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Georgia's political revolution: Who will lead the new Black capital of America?

Georgia's political revolution: Who will lead the new Black capital of America?
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Since the election, Democratic activists have been eager to use Georgia’s Black voters to advance an agenda of Washington. They largely have ignored the desire of moderate political leaders to advance an agenda of state empowerment. However, Blacks supported the campaigns of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and other candidates because they desired the alternative political vision: a statewide power base with roots in local governance.  

This essay describes some of the trends favorable for a new Black political approach. It surveys the underreported election results in county and state contests — the critical subdivisions of state government. In the wake of protests over police accountability, for example, Black voters moved to change leadership in critical agencies of police oversight.

In Georgia, the district attorney is an elected chief prosecuting officer within the 49 judicial circuits. In November, voters turned out five incumbent Republican district attorneys and elected Black candidates in four of the districts. Two important offices were gained in counties in the Atlanta metropolis:

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In Cobb County, incumbent Republican Joyette Holmes lost to Democratic challenger Flynn Broady, a prosecutor in the county solicitor’s office. Holmes was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian KempBrian KempStacey Abrams on why she won't quit working: 'The world isn't fair yet' Georgia, South Carolina governors sign bills to pay college athletes Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE as the first Black woman DA of Cobb.  She received national attention when assigned to prosecute three white men charged in the murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery. Her handling of the tragic incident dissatisfied many voters, however, and they opted to replace her.

Meanwhile, in the Brunswick judicial circuit on the sea coast, incumbent Republican Jackie Johnson, who initially mishandled the Arbery case, was voted out of office. She was defeated by white independent candidate Keith Higgins.

In Gwinnett County, incumbent Republican Danny Porter was ousted by Patsy Austin-Gatson, an attorney in the Gwinnett County solicitor’s office. In the Augusta circuit, incumbent Republican Natalie Paine was defeated by attorney Jared Williams, and in Chatham County, near Savannah, incumbent Republican Meg Heap was edged out by Democrat Shalena Cook Jones.

Black voters opted to clean house in Fulton County as well. Incumbent DA Paul Howard made history as the first elected Black prosecutor in 1997. However, his tenure was marred by recent allegations of financial misconduct. He was defeated by one of his protégés, Fani Willis. She will assume office in January as the first Black woman district attorney of the county.

In Georgia, the county commissions are the largest general-purpose form of local government. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia explains, “In each county, local officials act as arms of state government, performing many state-related functions, such as administering elections, marriage licenses, and vehicle registration.”

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Among the prominent Black officers are Fulton County Commission Chairman Robert Pitts and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. In other regions, there are Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Al Tillman and Dougherty County Commissioner Gloria Gaines — the only woman on the seven-member board. She has served for nine years, representing the 90,000 residents in the county.

In predominantly white Athens-Clarke County, Mariah Parker was elected to the commission in 2018. The 26-year-old University of Georgia graduate student represents a new generation of leftist politics. She co-founded a chapter of the political organization, Our Revolution. She sports an old-style Afro, is openly lesbian, a rapper, and chose to be sworn in by placing her hand on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

In the state House, Blacks gained seats in the legislature as a consequence of the migration of new Black residents: seven of the 10 U.S. counties with the fastest-growing black populations are in the state, according to a Pew Stateline analysis of 2018 census population estimates. They add to the more than 30 percent Black population of the state.

In 2018, moderate Black Democrats picked up seats in the Atlanta suburbs: El-Mahdi Holly and Jasmine Clark won election by defeating incumbent Republicans. In recent weeks, Democrats selected James Beverly as Minority leader in the state House. He represents the predominantly Black county near Macon. For the Republicans, the most visible Black legislator has been Vivian Childs.

Black political leaders have a lot of work to do to gain seats in the legislature. This means branching out from the urban districts and forging new alliances. The party in charge designs election districts and, though losing seats, Republicans maintain a comfortable margin of control.

“I began working with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to figure out how we could create fair maps for Democrats across the state in order to protect our members and expand our base,” James Beverly told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Among the better-known urban politicians is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms. Elected in 2017, she gained notice for criticizing Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to keep business open during the pandemic. She also issued executive orders to protect illegal immigrants from federal agents and to promote Atlanta as a gay-friendly city.  

Across the state, the Black mayors include Mayor Pro Tem Jon Howard of Albany and Mayors Jason Lary of Stonecrest and Hardie Davis Jr. of Augusta-Richmond. Davis is co-founder of the African American Mayors Association and the When We All Vote Civic Cities Initiative. The program engages voters in elections from school boards to federal offices.

One concern is the state’s decentralized political structure. Georgia hosts 159 counties with separate cities and towns, second only to Texas; it may pose an unfavorable condition for Black empowerment. Since Reconstruction, whites have relied on the fragmentation — and suppression of the Black vote — to protect privileges. Under the Voting Rights Act, Blacks voters established nodes of power in Albany, Savannah, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and Atlanta. The cities paved the way for the growing presence in the counties.

Still, the future holds promise for achieving a degree of statewide leverage. It will require Black leaders to temper the influence of liberal Washington advocates. Organizations such as the New Georgia Project — which seeks to register and engage Black voters — should consider forging alliances with white conservatives. Finally, in this era of remote workplaces, leaders can encourage Blacks with education and skills to look beyond Atlanta to the affordable cities and counties of the state.

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a curated website on African American history and culture.

Editor's Note: This article was edited after publication.