A Sandy Springs City Council member and a Roswell lawyer are already declaring they will run in 2018 to replace state Rep. Wendell Willard, who recently announced his plan to retire that year.

Gabriel Sterling
Gabriel Sterling

City Council member Gabriel Sterling kicked off the early announcement trend June 6. Attorney Alex Kaufman said also will run, though he was planning a formal announcement farther in the future.

The announcement nearly two years before the campaign sets some political dominoes falling, as it also means Sterling will not seek re-election next year to his District 4 City Council seat.

“I don’t see any reason to be coy about it,” Sterling said, adding he has talked with Willard. Sterling said he wants to “take my conservative solutions to the state level” and bring “more privatization and competition to bring costs down.”

As for the council seat he has held since 2011, Sterling said, “It means I won’t be running in 2017,” the next council election. Qualifying for Willard’s House District 51 seat will begin in early 2018, so “the timing is right. It makes good sense.”

Asked about potential candidates to replace him on the City Council, Sterling said, “No one has given me a call as of yet. The Fourth District of Sandy Springs has a lot of active and engaged people who could do a good job.”

Kaufman is a business lawyer who works at Kaufman & Forman in Sandy Springs and was born and raised in the city. He also chairs the House District 51 Republican committee, he said. “I want to work on small- and medium-sized business issues,” Kaufman said. “I think we need more Republican lawyers in the legislature.” He also cited traffic and education as major issues.

Alex Kaufman in a photo from the Kaufman & Forman law firm website.
Alex Kaufman in a photo from the Kaufman & Forman law firm website.

Kaufman said he previously prepared to run for the seat in 2009, when Willard considered but did not pursue a Senate run. As for 2018, Kaufman said, he met with Willard earlier this year to discuss a potential candidacy.

Kaufman said he believes he and Sterling will be the only Republicans in the race due to their experience with the party. “Gabe and I are friends,” he said. “I think we’ll have a good, tough race.”

House District 51 includes Sandy Springs’ panhandle area and parts of Johns Creek and Roswell.

Sterling is a political and public relations consultant who has been involved in Republican politics since the 1980s. In 1994, he ran the campaign for the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood of Augusta, who defeated incumbent Don Johnson in a massive upset.

Sterling was a member of the committee that helped form the city of Sandy Springs. As a political consultant, he worked directly on the cityhood movements of Brookhaven and Johns Creek.

Sterling said that “a lot of the things we’re doing in Sandy Springs”—a city famed for its pioneering outsourcing of many government services—would be good for the state. One major policy issue he said he would focus on is the rising cost of higher education. He called for college tuition to be tax-deductible for parents and for students to be exempt from income taxes while enrolled.

Last session’s “religious liberty” legislation, vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal as discriminating against gay and transgender people, is a hot topic in this year’s election. Sterling said he believes some version of it will already be law by the time he campaigns, but commented on the vetoed version. He said it “honestly had little strong impact, but it was perception…and optics,” which also matter. He said he believes some legislators intended the law to discriminate, but most were “good-hearted” and seeking to protect the rights of anyone from Christians to Muslims to Jews to atheists.

“You want to find a way to balance all that stuff,” Sterling said, adding his council service has given him experience in collaborating with people with different viewpoints.

Sterling also said he’s concerned about the legislature losing Willard, a Republican who has served since 2001 and is also Sandy Springs’ city attorney. “It’s concerning losing a judicial [committee] chairman who has a long and distinguished history,” he said, crediting his work on criminal justice reform and general good government.

With nearly two years before any official campaign, Sterling doesn’t have any strict political schedule to follow. “I will start talking to everybody and anybody” about his campaign, he said. “I think we should all get on the same page.”

Another Sandy Springs City Council member recently resigned to make a House run. Graham McDonald lost the May 24 Republican primary for the Sandy Springs-Buckhead House District 52 seat in a campaign where he referred to Willard’s possible retirement and mentoring of him as a defender of Sandy Springs. McDonald said he has not considered a possible run for Willard’s seat, which would require him to move into House District 51.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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