Sandy Springs leaders don’t think the loss of longtime Republican legislators will have a major effect on city business. Democrats saw a new wave of support in the suburbs in the Nov. 6 election, flipping three local seats, which experts attribute to national Republican criticism and the area’s changing demographics.
“There was a wave that came through here and it didn’t matter how well anyone was doing or how long they had been there,” said Gabe Sterling, a former City Council member and Republican political consultant.
Longtime Republicans who will no longer represent Sandy Springs include Sen. Fran Millar, who lost his seat, and Rep. Wendell Willard, who retired.
Republican incumbent Rep. Meagan Hanson, who took office in 2017, lost her seat to a Democrat.
“The suburbs have become more competitive in part because they are more diverse. We should not be surprised Democrats are winning races,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor.
Gillespie said as demographics continue to change, bringing more diversity to the suburbs, including Sandy Springs, more Democrats will continue winning races.
“The election showed Democrats can make races competitive,” she said. “I don’t see anything changing that pattern.”
Mayor Rusty Paul said he believes the city will be able to work with legislators the same way it always has and did not have concerns the changes would affect communicating with the General Assembly.
“We all represent the same constituency and I’m sure that we will be working together in the best interests of those people,” Paul said. “Very few of the city’s legislative issues have a partisan or ideological cast.”
City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio said the city will miss Willard and would like to still have him, but he believes it will not hinder city progress.
“We try to work with everybody and to be apolitical,” DeJulio said. “We will continue to communicate our issues and if they can help us in any way, I’m sure they will.”
There were some open seats this year, but Democrats were also more willing to challenge due to the changes making the seats more competitive, Gillespie said.
“Good candidates don’t run against strong incumbents for no reason,” she said.
Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, said the shift seems to be driven by college-educated, white suburban women who may be rejecting President Trump.
“As long as the Republican brand is defined by Trump, that’s going to be a big issue,” Knippenberg said.
The opposition to Trump has created a huge challenge for Republicans, Sterling said.
“It’s hard to overcome that even with really good people,” he said.
The new legislators should be able to figure out the process, Sterling said.
“This happens in jurisdictions all the time. You have new people who need to their legs under them, but normally they figure it out,” he said.
Many of the legislative efforts Sandy Springs cares about concern local control, which is bipartisan, Sterling said.
Sterling said the presence of several other Republicans who have been serving will lessen the blow, such as Sen. John Albers, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick and Rep. Deborah Silcox.
“It will make things a little different,” he said. “But we’ve still got a lot of bodies there.”
New legislators have a unique opportunity for success in some cases, such as Silcox successfully passing a new fireworks control law. She wasn’t aware that fireworks had been controversial in previous sessions, so she didn’t hesitate to try to pass a law when she heard about the issue, she said at a Nov. 12 meeting of the Rotary Club of Sandy Springs.
McLaurin wins despite ethics complaints
Sterling played a role in one of the nastiest races this year, where the GOP unsuccessfully challenged the eligibility of a Democrat who eventually won a state House seat. But both are speaking in peaceable terms now.
Josh McLaurin, the Democrat, won the House District 51 that Willard is leaving, despite being the subject of three ethics complaints from the state Republican Party. The GOP sent out mailers based on the complaints, which drew a libel lawsuit from McLaurin.
Sterling was behind one of three complaints that alleged McLaurin was ineligible to run. Sterling said he hasn’t kept up with updates on the investigations, which are still pending, and said he wished the best for McLaurin.
McLaurin said he intends “to work with local elected officials and other state officials of any party in the pursuit of what is best for District 51.”
McLaurin lives in an apartment complex on the north end, which the city is attempting to see redeveloped through a new “revitalization task force.” McLaurin said he, and other Democrats elected, will be a voice for people who have needed better representation.
“One of the single most important outcomes of this election is that there will be a voice for people in these districts who are there and face tough economic challenges, including affordable housing and the ability to pay for healthcare,” he said.
But these new policies he plans to push for will come while working with others and compromising, McLaurin said.
“Although we are excited to endorse policies people have been asking for a long time, like access to affordable healthcare and protecting public schools, it’s an area in transition. I think people managing transition have to be respectful of both old and new,” he said.
Despite moving back to the state recently after living in New York, McLaurin said he feels he is equipped to represent the area.
“I have a feel for the culture and the people who live here,” he said.
– Dyana Bagby contributed