- By Tyler Estep The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It’s not anything new, and it’s not a secret. It’s been a point of contention — and sometimes litigation — for years.
Despite being one of the most diverse communities in Georgia and the southeastern United States, Gwinnett County is still a place governed almost exclusively by white people. The county with a greater combined population of black, Latino and Asian residents than white ones has never had a person of color on its commission or its school board.
But things are slowly starting to shift. In recent years, a handful of minority candidates have been elected to local city councils, and a larger sea change may be coming — on Tuesday night, two Gwinnett cities elected the county’s first-ever non-white mayors.
Gwinnett didn’t have any countywide offices up for election last week, and won’t until 2018. But the mayoral victories of Craig Newton in Norcross and Rey Martinez in Loganville have advocates and other officials thinking this might just be the start of something big.
“The election of these two men certainly demonstrates the willingness of the voters in Norcross and Loganville to elect minority individuals as mayor,” Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. “That should be encouraging to others who are considering public service.”
Predicted Jerry Gonzalez, the director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials: “More milestones … will happen quickly in the next few years.”
Rey Martinez, 48, was born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents. They later moved to Miami, then to Georgia in 1988.
Martinez, a military veteran and restaurateur, moved to Loganville — which is split between Gwinnett and Walton counties — about 10 years ago. He has a wife and two children and served most of two terms as a city councilman before resigning to run for mayor.
He made a statewide name for himself last fall by being a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and Mike Pence and organizing the candidates’ “Latino coalition” in Georgia.
Martinez said he hadn’t thought much about becoming the first Latino mayor in the history of Gwinnett (and, according to Gonzalez, the state of Georgia). But he’s proud of the accomplishment.
“If my message, if my win here could inspire at least one Hispanic out there,” Martinez said, “it’s been worth it.”
Craig Newton, 62, is a Norcross native and father to four adult children. Recently retired from the tech industry, he first joined the Norcross City Council in 1995. He learned in August he’d be uncontested in Tuesday’s election.
He has downplayed the importance of serving as Gwinnett County’s first black mayor, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was more interested in being “the very best” for Norcross.
But the significance isn’t lost on him or on others.
“This is the first time in Gwinnett’s history that we have a black man in a leadership position,” said Renita Hamilton Edmonson, the president of Gwinnett’s branch of the NAACP. “It is long overdue, and we await future African-American leaders in Gwinnett County’s government.”
‘A good pattern’
Accompanying any recent, diversity-related progress in Gwinnett County politics has been a series of controversies.
County commissioner Tommy Hunter caused an uproar in January when he wrote Facebook posts calling civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” and referring to Democrats — which make up a large chunk of his district — as “a bunch of idiots.” In April, two Gwinnett police officers were fired and arrested after cellphone video caught them kicking and striking a black motorist.
In the months that followed that, a Gwinnett magistrate judge resigned after the AJC wrote about his racially charged Facebook posts. A candidate for Suwanee City Council dropped out of last week’s race after taking heat for anti-Semitic Twitter posts.
For more than a year, Gwinnett, GALEO and other advocacy groups have been embroiled in a lawsuit that challenges the county’s commission and school board districts. It argues the way they’re drawn dilutes the influence of minority voters.
Tuesday’s elections were the first since the U.S. Census Bureau gave Gwinnett — and its municipalities — a mandate to provide Spanish-language voting materials to their constituents.
Gonzalez, the GALEO director, sees hope in the elections of Newton and Martinez. He said Latinos and other minority groups in Gwinnett are starting to realize their potential.
Nash, Gwinnett’s commission chairman, said she believed both mayor-elects would serve their communities well — and set good examples for everyone, regardless of race.
“They both involved themselves in the community, got to know their fellow city residents and gave the community a chance to get to know them first before running,” she said. “That is a good pattern for all of us.”
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