Dunwoody’s next mayor will be Lynn Deutsch, who acknowledges she benefited from the Democratic “blue wave” sweeping the traditionally Republican suburbs in her Nov. 5 election. But, she said, she is an independent, not a Democrat as many people perceive her to be.
And winning a City Council seat was Joe Seconder, who came out publicly as a Democrat in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory and helped found the now defunct group Perimeter Progressives.
The winning candidates said national politics had no direct impact on their victories. They say they focused on local issues, kept their campaigns nonpartisan and worked harder to reach more voters with their visions for the city’s future.
But some elected officials and political observers say it mattered. A new wave of activists, volunteers and voters were awakened following Trump’s election, say some local Democrats. Some Republicans say Deutsch benefited because she is part of a current movement of more women running for office.
One local professor of politics said local races are still about local issues and what is happening in Washington, D.C., likely meant nothing to those casting a Dunwoody ballot.
Turnout was low in Dunwoody’s mayoral race, with 7,871 people voting out of more than 30,000 registered voters in the city, according to unofficial results from the DeKalb County Board of Registration & Elections.
Deutsch, who is finishing up two terms on the council, beat fellow Councilmember Terry Nall with approximately 61% of the vote on Nov. 5 to replace Denis Shortal as mayor, according to unofficial results.
In the wake of Trump’s election, Deutsch publicly backed Democrat Jon Ossoff when he ran against Republican Karen Handel for the 6th Congressional District seat in 2017. Nall backed his friend Handel. The local race for mayor, as seen by some, was Democrat versus Republican.
Nall, however, said he is not defined by political party labels and does not consider himself a Republican. If a label is used, he said he identifies as “servant leader with conservative principles.”
The political spin of Democrat versus Republican annoys Deutsch. For one, she said she is not a Democrat and has voted and supported Republicans and Democrats in the past.
“I am an independent. Truly,” she said. “I hate being pigeonholed and have supported candidates from both parties. I vote by the issue, not the party.”
That may surprise the Democratic Party of Georgia. In a press release congratulating Democrats for winning municipal races, chair Nikema Williams said, “From city council victories in Rome and Statesboro, to mayorships in Dunwoody, Savannah and Valdosta, Georgia Democrats have proved that our movement is powerful, and that our voters will not be ignored.”
Deutsch said she was not contacted about the press release and she did not receive any support from the state Democratic Party during her campaign.
Many of her volunteers, however, are Democrats fueled by the 2016 presidential election to become more involved in state and local elections. Deutsch said she used Democratic strategies to get out the vote such as door-to-door canvassing. But she said her campaign and her support was bipartisan.
“We are so frustrated with the politicization of this race,” Deutsch said. “We feel like this minimizes the work of all the volunteers and the work I’ve done in the city for the past 20 years.
“This was not a race about partisan politics, but [about] the future of Dunwoody, and my message resonated with voters about how we can move Dunwoody forward, across political spectrums and ages and stages of life,” she said.
That vision includes adding more multiuse trails and sidewalks, the revitalization of Dunwoody Village, enhancing parks and the arts, and opposition to the planned I-285 top end toll lanes while working to find ways to mitigate impacts on the Georgetown community.
Deutsch said she held dozens of meet-and-greets at peoples’ homes and she and her volunteers knocked on some 6,000 doors of potential voters. Only a few people asked her about what party she belonged to, she said.
“And when I was asked, I would say this was a nonpartisan race and 90% of the time people would move on,” she said. “I was asked less than a dozen times and I talked to thousands of people.”
Many of her volunteers are friends, Deutsch said, including several who became political for the first time after Trump was elected in 2016 by volunteering for Ossoff. But many other volunteers had never been politically involved before she ran for mayor, she said.
“I had people in their 50s who never let a yard sign be in their yard put up one of mine,” she said. “I had a real cross-sectional appeal. I had no idea of what the outcome would be, but every day I got up with a plan and executed that plan.”
Deutsch said she was more concerned about negative feedback because she is a woman rather than party affiliation, but that never happened.
“I think local politics is about people meeting where they are, hearing what they have to say, and hearing their vision,” she said. “That is the core of local politics. There were no TV commercials, not much media coverage. This was about how you get in front in voters.”
Joe Seconder, a first-time candidate known for his bicycling advocacy, narrowly defeated Heyward Wescott for the District 2 at Large seat with nearly 52% of the vote, according to unofficial results. He watched the numbers roll in on Election Day at a hotel in California during a work trip, he said.
Like Deutsch, he said he was rarely asked about his party affiliation when on the campaign trail. Citizens who are plugged into city politics and City Hall and regularly attend meetings may know his background, but those voters are not most of the electorate, Seconder said.
He said his service in the Army and Georgia National Guard appealed to many voters and he worked hard to talk to people from all political stripes and demographics to formulate a platform that included revitalizing Dunwoody Village, sustainability and connectivity and collaborating with DeKalb County on schools.
“When people did ask me about what my national party is, I kept pivoting back that this was a nonpartisan election,” he said. “People want good governance and good stewards of taxpayer funds.”
Seconder said three people did ask him to remove his signs from their yards after learning he was a Democrat.
Seconder also faced an opponent who was endorsed by the current mayor and the current council. But that doesn’t faze him, he said. “That’s in the past. Coming Jan. 2, I will be working with those folks and we are a close-knit community, it wasn’t a negative campaign, and now it’s about letting bygones be bygones and uniting as a city.”
Dick Williams was the owner, publisher and editor for the Dunwoody Crier newspaper for more than 20 years where he wrote about numerous city elections before he was forced to sell it earlier this year due to illness. He was also host of Fox 5’s “The Georgia Gang” for 36 years, a show dedicated to local politics.
Local politics is still always on his mind.
“I was surprised at the 20-point margin in the mayor’s race,” he said. “[Terry] Nall was by far the most visible council member and could point to several major accomplishments.
“While the race was nonpartisan, Deutsch attracted visible Democratic support. Women candidates are running strong in the city,” he said.
He also said Deutsch’s vast network of volunteers helped her get out the vote, while Nall did not seem to have many volunteers. He said Seconder seemed to benefit from Democratic support, too.
Deutsch’s victory at the city level can be tied directly to Ossoff’s run at the federal level, Williams said.
“The city showed the swing to Democrats that began with the Ossoff’s run for Congress in 2017,” he said.
Fran Millar served in the state House from 1999 to 2011 and the state Senate from 2011 to 2018, when he lost to Democrat Sally Harrell. The election was largely defined by anti-Trump sentiment, changing demographics in the affluent suburbs, and overwhelming Democrat voter turnout spurred by Stacey Abrams’ historic bid for governor.
There were echoes of his race in the local race for mayor, he said.
“People who were knowledgeable knew who the Democrats and the Republicans were, so, I think so, sure, [party affiliation played a role] even though it was a nonpartisan race,” he said.
Millar said Deutsch also benefited because women candidates are “much more attractive these days” following Trump’s presidency. He and Nall faced uphill battles because they fall into what Millar called the “O.W.G. category.”
That means, “old, white guy,” Millar said, a pejorative term used by some to describe conservative politicians who oppose progressive policies.
Although he still believes the city election was nonpartisan, all elections have become more politically charged since 2016, he said. That’s especially true with women who do not like Trump’s personality, he said.
“My hope is, in five years or so, we return to traditional ways,” he said.
“Now we got progressive women coming in and they can be as brutal as the current president with their tones,” he said. He did not include Deutsch in that category.
“She’s a good person,” he said. “I’ve known Lynn a long time … and she’s a very fine person, but we probably don’t agree politically.
“The good news is at least we had good people running for office,” he said. “I think things ebb and flow … I think Dunwoody will be fine.”
State Sen. Sally Harrell
The new political activists spurred by Trump’s election, particularly women, have decided it was time to not only fight against his policies, but to also fight for their communities, said Harrell. That means women are taking more active roles at the local level.
“Oh, absolutely,” she answered when asked about municipal elections being influenced by national politics. “Because we’ve realized that the values we share impact our local communities … values such as people over profit.”
Harrell agreed with Millar and Williams that women candidates can fare better in elections, including local elections.
“I’ve heard a woman’s name on a ballot gains 2 or 3 percentage points,” she said. “And this base [in Dunwoody] is primarily women as well.”
Women bring a different set of issues to the table that men sometimes miss, such as with health care, parks and schools, she said, and schools was a big issue in the Dunwoody election.
Harrell said the new political activists she met during her campaign, most of whom live in Dunwoody, are the “emergency democracy workers, like the Red Cross, that kept the energy level up.”
“In my senate district, Dunwoody is central, and I saw the strongest volunteer activity in Dunwoody,” she said. “I think Trump started the movement in 2016, when emergency democracy workers rose up and became a community, and now it’s not so much about being against Trump as it is being for something.”
But more than anything, Harrell said the base for change is motivation and working hard. Deutsch and Seconder both worked hard and knocked on more doors, she said.
“There is clearly a leadership shift happening,” Harrell said. “The people Trump woke … are now becoming involved in local elections.”
Jill Vogin is one of the “emergency democracy workers” Harrell mentioned. She was Deutsch’s treasurer, she knocked on doors and welcomed hundreds of people to her many meet-and-greets. And she did so wearing a purple and white sleeveless cotton sweater that read, “All in 4 Lynn.”
Vogin is a prolific knitter who became politically active for the first time after Trump was elected. When Ossoff ran for office, she knitted a “Vote your Ossoff” sweater to proclaim her support. She has knitted numerous other sweaters with political messages intended to give hope, including “I love USA” and “Go out to vote.”
During a strategy meeting before Deutsch announced she was running, Vogin said she blurted out, “I’m all in for Lynn!”
“And I knew [the phrase] belonged on a sweater,” she said. “I was a walking billboard.”
The sweater was designed to be memorable and bright to make a lasting impression as she campaigned for her friend who she believes will be a great mayor.
“This election to me was not just political but personal,” Vogin said. “She is a person I believe in so much that I had to make a sweater.” She’s saving the sweater to wear again.
“It will get one final washing and then be tucked away until she runs again in four years,” she said.
State Rep. Mike Wilensky
That energy established in Dunwoody after Trump’s election then coalesced around Ossoff’s run for office continues today and that volunteer work ethic is mighty, said state Rep. Mike Wilensky of Dunwoody. Wilensky, a Democrat, beat the city’s founding mayor, Ken Wright, last year to replace Republican Tom Taylor in the General Assembly.
“I think Lynn won for two reasons: hard work, she and her volunteers were campaigning and knocking on doors, talking to people, reaching out to people,” he said. “And the other reason is ever since Trump won there has been amazing energy by Democrats and moderates.
“I think we did see [national views] trickle down to the city level by people who want to see progress in their cities and businesses thriving and leaders looking out for their citizens,” Wilensky said.
“I do think Dunwoody is moderate and leaning Democrat,” he said. “And I think what is going on at the federal and state level is resulting in more Democrats than ever going to vote. Even people who are moderate Republicans and Libertarians are showing up as well.”
Democratic gains in the historically Republican districts is a direct result of Trump’s presidency, said Joseph Knippenberg, professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven. But whether that played out in the Dunwoody election is doubtful, he said.
“There is plenty of evidence that the suburbs are turning blue and that is driven by an aversion to Trump … to the degree that the Republicans are now the party of Trump and not the party of the affluent suburbs,” he said.
“But I doubt that [political] labels carried Deutsch to victory or caused Nall to lose,” he said.
Knippenberg, who lives in north Brookhaven near I-285, said he generally votes Republican, but if he lived in Dunwoody and Deutsch was making the loudest noise against the GDOT’s planned toll lanes, she would get his vote.
“The local issues are nonpartisan,” he said.