Gwinnett’s delegation to the state Legislature had its annual meeting with county officials on Thursday morning — the first major gathering of the county’s elected leaders since last month’s historic election that tilted local power toward Democrats.
In a wave that in one way or another was expected, Democrats turned Gwinnett’s delegation on its head in November. The party converted a five-seat deficit into a nine-seat advantage with the party now holding a 17-8 advantage in its delegation of state lawmakers.
Members of the newly empowered party said they plan to work with their Republican colleagues and try to find common ground, but that doesn’t mean they won’t push a progressive agenda when they can. Or that they’re not already making plans.
“Of course, now that we are in power, we’ve got to govern,” said Rep. Pedro Marin, a Duluth Democrat who is now Gwinnett’s longest-tenured legislator. “We’ve already been meeting and we’ve got some ideas about what we have to do.”
Having a majority on a local delegation can be largely symbolic. That’s especially true for Democrats in Georgia, where Republicans still hold a significant advantage in both the state House and Senate.
But being in control will give the party more sway on issues that directly impact Gwinnett. Legislative delegations can make changes to the way things operate in their communities by championing local legislation about specific issues in the county.
Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, said he hopes to push measures that would expand the size of Gwinnett’s county commission and its school board.Democrats and other advocacy groups have criticized the current structure of Gwinnett’s governing bodies. Four district commissioners and a countywide chairman currently represent the county’s more than 900,000 residents. The school board has five members.
Litigation has also been filed alleging that the way both local bodies’ districts are drawn dilutes the potential influence of minority voters (though that claim may have lost some urgency in November, when a total of three people of color were elected to the commission and school board).
Marin pitched a bill regarding expansion of Gwinnett’s governing bodies in the legislature’s most recent session, but it went nowhere. The county’s Republican-led delegation had no real interest.
“I think what people will see more so now,” McClain said, is legislators “being more responsive, and people being more taken care of, instead of things.”
Chuck Efstration was one of just a few local Republicans who won reelection this year. But the representative from Dacula was optimistic that little would change, at least functionally.
“We’re going to have an outstanding working relationship … that is not bogged down by partisan affiliation,” he said.
Gwinnett has been a Republican stronghold for decades, but the last few election cycles have made clear that the county is now up for grabs for either party — if not distinctly left-leaning. Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016’s presidential election, and Democrat Stacey Abrams bested Gov.-elect Brian Kemp by more than 14 points in last month’s contest.
Two Democrats will be joining the five-member Gwinnett County commission in January. They’ll be the board’s first Democrats in more than 30 years.
Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, a Republican, said the priorities that county officials presented to Gwinnett’s legislative delegation on Thursday were little different than they’ve been with her party in control of the state delegation over the last several years (or decades, for that matter).
Most issues the county government deals with are less political than practical, she said.
“I don’t start with the idea that just because we’re different political parties means that we can’t work together,” said Nash. “…We’re gonna try to keep focusing on what we think is important for the community, and I have no reason to believe any of the newly elected officials want to do anything other than that as well.”
NEW GWINNETT LEGISLATORS
-Sheikh Rahman, D, Senate 5
-Sally Harrell, D, Senate 40
-Zahra Karinshak, D, Senate 48
-Beth Moore, D, House 95
-Bonnie Rich, R, House 97
-Gregg Kennard, D, House 102
-Donna McLeod, D, House 105
-Shelly Hutchinson, D, House 107
-Jasmine Clark, D, House 108