Sandy Springs City Councilman Graham McDonald has resigned to run for a state House seat, a move that incumbent Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Atlanta) said “blindsided” him. A special election will be held to fill his City Council seat, according to city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun.
McDonald, an attorney, is one of two candidates challenging Wilkinson, the District 52 representative, in the May 24 Republican primary election. The other is attorney Deborah Silcox. McDonald was elected to represent City Council District 3 in 2013. He resigned the council seat on March 11, the day he qualified for the House primary, according to Kraun.
In a written statement issued March 14, McDonald said he wants to bring “Sandy Springs Solutions” to state government, referring to the city’s model of privatized services, and that he does not consider himself to be running against Wilkinson.
“Representative Wilkinson is a fine and civic-spirited man,” McDonald said in the statement. “The most difficult aspect of my decision to run was that it would place us as contenders in the same election. Ultimately, I chose to run because a broad range of leadership in our community urged me to bring new energy to this legislative seat. I am mindful that no seat in government is any one person’s, it is the community’s.”
In an interview, McDonald said he “most certainly” has enough experience to represent the entire House district–which includes parts of Buckhead and northwest Atlanta–after a few years of representing a central Sandy Springs council district. “I’ve worked very diligently over what I consider to be four years as an in-touch community servant” and attended dozens of community meetings and events, he said. “I do believe I will able to represent the community’s desires and interests at the State House.”
Silcox said she is a lifelong Sandy Springs resident and real estate attorney who is turning to politics now that her two children are in college. She is a longtime Chastain Park Conservancy board member and a new member of the Sandy Springs Society.
“Sandy Springs has a great tradition of female leaders, with [the late Mayor] Eva Galambos, with [the late state Rep.] Dorothy Felton and many others,” Silcox said. “I aspire to be the next one.”
Silcox said her statewide experience includes chairing the board of the state Commission for Service and Volunteerism under Gov. Nathan Deal, and through her connections to Georgia doctors’ organizations through her husband Hal, a spine surgeon affiliated with Northside Hospital.
“I’m running because I think I’m the best person for the job,” Silcox said, adding that as a candidate she is “better than Joe…He’s older than me. I think I have the energy. I think I have that experience.” Silcox said she has more experience and deeper local roots than McDonald.
McDonald said that he has met Silcox and finds her “very nice and intelligent.”
Incumbent alleges ‘blindsiding’
Wilkinson said that he had been grooming McDonald as a potential successor and was surprised by his campaign, as well as Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul’s backing of McDonald. Wilkinson also complained that he told Paul at a Feb. 20 meeting that he would run for re-election, but that Paul later told people he was not running.
“I was blindsided, having spoken to Graham on Wednesday [March 9], when he assured me he was not running and he would very much like me helping him to get better known in the Atlanta business community and so forth,” Wilkinson said. “I was blindsided and very disappointed in him and Rusty.”
McDonald said Wilkinson indeed had been advising him on a possible campaign, but denied any surprises. “I spoke specific changes of circumstance with him in advance of qualifying,” McDonald said. “City leaders came to me upon the determination that the city could face two freshmen representatives in two years” if Wilkinson and state Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) both choose to retire at ends of their terms. City leaders thought it would be better to set up a good candidate now for Wilkinson’s seat who Willard could “mentor,” McDonald said, adding that Willard is also supporting his candidacy.
Paul confirmed in emails that he is endorsing McDonald and denied Wilkinson’s claim, adding that he supported Wilkinson in his previous campaigns.
“I simply think it’s time for younger, more energetic leadership, an opinion I have shared in several conversations with Mr. Wilkinson over the past two years, including the February 20 conversation to which he refers,” Paul said. “So, pretending to be a victim or any allegation of ‘blindsiding’ is unseemly and unfounded.”
Wilkinson also said that Silcox is a “very, very close” friend who he told to be “ready” after she “had gotten wind that Graham and Rusty were going to pull this stunt.” Asked if that means Silcox is running to somehow weaken McDonald’s vote to Wilkinson’s benefit, Wilkinson said, “I can’t really discuss it, but you’re a smart man. That may be part of it. It may be trying to build name recognition for her to run a race, maybe in two years.”
Silcox said she indeed agrees that McDonald “totally blindsided” Wilkinson, but that she also took McDonald’s candidacy as an opportunity to challenge Wilkinson herself at the advice of her political consultant, Mark Rountree. She said her candidacy is not part of any strategy to help Wilkinson.
“Not at all. There’s no plotting or special situation on my part in this,” Silcox said. “I just didn’t want to go against [Wilkinson] one on one.”
Wilkinson, who has served in the House since 2000, touted his experience and relationships as benefiting the district, which includes parts of Buckhead, Sandy Springs, and Northwest Atlanta. “Experience counts,” Wilkinson said, adding that he has earned such nicknames as the “instructor pilot of the House” for his veteran status and “the Cal Ripken of the House” for never missing a day of regular or special sessions. He contrasted himself with McDonald, who “didn’t even finish his first term” in elected office.
Wilkinson also noted that he is a “Buckhead boy” as well as the lead sponsor of the legislation that put the landmark incorporation of the city of Sandy Springs on the ballot.
Pending an election, District 6 City Councilman Andy Bauman said he has offered to unofficially handle District 3 constituent services. Constituents can also contact the mayor or any other councilmen, he said.