With Georgia’s historic presidential and U.S. Senate elections in the rear-view mirror, the partisan political momentum is now driving toward this fall’s municipal elections in local cities.

Democratic activists emboldened by victory say they will localize the blue wave by backing candidates in officially nonpartisan City Council or mayoral races. And campaigns could involve some of the local figures who stood out in Georgia’s national political spotlight, such as Gabriel Sterling, the Republican state election official who some observers say might be a good candidate for mayor in his hometown of Sandy Springs.

Partisan politics has often played a role — albeit a quiet one — in municipal races in traditionally Republican local cities, where candidates may rely on the networking and parties may groom candidates for higher offices. But in recent years there have been flashes of more overt partisanship, as when state Democratic Party chair Nikema Williams — now a U.S. congresswoman — boasted in 2019 of Lynn Deutsch’s victory in Dunwoody’s mayoral race, though Deutsch insisted she’s an independent. Now Democrats are coming on strong to field candidates, and maybe even sway more incumbents like Brookhaven City Councilmember Linley Jones, who confirmed to the Reporter that she quietly shifted affiliation from Republican to Democrat in recent years.

“All of our focus will be put into finding good candidates to run in municipal races where we have a verified Republican running,” said Lewanna Tucker, chair of the Fulton County Democratic Committee. “We will contest every race there is, from dog-catcher to governor! We don’t plan to let up until it’s all blue.”

John Jackson, chair of the DeKalb County Democratic Committee.

“I’m excited, now that we won Georgia… we can focus on local [elections] again,” said John Jackson, chair of the DeKalb County Democratic Committee. “… You still have Republicans in some municipal seats. So we’re definitely going to run some Democrats against Republicans.”

Jackson said that the DeKalb Democrats also plan to boost their outreach to Latino and Asian American communities in the Buford Highway corridor after former President Trump saw significant increases in votes from such communities in metro Atlanta and nationwide.

The Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, Atlanta (JDWS) is a large, grassroots progressive group formed by residents of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs nearly 10 years ago. Known for hosting forums for state and federal candidates, the group also has many members involved in political campaigns. Now, says co-founder Valerie Habif, the salon is ready to go local.

“We have not previously seen a need to involve ourselves in municipal elections because they are of course traditionally nonpartisan,” Habif said. “Our position has changed in part because of the outsized role that the suburbs and exurbs played in our recent election. … We do feel that municipal leaders in Atlanta’s surrounding communities should reflect not only the diversity of their citizenship but also their concerns.”

Valerie Habif of the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon.

One JDWS member recently won office — Tarece Johnson on the Gwinnett County Board of Education — and the group is encouraging members to run for more, Habif said. JDWS won’t endorse candidates, but its members are likely to campaign for them, she said.

Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman, who was criticized as a “Democrat” by an unsuccessful opponent in his original 2013 campaign, has attended JDWS’s invitation-only forums. He has said he is undecided on a mayoral run or re-election campaign this year.

The Republican reaction

For Republican officials, much of the focus will be on building state and county campaigns with an eye on 2022. Trey Kelly, chair of the Fulton County Republican Party, said he expects more overtly partisan campaigning in city races this year.

“In the terms of municipal races in Sandy Springs or any other North Fulton city this year, it would depend on the candidates,” Kelly said of his party’s involvement. “The cities of North Fulton are the envy of local governments throughout Georgia. This was achieved through good government and conservative solutions to local issues. We hope that continues.”

“Regarding Atlanta, I can tell you with confidence that our members who live in the city will be supporting anyone else other than Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms due to the high crime, high taxes and her overall lack of leadership since taking office,” Kelly added.

Lane Flynn, chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party.

Lane Flynn, chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party, said the group’s focus is on building a voter-turnout machine like that of the Democrats and aiming to flip state and county seats back to red.

“Our members are of course involved in politics at all levels and will likely support specific candidates in Brookhaven and other municipal elections,” said Flynn, “but as they are considered nonpartisan, DeKalb GOP is generally not directly involved as a party with these races.”

One City Council member’s political shift

Jackson, the DeKalb Democrats chair, said his party sees the post-Trump climate as perfect for convincing Republicans to switch parties. But he admits one challenge is that figuring out city officials’ affiliation can be “a little hazy” due to nonpartisan elections and the state’s lack of voter registration by party. He said he’d heard that Jones, the Brookhaven City Council member, recently switched from Republican to Democrat and that his group might support her if so because “she’s done a pretty good job.”

Brookhaven City Councilmember Linley Jones.

Jones said in a phone interview that she indeed made the switch sometime before Trump’s election, a dramatic move from a one-time chair of the DeKalb Young Republicans to an attendee of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Jones said that “I certainly do not consider myself Republican at this point… At this point, my views and ethics are more aligned with the Democratic Party.”

“And I think I am one of those former Republicans for whom the political events of the past several years have driven me completely away,” she said, citing her “moderate” positions on such issues as voting rights, immigration, guns and race and gender equality. “It got to the point where identifying as a Republican caused me to question who I am as an American, as a Christian, as a woman, as a voter, as an elected official.”

In the technically nonpartisan world of city government, Jones said, party-switching can still come with price. “When you have been as formally well-entrenched in the Republican Party as I was, it was a difficult transition to make,” she said. “It can cost you friends and connections, and could even cost me my City Council seat. But I believe authenticity is the number one thing you should look for in an elected official, and you have asked, so I have answered authentically.”

That’s not to say that Jones is ready for parties to get involved in local campaigns. She said most city government work is truly nonpartisan and that she first won her seat because she had been a pro-cityhood spokesperson, not because she was a Republican.

“So I am saddened to hear the political parties would like to play a bigger role in it,” Jones said, “because I don’t want to see the City Council go in that direction, where … [the work] would have a larger political agenda.”

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