In Athens, a strained test of bipartisanship in a deep-blue stronghold

Athens Democrats vote to oust Mayor Nancy Denson from the party’s committee. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Athens – Athens Mayor Nancy Denson has been a member of the local Democratic party for more than three decades. She identifies as a Democrat, and she’s held a string of fundraisers for prominent party figures at her Athens home over the years.

And at a testy meeting on Thursday at an Athens library, Denson was ousted from the local party’s committee for an affront many fellow Democrats considered unforgivable: She openly supports Republican Houston Gaines, a candidate for an open House seat up for grabs on Nov. 7 who was her campaign manager.

The overwhelming vote – only three Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee members pushed to keep her in the party’s fold – was an unmistakable symbol of the sky-high tensions in liberal bastions like Athens over President Donald Trump.

Even the letter to Denson informing her the party was set to revoke her membership cited her “support of Donald Trump’s party.”

“This is not a good moment for the Athens Democrats,” said Russell Edwards, a local Democratic activist and candidate for county commission. “Never before in our history, that we’re aware of, has a member been removed. This is not a decision that we take lightly.”

He chaired a subcommittee that earlier unanimously called for her ouster because she violated a party bylaw that said no member shall “use his/her office to support an opposed primary or special election candidate.”

Denson doesn’t deny she did just that. She hosted a fundraiser for Gaines at her Athens home and donated $1,000 to support the candidate, even though a Democratic candidate – Deborah Gonzalez, an attorney and administrator – qualified for the race.

She wasn’t at Thursday’s meeting. But she told Flagpole, a local publication, that she didn’t violate the rules because it’s a special election that is technically nonpartisan. Besides, she added, she will resign from the committee if Gaines wins because she wants to continue supporting her former campaign hand.

“As an American, as an Athenian and a Georgian, I want the best candidate,” she told Flagpole.

The seat was vacated by Republican Regina Quick after she was tapped to a judgeship, and although Athens is a liberal stronghold, the district is so conservative that Quick has never faced a general election opponent since she won her party’s nomination in 2012.

That’s because it encompasses about half of Athens but stretches east to include ruby-red territory in nearby rural counties. Still, Democrats see an opening: Trump only won the territory by about 3 points.

Just a year removed from college, Gaines hopes to keep it in GOP hands.

At 19, he was Denson’s campaign manager. Two years later, he won the vote at UGA to become student body president. A year after his reign ended, he qualified for the seat and scared off a potential rival – former state Rep. Doug McKillip, who had considered a run.

He’s quickly consolidated local GOP support; campaign disclosures show he’s raised at least $66,000 while Gonzalez has collected less than $8,000.

The Republican also hasn’t stayed on the sidelines while his former boss came under fire. In a statement, Gaines said that local Democrats have publicly displayed their “extremism” by revoking the mayor’s Democratic membership.

“The mayor has served this community throughout her life, and her record gives her credibility when she says she’s the supporting the candidate she believes is best to represent us,” he said.

The vote Thursday was a somber moment, and there were no cheers or celebration after Denson was exiled. Denise Ricks, the party’s chair, said there was little choice.

“The unfortunate event is that she has left our Athens Clarke County Democratic Committee ideals,” said Ricks.

Her supporters, meanwhile, said the ouster should send alarm bells about bipartisanship in Georgia.

“I know what we’re doing now is not going to hurt Nancy,” said John Jeffreys, a party member who called for a more lenient punishment for the mayor. “It’s going to hurt us as a party.”

Reader Comments 0

8 comments
Nancy W.
Nancy W.

This makes sense. Keeping her as part of their Democratic Committee would be like keeping a basketball player who keeps trying to make goals for the other team. And no matter how much people like Denson want to pretend that they're "beyond" partisan politics and are just supporting a "good person" whom they've watched grow up, and whose family they know well...the fact remains that Gaines is running for state house as a Republican and if he wins he'll join the Republican caucus in Atlanta to bolster their agenda of: suppressing voter rights, extreme gerrymandering, taking away social safety net benefits like Medicare, limiting women's healthcare choices, anti any kind of gun regulation, anti LBGTQ rights, anti refugee and immigrant rights, limiting the right of workers to organize for better conditions, and giving industry carte blanche to pollute our environment. In the meantime there is a great Democrat running for the same seat - Deborah Gonzalez, who will work for the health and rights of ALL Georgians.

UGAgrad1990
UGAgrad1990

That's just not true. Houston is a good guy and is not a right wing nut. It's not if he wins, it's when he wins b/c Gonzalez doesn't stand a chance in this district.

Does Houston get zero credit for scaring Doug Mc out of the race? Now there is a real turncoat right wing nut. That's the real story here that few are talking about. Instead of a partisan hack, we will have a young, chamber of commerce type representative in Houston. For now, that's the best possible outcome.

IggyDad
IggyDad

@UGAgrad1990 If he's not a right wing nut then why is he running as a Republican? That' all the party is now.

JoeWisenbaker
JoeWisenbaker

BTW, bipartisanship refers to collaboration between two, traditionally opposing parties. Someone who has historically been aligned with one party reaching out to endorse someone from another party reflects more of an 'independent' stance. If someone wants to be 'independent' they shouldn't be a member of an organization that requires, as part of its bylaws, endorsing the candidate of a particular party. 

JoeWisenbaker
JoeWisenbaker

This had nothing to do with any desire to hurt the Mayor. Her removal from the county committee frees her from conflicting loyalties allowing her to unambiguously support someone who she feels (without any stated reason) to be the more qualified candidate. And, it frees the committee from any concerns that one of its members might be undermining one of its own candidates.

UGAgrad1990
UGAgrad1990

So under the same logic they'd have to kick Roy Barnes off the committee too.

Unbelievable... making the Democratic Party smaller and smaller every day.

RoyalDawg
RoyalDawg

More from the tolerant left.

IggyDad
IggyDad

@RoyalDawg Why should we be "tolerant" of intolerant supporters of Trump? Nope.