A Democratic Effort to Change Douglas County’s Body Politic



The times, they are a’changing (in Douglas County).

Oh, my my. Party politics are getting interesting in Douglas County, Ga.

The Douglas County legislative delegation – a substantially gerrymandered hydra of a thing itself – has proposed retooling the county’s board of elections.

Presently, the board of elections is comprised of four Republicans and one Democrat. This is an arrangement that has actually reflected the political reality of Douglas County pretty well, as the county’s Democratic party has largely slid between dormant and dead for about two decades.

But now, the county’s legislative delegation (that is, the state representatives and senators who represent parts of Douglas County in the Georgia General Assembly) has proposed changing how the board of elections in Douglas County is constituted, and to change it in such a way that might actually give the Democrats a 3-2 advantage on the board.

This has some in the county establishment, including Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan, a Republican, stomping mad.

In a recent article in the Douglas County Sentinel, Worthan vows to “do everything in my power to kill this thing.”

The county’s delegation is composed only three Republicans: Rep. Dustin Hightower (R-Carrollton), Rep. Micha Gravely (R-Douglasville) and Sen. Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton). The remaining five members of the county’s delegation are Democrats: Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta), Rep. Kim Alexander (D-Douglasville), Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta), Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague (D-Red Oak) and Rep. LaDawn Jones (D-College Park) comprise the rest of the county’s representation.

Under a plan proposed by Sen. James and one that Rep. Alexander plans to carry in the House, the Democrats and Republicans would each get to pick two members of the county’s board of elections. The remaining member would be elected by the delegation, which, again, is 5-3 Democrat.

Senator Donzella James

Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta) is leading a potential shift in the Douglas County Board of Elections — and maybe county politics, too.

Ergo, a 3-2 Democratic advantage, which might more accurately reflect where Douglas County is, and where the county is going.

During the 1990s, while total population increased by almost 30 percent, the black population more than doubled its proportion of the population from 7.9 percent to 19.4 percent.

But demographic shifts in the county may not be the underlying reason for the current tension. Like the rest of Georgia, a little more than a decade ago, the county experienced a nuanced shift from Democratic to Republican hands. Tommy Waldrop, who served as sheriff in the 90s, ran as a Democrat the first time, and as a Republican for his second term. (My grandfather, a lifelong Democrat who kept a framed portrait of FDR on the wall of his living room, said he’d have to “hold his nose” to vote for Sheriff Waldrop, who was also my grandfather’s cousin.)

See, it’s like this:

During this transition, the “establishment” – that is, the organized, hierarchical political structure in place, i.e., “good ol’ boy network” – flipped. It was still the same people, mind you, but rather than being Tallmadge-type Democrats they were Perdue-type Republicans. For more than a few election cycles, this served fine; just as was the case during the bad ol’ one-party system days, if you won the Republican primary, you basically won the office. Board of commissioners chairman, sheriff, tax commissioner, etc., all went pretty seamlessly from Democratic to Republican control, and since the issues that cause such tension between the parties has precious little bearing on local politics, few even seemed to notice.

So it was that I observed the inauguration of the last Democratic office holder in county government—the county surveyor.

During this transition, however, the county’s minority community was left without significant representation. Democrats since the 1960s, they continued to vote a Democratic ticket through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Until, that is, it became clear that there often wasn’t even a Democrat on the ticket; by the general election in November, a great many races had been decided.

For a couple of elections, the Democratic ticket was led by candidates who could not be taken seriously. One county commission candidate in particular caused a stir when he placed his campaign signs in front of Douglas County High School, not realizing that school property is not exactly a public right-of-way and that you can’t put signs there. These were folks who were already pretty unglued, and for whom even the pettier burdens of local public office would doubtless lead to disaster.

In other words, these were the kinds of folks they elect in Clayton County, not Douglas County. Follow? (OK, so, we did kind of elect at least one Clayton-caliber candidate.)

Now, a Democratic party is reemerging. Some of this is driven by the diverse coalition of blacks, gays and lesbians and educated, liberal whites and freethinkers bound together through President Barak Obama’s two national campaigns. And the good ol’ local GOP isn’t happy about this at all, no, sir.

Chairman Tom Worthan

Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan, a Republican, is none too happy with how them Democrats from Atlanta are influencing the political landscape of another county they happen to represent — his.

Even a local election can be an expensive proposition. Presently, however, most of the money is invested in the primaries, on the assumption that winning the Republican nomination is all that is necessary to win office. But an emerging, viable Democratic Party in the county, fielding viable candidates – like Todd Johnson, a white Democrat who endeavored to run for sheriff against Democratic challenger Derrik Broughton and Republican incumbent Sheriff Phil Miller until the county’s board of elections kicked him off the ballot because he didn’t have his fingerprints taken in the right place (he had them done through his employer, another metro Atlanta sheriff’s office, rather than at the Douglas County Probate Court) – means that more money and effort will have to go into general elections as well. And that means fewer cocktails and low-profile tires for those in the county who wish to remain politically influential (think: developers, contractors, etc.).

The claim that is easy to put forth is that these candidates are a product of an influx of people from outside the county – “those people,” if you will. But really, in the past few years, there hasn’t been much of an influx of “those people,” or any people for that matter. From 2010 to 2011, the U.S. Census shows the county’s population grew by only about .7 percent – less than the state’s growth of 1.3 percent. The housing market went kaput, new housing construction stalled and people couldn’t sell their old houses.

(Plus, during the past decade, Douglas County instituted minimum home sizes, which effectively priced many minorities out of buying a new home in the county.)

This isn’t so much that people are coming into Douglas County, and that these outsiders are stealing our way of life. Rather, it’s the fact that the people who are here are finding their voice.

Chairman Worthan – who, coincidently, I’ve voted for a few times – is casting this as people from outside the county (only Rep. Alexander actually lives in Douglas County; Rep. Gravely, though he has a Douglasville address, lives in that little loop of ZIP code that extends up into Paulding County) meddling in local affairs. Really, though, this is a product of the how the GOP gerrymandered the county in an (ill-advised) effort to dilute the political influence of Democrats from southern Fulton County (which the state would like to see go away), as well as a surprising Democratic victory that sent Rep. Alexander to the Capitol and kept former Rep. Bob Snelling (who, many took for granted, would handily win a seat after winning the Republican primary) on his porch.

It’s hard to see one’s dominance come to an end. It can leave a bitter taste. But then, those of us who remember being loyal Democrats back when Sheriff Waldrop ran with a “D” next to his name, are quite familiar with how this feels. We know how it tastes.

And right now, amid the Republicans’ tantrums, it tastes kinda’ sweet.


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Power to the people – er, parties | Porcupine Dreams

  2. I needed to thank you for this good read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I’ve got you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post bdfeeaaggdec

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