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Meet the Five Democrats Running Against Athens’ Republican Legislators

From left, Mokah Jasmine Johnson, Jeff Auerbach, Conolus Scott, Andrew Ferguson and Kat Howkins speak at a June 23 ACC Democratic Committee meeting at the Athens library. Credit: Blake Aued

Now that the primaries and runoffs are over, attention turns to the general election in November, where Democrats are fielding a full slate of candidates to run against the soon-to-be five Republicans representing Athens in the state legislature.

All five are longshots, running in districts newly redrawn to protect the GOP incumbents and in a political environment that’s hostile to Democrats because of President Biden’s low approval rating and voters’ historical tendency to punish the president’s party during midterm elections. Several are first-time candidates. Some are party activists who are only running because they were in charge of recruitment and couldn’t find anyone else to do it.

But there are a litany of issues for Democrats to run on, said Andrew Ferguson, who’s running against Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) in Senate District 46, ticking off a list including climate change, voting rights, abortion rights and income inequality. “Republicans are on the wrong side of all of those issues,” Ferguson said.

Perhaps the most potent issue, though, is the recent January 6 Committee hearings plumbing the depths of Donald Trump and his supporters’ efforts to overturn the 2020 results. “We are fighting for democracy itself,” Ferguson said. “The coup has never stopped. It started before Jan. 6 and continued on into this election cycle. If given the chance, [Republicans] will try it again, and most people do better on their second try.”

Educator and civil rights activist Mokah Jasmine Johnson is seeking a rematch against Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) in House District 120. She said she had pondered whether to run again after the death of her father, the start of the pandemic and enduring racial slurs during her 2020 campaign. Ultimately, she said she was motivated to run again by a new Republican-drawn map that tilted Gaines’ district further to the right.

“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, it’s not fair. It’s not right,” Johnson said. “It felt like an attack on Athens because we’re progressive.”

Ferguson, a screenwriter, ran in the 10th Congressional District in 2020 but lost in the Democratic primary to Tabitha Johnson-Green. He and Johnson are the only two of the five candidates with experience running for office.

Conolus Scott is a court bailiff and lifelong Madison County resident who describes himself as a devout Christian. He’s running against Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) in SD 47. “I will be a vote for democracy,” Scott said. “I will be a vote to change the things that are going on in this country,” such as getting guns off the street and expanding Medicaid.

When asked why he’s running, University of Georgia political science professor Jeff Auerbach quoted the House Atreides motto from the science fiction novel and movie Dune: “There is no call we do not answer.”

“I’m running because people need help,” said Auerbach, who will face Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville) in HD 121. “I want to leave my children a better world.”

Auerbach said he will be “a workhorse” who grinds away on important but boring issues like streamlining courts and lowering insurance rates. “Lots of little fixes can add up to massive change,” he said.

Kat Howkins—director and co-founder of the Sweet Olive Farm animal rescue in Oglethorpe County—said she’s running in HD 124 against Rep. Trey Rhodes (R-Greensboro) because she got sick of writing in names against unopposed GOP incumbents. She also said she wants to strengthen environmental laws, and criticized Rhodes for inaction during his eight years as a lawmaker.

“The only thing Trey Rhodes wants to do is make the possum the state marsupial of Georgia,” she quipped at the ACC Dems meeting. “I’m pretty sure it’s the only marsupial in Georgia.” 

By dividing Athens into two Senate districts and four House districts—five dominated by conservative surrounding counties—Republicans all but dashed hopes of flipping them that flickered when Democrats briefly took two local House seats in a 2017 special election. “They keep figuring out new ways to cut us up,” ACCDC chair Tim Denson said.

Athens’ lone Democrat under the Gold Dome, state Rep. Spencer Frye, advised candidates to point voters to Republicans’ record. “What’s one policy they’ve come up with in the past 10 years that will make peoples’ lives better?” Frye said. “I believe they are at the Capitol to do the exact opposite.”