Come November, Craig Newton will run unopposed for mayor of Norcross.
Barring something highly unusual, he’ll become the first African-American mayor of his hometown — or of any Gwinnett County city. Longtime local political observers say they cannot recall any previous black mayors, and Newton's swearing in will be a symbolic but significant milestone for one of the Southeast’s most diverse counties that has, nevertheless, had a historical dearth of non-white government leadership.
“I don’t take that lightly,” Newton, a longtime city councilman, said. “But again, my focus is not being first. My focus is being the best. I want to be the very best for Norcross.”
Different advocacy groups have raised a ruckus over Gwinnett’s lack of non-white representation for years. Despite blacks, Latinos and Asians combining to make up more than half of the county’s population since at least 2010, and the fact that more than a dozen minority candidates have run for spots on either body since 2002, Gwinnett has never had a school board or commission member that wasn’t white.
The issue has had a resurgence in the last 13 months or so.
In August 2016, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials filed a federal lawsuit challenging the way Gwinnett’s commission and school board districts are drawn, claiming the boundaries deliberately dilute the influence of minority voters. The lawsuit is still working its way through the court system.
Some activists — and especially Gabe Okoye, the chairman of the county’s Democratic Party — renewed their cries for more diverse representation after Commissioner Tommy Hunter penned his now-infamous Facebook post calling civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig.” They did it again in April after two white Gwinnett police officers were caught on video beating a black motorist, then again when a local magistrate judge used his Facebook page to compare those protesting Confederate monuments to ISIS.
In the months after Hunter’s social media activity was brought to light by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Okoye compiled and distributed a spreadsheet listing all of Gwinnett County’s elected officials and department heads. Only one official included on Okoye’s list — county prison warden Darrell Johnson — was a person of color, though the list appeared to omit at least one other: Abe Kani, the director of Gwinnett’s information technology department.
Norcross city elections, like most in Gwinnett, are non-partisan. But Okoye called Newton’s apparent mayoral victory “a very welcome development.”
“This type of positive change … has been uncommonly and frustratingly slow in this county,” he said.
Norcross is one of the most diverse cities within a diverse county. At the time of the 2010 census, its population of roughly 15,000 included nearly as many Latinos residents (39 percent) as white ones (41 percent). Another 20 percent were black and 13 percent were Asian.
Proponents of more diverse leadership suggest it can lead to a fairer — or at least more empathetic or considerate — government.
Newton, a 62-year-old, recently retired father to four adult children, first joined the Norcross City Council in 1995. He made unsuccessful runs for the Georgia State Senate and for mayor of Norcross in 2002 and 2005, respectively, before returning to the City Council in 2007.
His presumed rise to mayor of his hometown was facilitated in part by five-term Mayor Bucky Johnson deciding not to seek re-election. Newton was then the only candidate who qualified to run for the position.
“We’re good friends,” Johnson said of his eventual successor, “and I think he’ll do a good job.”
Gwinnett County Commissioner Lynette Howard, whose district includes Norcross, called Newton a people person who is “great at bringing sides together to work on good solutions.”
“I think diverse representation is great, but I also believe in having somebody that’s very qualified,” Howard said. “And Craig Newton fits that.”
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