Op-Ed: Your Fulton & DeKalb County Aug. 11 runoff cheat sheet

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Georgia\’s runoff election takes place on Tue., Aug. 11, and a lot is at stake. Voters can check their registration status at www.votesaveamerica.com as well as the Georgia Secretary of State\’s My Voter Page. Also, don\’t forget to take the 2020 U.S. Census at www.2020census.gov. For additional information regarding early voting and polling locations, please check out this coverage from 11 Alive.

Original publishing date: Tue., Aug. 4, 2020
Updated: Fri., Aug. 7, 2020

ATLANTA — As we continue to wade through multiple crises in the U.S., with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing economic crisis, police brutality and the systemic oppression of Black lives, and the ever-present existential threat of climate change — there’s no way around the fact that the times are hard. Every day, Americans are put in positions to make increasingly difficult decisions, and the choices voters are facing in local elections such as the upcoming Aug. 11 runoff in Georgia are no exception.

Ninety-four counties in Georgia are returning to the voting booth on Tue., Aug. 11 to vote in runoff elections following the state’s June 9 primary. In Georgia, primary candidates must earn 50% plus one vote in their primary; otherwise they are headed to a runoff. Runoffs in Georgia have been determined by as little as 61 votes as recently as 2016. By turning out to these elections, citizens arguably have the most power to influence change within their communities. 

In order to vote in a primary runoff election, Georgians must have registered to vote before the initial June 9 primary. If someone had already registered but did not vote in the primary election, they can still vote in the runoff. Early voting is now open and most counties offer polling places at least Monday through Friday until Fri., Aug. 7. During early voting, registered citizens can vote at any polling location within their county. On Aug. 11, voters may only cast their ballot at their assigned precinct. Voters can check their specific precinct at the Secretary of State’s My Voter Page. 

Like the presidential election, the choices in a number of these races are not ideal; in some, there is no clear winner. Similarly to our June 9 primary cheat sheet for Fulton County, this cheat sheet is compiled through the lens of Black Lives Matter. We researched the candidates with one bottom-line issue in mind: Will these people fight for Black lives, whether it be in health care, education, criminal justice reform, police accountability, or community programs? If there was no explicit statement on behalf of the candidates, we weighed previous experience and recent actions to inform our decision.

While all local elections are important, we are going to focus on the two counties that make up the majority of the metro Atlanta area: Fulton and DeKalb County. 

Fulton District Attorney 

Incumbent Paul Howard trailed his former deputy attorney general Fani Willis with 35% of the vote to her 42% in the 2020 Democratic primary election. Howard is seeking his seventh term in office and is bogged down by multiple controversies. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is currently looking into the claim that he used a nonprofit to steal $140,000 of City of Atlanta funds, while three former female employees are suing Howard alleging sexual harassment and discrimination, which he has strongly denied. That being said, he has still won the endorsement of Christian Wise-Smith, the overwhelmingly progressive candidate who ran against Howard and Willis in the June 9 primary. 

According to a recent Mainline interview with Wise-Smith, Howard earned Wise-Smith’s endorsement — even though Wise-Smith explicitly admittedly he doesn\’t personally like Howard — by committing to create a transparency unit within the District Attorney’s office, to establish more diversion programs to halt the school-to-prison pipeline in Atlanta public schools, and to create an internal police brutality investigation unit in addition to more general promises to increase his office’s transparency and to increase his communication with the public. 

Additionally, it appears that Howard has become more publicly self-aware throughout this year’s election cycle. In June, he supported a city council ordinance that would legally require police to turn over body cam footage and other evidence to investigations (currently there is no means to enforce this). He took swift action in charging APD Officer Garrett Rolfe who killed Rayshard Brooks and against the officers who brutalized Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim.  Howard has been under fire for only making these swift decisions as a political move to win his re-election, and Rolfe’s attorney has recently asked for Howard to be removed from the case, accusing him of “unethical actions” and “conflicts of interests.” At this point, it is difficult to determine if he is finally listening to the people’s call for justice or if he will return to letting cases like Jamarion Robinson and Jimmy Atchison\’s hang in the air for years.

Alternatively, let’s look at Willis, who served as Howard’s Deputy Attorney General for 16 years, during which she led the 2014 prosecution in the Atlanta Public School cheating case where 11 educators were found guilty of the felony offense of racketeering for falsifying standardized test scores. While many schools all over the country have falsified test scores — often because teachers’ jobs are tied to student performance — a school composed of mostly Black students and mostly Black teachers received the harshest charge and sentences of any case like it in the country. In a recent interview with the Atlanta Voice, Willis completely stands behind her decisions in that case. Her lack of remorse for passing down overly harsh charges may foreshadow a department that returns to a “tough on crime” mentality, which would undoubtedly and disproportionately burden Black communities.

Willis’ most prominent endorsements come from the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and well-known Republican Mary Norwood. In a meeting with Wise-Smith, T.I., and other prominent Atlantans following the primary, Willis turned down T.I.\’s offer to replace money donated by Norwood and the police union dollar for dollar with his own endorsement. As Wise-Smith shared in our exclusive interview, she had an opportunity to build bonds with respected figures who have supported the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Instead, she stuck with the police union with a history of protecting officers who kill innocent men. This is doubtfully the last time that Willis sides with the police. 

This election in particular is truly asking voters to pick their poison. Despite his many flaws, Howard seems like the candidate who is more likely to act in the interest of Black Atlantans. Thanks to substantial public pressure, he is beginning to charge police quickly and communicate with the public more openly. In four years, we’ll have another chance to vote for a genuinely progressive candidate when Wise-Smith runs again — plans for which he has been transparent about. 

Fulton Sheriff

This section includes a minor correction to reflect the fact that Pat Labat\’s comment about low morale in police officers arrived prior to the George Floyd protests, not after.

Ted Jackson, who has served as Fulton County Sheriff since 2008, is running to defend his seat from relative newcomer Pat Labat. Before becoming sheriff, Jackson spent 32 years in the FBI investigating civil rights crimes, white collar crimes, and sex trafficking rings, among other cases. He is an FBI-trained hostage negotiator, general police instructor, and sex crimes instructor. Jackson has experienced no major scandal during his tenure, though prison conditions within Fulton County are chronically overcrowded and negligence of inmate mental health remains a serious issue. 

Labat, on the other hand, served as the Chief of the Atlanta Department of Corrections for 10 years before he stepped away from the position in 2019. He claims to support the City Council’s initiative to end cash bail bonds, but has offered no further explanation of his thoughts on the issue. In 2018, he established the Preparing Adult Offenders to Transform Through Training and Therapy Program, which trains non-violent inmates to repair city utilities while preparing them for a job with the city upon their release. While a good first step, this program has only included a few dozen participants so far. Further, he’s publicly stated he  believes that lack of leadership and low morale among officers are two of the biggest issues facing the force. 

While Jackson\’s response to the same question recognizes the need to improve mental health and hygiene services to Fulton County\’s most vulnerable inmates, Labat focuses on lack of morale within the force. For those considering Labat, the public statement that focuses on the lack of morale should raise concern. Any law enforcement leader that prioritizes an individual officer’s feelings over the safety and wellbeing of its citizens, incarcerated or otherwise, lacks perspective and integrity. 

Georgia State House, District 65

Long-time Georgia State Representative Sharon Beasley-Teague is running against relative newcomer Mandisha Thomas. Beasley-Teague has represented District 65 since 1993 and she has an impressive progressive voting record. In the past year, she has co-sponsored bills to penalize people who call 911 with a biased purpose or with false accusations, to punish coroners who falsify information in cases of police involved killings, and to increase the minimum wage in Georgia to $15/hr. 

Thomas is an active resident of South Fulton with a career in medical administration. Her campaign focuses on ending food deserts and fights for environmental justice in South Fulton. Thomas serves on the board of South Fulton Food Policy Council and on the board of Keep South Fulton Beautiful. She’s specifically interested in reigning in illegal dumping in her district, increasing public transit, and improving access to quality health care. This is Thomas’ second attempt to win District 65. 

Under different circumstances, Thomas would be the obvious choice in this election. Her platform focuses on environmental justice and food insecurity which are two topics that are often overlooked in progressive campaigns, despite the fact that environmental issues such as permitting companies that emit hazardous waste to be located next to historically Black neighborhoods is fundamentally a civil rights issue. 

Unfortunately, it’s not so cut-and-dry as Thomas is running against Beasly-Teague, a rare candidate who has both the institutional knowledge gained by a long political career and the ability to genuinely listen to and protect her constituency. Beasly-Teague now serves in senior positions on many legislative committees that affect how voting districts are drawn (the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee) and fair taxes (the Ways and Means Committee), among others. Her service in these committees should be factored in, especially considering the adverse effects of gerrymandering and voter suppression. Beasley-Teague forged an early path as a politician for the people and continues to uphold that legacy, which should be weighed in any voter’s decision.

Fulton School Board, District 4

Long-time public school teacher Franchesca Warren is running against professor and educational consultant Sandra Wright for the District 4 School Board seat. Warren has taught in Fulton County public schools for 18 years. She was awarded the South Atlanta School of Social Justice Teacher of the Year in 2013 and she is the founder of the South Fulton Parents for Education, a non-profit a parent advocacy group. Warren’s biggest concerns are reducing frequent standardized testing, providing more resources to students struggling with literacy and math, and increasing access to wraparound services for students. She is the mother of four past and present students of Fulton County schools. 

Wright is an author and professor with a Ph.D. in Training and Organizational Development, whose three biggest concerns are improving low school grades, increasing community financial support, and providing incentives to attract and retain more teachers to Fulton public schools. She has previously served as an active member of her PTA and as a substitute teacher; she is also the mother of a former Fulton County public school student. 

Based on her career as a public school teacher and being the mother of current Fulton County public school students, Warren appears to have more direct experience interacting with Fulton public schools than Wright. She views improving public education in a holistic way by both focusing on the needs of students in the classroom and when they go home at the end of the day. She also recently penned an op-Ed for the AJC about prioritizing students as they approach the beginning of a new school year in the midst of a pandemic, which is a message that should be continuously pushed as Georgians continue to suffer under negligent state leadership. 

Fulton Superior Court Judge

Current Fulton County Magistrate Melynee Leftridge Harris is running against Tamika Hrobowski-Houston, an attorney and judicial officer who oversees cases in Fulton County Court’s Family Division. Leftridge Harris has 10 years of experience as a judge and 19 years of experience as a prosecutor with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office where she acted as a trial lawyer representing plaintiffs, defendants, businesses, and individuals in the State and Superior Courts of Georgia. Her main focuses are currently resolving the case backlog caused by COVID-19 and reducing crime in general.

Hrobowski-Houston has 26 years of legal experience. She currently serves as a Superior Court judge overseeing domestic relations cases including divorce, custody, visitation, child support, and paternity. She is most interested in improving the efficiency of the court, tailoring programs in specialized courts (drugs, mental health, etc.) to curb recidivism, and raising awareness of public resources in the judicial system. 

Hrobowski-Houston seems more focused on addressing the systemic inefficiency of the court system to set it up for success in the long run, which sounds like a better long-term plan. While both candidates would likely be good judges, Hrobowski-Houston might be a better one. 

DeKalb Sheriff 

The DeKalb runoff for the county’s sheriff is only for a term that spans a few months, featuring Ruth Stringer running against incumbent Melody Maddox. In December 2019, Maddox was appointed interim sheriff after Jeffrey Mann stepped down following his arrest for exposing himself to a stranger in Piedmont Park. Maddox has already won a separate primary for the general election outright, and she is almost guaranteed to win in November when she runs against Republican Harold Dennis since DeKalb is a Democratic stronghold. This runoff election is to determine who will serve the rest of Mann’s unexpired term which runs through December 2020. 

What’s interesting is why Stringer is campaigning and running to hold the reins as sheriff for such a short term. According to a report by the AJC, Stringer is running so that she can use that time to expose alleged corruption within the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. This is unusual, since Stringer recently retired from the sheriff’s office after working there for 30 years, during which time she also briefly served as interim sheriff. This is the first time Stringer has gone public with these accusations, claiming public contracts were frequently awarded to preferred companies, and that use of force cases have been obscured from public knowledge. 

During Maddox’s 20-year career in law enforcement, she helped found and lead the Georgia Piedmont Technical College safety office where she eventually became Chief of Police. She has committed to improving inmate access to training programs, employment services, and improving mental health care within DeKalb County jails. She does not support the 287(G) program, which allows state and local police officers to help ICE and does not intend to cooperate with ICE to enforce federal immigration laws, unless they have a warrant for specific individuals who have committed a crime. 

Maddox seems like a competent candidate in a difficult position, covering for the actions of her former bosses but striving to improve the department. That being said, there is hardly any harm in electing Stringer for this four-month term with the hope that she will bring some of the office’s corruption to light. 

Georgia State House, District 86

In this race, long-time incumbent Michele Henson is being challenged for the Georgia State House District 86 seat by immigration attorney Zulma Lopez. Henson has represented District 86, which represents North Decatur, Tucker, Clarckston, and Belvedere Park, since 1991. In that time, she has been a proponent of the Georgia Pre-K program, which provides free preschool for all children in Georgia. She also successfully worked so that children\’s dental insurance was covered under PeachCare, a health care program for uninsured children living in Georgia. She also co-sponsored a notable resolution requesting the state to look into the potential burden Viagra causes Georgia’s taxpayers, considering not all taxpayers would agree with the lifestyle of those who use it. This was part of a backlash against HB 481, the restrictive abortion bill passed by male house members in May 2019. 

Lopez is an immigration attorney as well as owner of her own practice. While she is a relative new-comer to Georgia politics, we do know her main priorities are to provide quality public education to all children in her district, making college and technical programs affordable, and providing affordable healthcare to all Georgians. Lopez is also calling for a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. She is pro-choice and believes more inclusive and diverse representation is needed in Georgia. 

If elected, Lopez will likely elevate immigrant voices more than her predecessors by the innate fact that she has represented immigrants for 12 years; on the flip side, Henson has been a stalwart champion for the Democratic party. She has undoubtedly improved the health and education of children in her district, but perhaps it is time for the representative of District 86 to have the same life experiences as many of its citizens. 

Georgia State Senate District 9

Nikki Merrit is a working mom and a proud member of her local labor union, CWA 3204, and has 23 years of experience in customer service for telecommunications companies. Her main concerns lie in expanding Medicaid addressing racial inequality and ending voter suppression, which is huge. She has committed to fight for comprehensive solutions to end police brutality and racial targeting by law enforcement in our state. Merrit also stresses the need for a more inclusive and diverse legislature to better represent District 9 and Georgia in general. She is endorsed by Planned Parenthood and the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which is nothing to shrug at. 

Her opponent Gabe Okoye is the former Gwinnett Democratic Party Chairman and current committee member. He is also the CEO of Essex Geoscience, a civil engineering and environmental construction firm that in the past has received some government contracts to build and alter municipal buildings, including at least one contract with the Georgia Department of Corrections in 1999. He vows to accurately vote on behalf of his constituents regardless of his personal opinions, and intends to hold town hall meetings where he will explain each piece of legislation; he says he will then have his constituents vote on it to determine his own vote.

Merrit pulls ahead as the more impressive candidate in this race due to her clearly stated objectives and endorsements. Her long career in customer service implies that she can maintain composure under stress and work quickly and efficiently. While Okoye’s platform on radically accurate representation is admirable, it also means that he would be a somewhat unpredictable voter. This is compounded by the fact that his campaign is vague on all other priorities. 

DeKalb Commission District 1

Robert Patrick is a senior planner with the City of Norcross’ Community Development Department and he previously served Doraville as a councilman for eight years. His priorities are improving water and sewer  infrastructure and growing the local economy. He has substantial experience working in government and city planning and would likely be an efficient force for improving the county\’s infrastructure. 

Opponent Cynthia Yaxon is a community advocate and retired writer living in Tucker. She believes that as an Afro-Latina woman she can better represent the diverse community that lives in North DeKalb. Yaxon also believes DeKalb’s infrastructure needs improvement, but she is also focusing on creating more jobs to reduce economic instability and providing more education resources to those in need. 

DeKalb Commission District 6

Maryam Ahmad is a public health data analyst, community activist, and first generation American. Her platform focuses on accurately representing her constituents by using community surveys and referendums to set the council’s priorities. She supports a $15 an hour minimum wage, expanding MARTA further into the county, and wants to improve the transparency and integrity of the county government. Above all else she is ready to fight for accessible health care, believing that a community is only as healthy as its most underprivileged neighborhood. She is endorsed by the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the acting mayor of Clarkston, among other DeKalb County officials and citizens. 

Edward Terry is the former mayor of Clarkston. He served in that position for six years and sat on the DeKalb County Board of Health for five. Terry’s top priorities are housing justice and affordability, transit expansion, and climate change. He also supports expanding MARTA and a $15 an hour minimum wage. Terry briefly lost his composure after the Asian American Advocacy Fund endorsed Ahmad, sending them an email questioning the integrity of their endorsement that quickly became public, and has since apologized. The fund has since expressed that they have no issue with Terry’s progressive platform, and that they chose to support the progressive candidate that came from their own community. This endorsement can likely speak for itself, and it is about time marginalized communities have direct representation in office.

DeKalb School Board District 3

Deirdre Pierce is the former president of the DeKalb County Council of PTA and retired flight attendant. She spent 15 years as a substitute teacher in DeKalb County schools where her children and grandchildren attended. In 2012, she was recognized as a “Champion of Change” by the Obama administration for her successful advocacy to add a career and technology wing and an auditorium to many highschools in the county. She is now advocating for financial literacy programs to be taught in all schools. 

Willie Mosley is an army veteran and owner of multiple small businesses in DeKalb County. He is concerned with the current lack of accountability in the school board, pointing out that not all schools within his district receive the same resources and funding. He is most concerned with turning around the high number of DeKalb schools on the state’s chronically failing list, which highlights schools that have underperformed for three consecutive years compared to a state standard. Mosley believes the county needs more resource officers to ensure the safety of public schools. 

Bottom line: it is difficult to support Mosley since the presence of resource officers in schools frequently leads to more Black and brown children being sent to jail and is a key component in the school to prison pipeline

Judge, Superior Court of the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit

Yolanda C. Parker-Smith is a senior attorney with the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office and a former Assistant District Attorney in Fulton County Juvenile Court. She has over twenty years of experience both prosecuting and defending. She has defended thousands of juvenile and adult cases ranging in scope. 

Also running is Mindy Pillow, an attorney specializing in family law and the founder of her own firm. Pillow believes that she is the best candidate because there are currently no superior judges in this district with a background in family law. She regularly volunteers her time with Legal Aid Atlanta, a non-profit that offers free legal services to low income households.  

Both Parker-Smith and Pillow have the potential to be strong and empathetic  judges. This race boils down to: would you prefer the candidate with two decades of experience as a public defender, or the one with two decades of experience in family law. 

During a rollercoaster of a year, it makes sense that we have a rollercoaster of a runoff election. It’s refreshing to see some candidates running on platforms that explicitly talk about the intersectional relationships between income inequality, housing discrimination, health, police brutality, and environmental justice. Some races have two great candidates, such as the race for House District 65 in Fulton. Others promise to leave us unsatisfied regardless of who wins, like the race for Fulton County District Attorney. 

In these times when the systemic violence toward Black Americans is abundantly clear, we must ask ourselves two things when considering candidates on any level of government: How far will they go to protect Black lives, and how far will they go to ensure the health and security of vulnerable people in the time of COVID? 

If you are giving them your vote, then the answer to both needs to be “pretty damn far.” In the case where voters feel torn, we encourage them to weigh out which candidate is less detrimental to the safety and wellbeing of Black Americans and other marginalized groups. With the recent upswell of engagement by young and progressive voters, hopefully 2020 will be the last year we find ourselves forced to pick our poisons under such stark conditions.

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