Gwinnett a minority county. Its government? Not so much | Bill Torpy


Since January, Gwinnett County Commission meetings have become the movie “Groundhog Day:” Angry spectators line up each week to lecture and admonish the board concerning statements by bone-headed Commissioner Tommy Hunter.

Hunter is the pol who went to Facebook to call Atlanta’s U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the old Democratic warhorse and legendary civil rights leader, a “racist pig.” He also went off on “Demon-rats,” which may be an even dumber thing to say, considering 49 percent of his district voted for Hunter’s opponent, the guy with a “D” after his name.

What makes this recurring scene all the more striking is that while Gwinnett is now a majority-minority county — a fact often reflected in the composition of those berating the board — all five commissioners sitting there with the hang-dog expressions are white.

For decades, Gwinnett has remained a Republican stronghold, although that status has been under sociological and demographic siege.

Twenty-five years ago, Gwinnett had barely 400,000 residents, and nine out of 10 were white.

Today there are 900,000 residents — 40 percent white, 28 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 12 percent Asian.

There have been several efforts to change the minority representation deficit. Numerous minority candidates have run unsuccessfully for county office. A lawsuit is challenging how the commission and school board districts are drawn up.

And there is now a legislative effort to increase the number of district commissioner posts from four to six, the idea being that with more slots, there will be more chances for minorities to snag a seat.

State Rep. Pedro Marin, a Duluth Dem who introduced the bill, said the minority population in Gwinnett “is very spread out. It’s very hard to create a minority district.”

The lawsuit, which Marin said is not his doing, said the districts are drawn in such a way “to submerge, split up and divide the county’s black, Latino and Asian-American voting-age citizens so they are, together, rendered ineffective.”

The lawsuit alleges the four commission districts (there is also a commission chairman elected at-large) are designed to spread out minorities and give the white voting bloc an edge. No district has more than a 45 percent population of voting-age minorities and none has less than 39 percent, according to the suit.

While whites are a minority countywide, they still have a slight majority in what is known as the “citizen voting age population.” The white population is more rooted in the county, skews older and, by and large, consists of U.S. citizens.

Since 2002, at least 14 minorities, 10 of them black, have run in commission and school board races. All lost.

Jasper Watkins, who is black and a Democrat, lost a nail-biter to Hunter last fall.

Watkins ran in District 3, a long district that hugs the eastern edge of the county.

He said he purposely did not put out his photo or party affiliation on literature while introducing himself to voters.

“Here I am, a retired lieutenant colonel, a nuclear pharmacist, runs a business, is a VFW member,” Watkins said. “But then throw in my picture and the blue factor, and that chips away at the great feeling. Now I’ve turned from a great candidate into a Democrat.”

What beat him, however, was “apathy.”

“Diversity does not equate to the fact that a minority will get a vote,” Watkins said. “It might take two-to-three voting cycles before a new Gwinnett resident can figure out where to vote, how to vote and who is who.”

It also doesn’t mean an Asian will necessarily vote for a black candidate, or a black voter will go for a Hispanic contender, or a Hispanic won’t align himself with white Republicans, or a Mexican noncitizen will …

You get the picture.

Gabe Okoye, a Nigerian-born engineer, moved to Gwinnett 25 years ago because of the brutal daily drive from Marietta to his office in Norcross. Now he runs the county’s Democratic Party.

“The lack of diversity on the County Commission gives rise to the likes of Tommy Hunter,” he said, opining that knowing others who don’t look and think like you is a good thing. “People have a way of rubbing off on each other.”

Surrounded by all-white and Republican commissioners, and apparently existing in his own conservative echo-chamber, Hunter was free to see those who disagreed with him as “Demon-rats” and “racist pigs.”

Okoye said the problem isn’t just that the school board and County Commission are white. “It’s the county administrator, the deputy administrator, the director of communications, the county attorney, all nine sheriff’s commanders. None is a minority.”

Commissioner John Heard, a Gwinnett resident since 1978, agrees that the county needs more minorities in leadership.

How does that happen?

“People need to get on the ballot and win,” he said. “The minority communities need to realize the seats are there for those who work the hardest.”

Chairman Charlotte Nash said Gwinnett leaders are “very cognizant of how diverse the county is.”

Officials are trying to make the county workforce “more reflective of the county population,” she said. “A lot of our managers almost grew up in our departments.”

That means there’s a future police chief who’s now a sergeant on the midnight shift.

Nash doesn’t support adding new commissioners, at least not until after the 2020 census and the subsequent redistricting.

“People need to put into perspective how quickly the diversification came,” she said. “It’s a blink of the eye in a historical perspective.”

That’s for sure. One minute the county was going crazy, worried that MARTA was coming and would bring “undesirables.” (A racially charged referendum in 1990 asking voters to fund MARTA was defeated 70-30.)

The next minute it’s 25 years later and 6 in 10 Gwinnettians are no longer white.

And if minorities keep blinking, their time will eventually come.



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