The Brookhaven mayoral race is officially nonpartisan. But candidate John Ernst is drawing attention for his Democratic Party ties—including support from former Gov. Roy Barnes—as well as bipartisan backing.
The possibility of a Democratic mayor comes on the heels of Democrat Taylor Bennett’s surprise victory in the local state House District 80 race. Ernst is “likely to win,” said Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University, but added that it’s not a sign of traditionally Republican local politics turning blue.
A small-city mayoral race, Knippenberg said, is less about the candidate’s politics and more about being seen as “someone who’s a friend of the homeowner and taxpayer.” And in the young city of Brookhaven, the real bipartisanship is bringing together people who were pro- and anti- cityhood, he said.
Ernst boasts of both types of bipartisanship.
“I tell people all the time…there’s no Democratic potholes or Republican potholes. There’s potholes,” Ernst said. “That got me a lot of bipartisan support.”
“I’m preaching a unity message,” Ernst added. “My election will put an end to ‘Brookhaven Yes’ and ‘Brookhaven No.’”
Dale Boone, Ernst’s competitor for the open mayoral seat, said the race should remain nonpartisan and declined to reveal whether he has any party affiliation. “They were all friends before the race,” Boone said, dismissing Ernst’s claims of uniting people.
Boone criticized another aspect of Ernst’s political ties—fundraising, including a recent event at the Capital City Club featuring Barnes and top donation rates of $2,500 per person.
“I consider this an insult to citizens and a waste of money,” Boone said of Ernst’s $56,000 war chest, compared to his own $4,000 contribution total. “I’m showing citizens how I can make pennies stretch…to the maximum.”
Among the contributors to Ernst’s campaign is state Rep. Bennett, whose victory earlier this year had the state Democratic Party calling its rare north DeKalb win a “turning point” in state politics. Knippenberg, who has lived in the Brookhaven area for 30 years, doesn’t buy the political impact.
“I’m not inclined to read a lot into the Taylor Bennett victory,” said Knippenberg. He noted it was a special election and that GOP candidates got more total votes in the primary than Bennett in the final.
The real political lesson, Knippenberg said, is that only “certain kinds” of Democrats or Republicans can win here: namely, centrists.
“You could have a fiscally conservative Democrat or a socially moderate Republican,” Knippenberg said. “[Ernst is] running as a fiscally conservative Democrat.”
The classic example is former state Rep. Mike Jacobs, whom Bennett replaced. In 2004, Jacobs ran as a Democrat and beat Republican J. Max Davis for the seat. A few years later, Jacobs switched his party registration to Republican and remained a popular candidate. Davis—who also served as Brookhaven’s first mayor—lost again this year to Bennett.
Crossing party lines—even if not as literally as Jacobs—is significant in local politics. Bennett’s first post-election statement included a promise to work in bipartisan manner. Likewise, Ernst has drawn notice for actively acquiring support from such Republicans as DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester. Ernst said he even has hired bipartisan political consultants, one Democrat and one Republican.
In a city the size of Brookhaven, party politics matter less in an election than overall approach to practical issues, Knippenberg said. “The big divides in local government have to do with the provision of city services and especially the relationship between city government and housing developers,” he said.
Amid DeKalb County’s ongoing corruption scandals and Brookhaven City Council’s secret handling of a complaint against Davis, there is another big political angle that knows no partisan boundaries, Knippenberg said.
“Everyone in the race has ‘ethics’ in their three-word slogans,” he said.