acknowledges the increase in jobs, but points to the 37 percent of Georgians who subsist on less than $37,000 for a family of four, often requiring them to forego health insurance.

Ginn cites Georgia’s repeated designation as the “No. 1 state for business” as one of his accomplishments, referring to a ranking from Site Selection magazine. Johnson counters, “If we’re No. 1 for business, why are we also No. 10 for poverty?” She adds that 30 percent of Athens-Clarke County residents live below the poverty level, a dramatic increase since 1980.  

“Ginn mentioned in a speech that truck drivers can earn a middle-class income,” says Johnson, who favors development of new industries such as solar energy and other small businesses.   “What happens when we start seeing driverless trucks?”

When asked about his efforts to combat his district’s high poverty rate, Ginn asks, “Where does the government get its money? Do you want me to give your money to the poor?”

Johnson counters that Georgia legislators offer big tax breaks to lure large corporations to the state, often at the expense of smaller businesses, who often pay higher taxes because they are not eligible for tax loopholes and breaks. She adds that many small businesses are not required and cannot afford to offer health insurance to their employees, making them less competitive in the job market and giving large corporations an unfair advantage.



As a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, one of Ginn’s recent accomplishments was his co-sponsorship of Amendment One, which, if it passes in November, will designate 80 percent of sales taxes associated with purchases of outdoor recreational equipment for the state Department of Natural Resources. At current levels of spending for tents, soccer balls, bicycles and similar equipment, the amendment will provide about $20 million in annual funds for DNR, an increase over the current level of $13 million.

The amendment will help communities improve their recreational offerings, says Thomas Farmer, director of government relations for the Georgia chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Athens-Clarke County’s Leisure Services will have access to far more funds for trails, parks and other recreational assets with the adoption of Amendment One, without actually increasing taxes,” Farmer says.

Ginn’s Senate District 47 includes the eastern half of Clarke County, as well as Madison and Barrow counties and part of Jackson. With liberal Athens split between two Senate districts since 2006—when the Republican-controlled legislature split up the city to help elect Sen. Bill Cowsert in District 46—the Athens vote has been diluted. As a result, mostly progressive Athens voters in District 47 are represented in the Senate by a traditional Republican who voted against allowing gay couples to adopt and supported “campus carry” and establishing English as Georgia’s official language. In 2010, his first race, Ginn defeated Democrat Tim Riley 73 percent to 27. He beat Riley again in 2012.

“Every large city in Georgia has been divided in half for both the Georgia House and Senate,” says Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. Republicans who drew the reapportionment lines “have a divide-and-conquer strategy to protect the Republican incumbents,” she says.

Ginn, an engineer and farmer, served as county manager of Franklin County before running for state Senate. Johnson, a Barrow County resident, is director of employment services at Hi-Hope Service Center, a Lawrenceville nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities.

This article originally stated that Johnson was Ginn’s first Democratic opponent since 2010, but Riley also ran in 2012.