Thursday, March 26, 2020

COVID-19 Has Altered Already Unusual Political Campaign Scene In Oconee County

***Campaigns Become Virtual***

The outbreak of COVID-19 in Georgia and Oconee County has added another dimension to an already complex election year in the county.

On Feb. 5, District Attorney Ken Mauldin suddenly announced he would retire, resulting in cancellation of the expected May 19 primary contest and calling into question whether an election would be held at all, even though two announced candidates had been campaigning for months for the spot.

On March 6, Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell, who was elected without opposition for years ago, found himself with three challengers–two Republicans and one Democratic–as qualifying came to a close.

Two last-minute filings that day for Board of Election seats posts set up partisan competition in November. Two Republicans filed for an open seat on the Board of Education, setting up primary competition on May 19.

An already lively Sheriff’s race got more lively with the public endorsement on March 7 of one of the candidates–James Hale–by a new group called the Oconee County Gun Coalition, which also is asking the Board of Commissioners to declare Oconee County a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

Then, after two weeks of early voting for the March 24 Presidential Primary in which Democratic ballots greatly outnumbered Republican ballots in the usually Republican county, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on March 14, citing COVID-19, shut down the election, merging it with the May 19 primary and nonpartisan judicial elections.

The Oconee County Democratic Party on March 19 cancelled its scheduled meeting and held an online conference call with scheduled speaker U.S. Senate Candidate Jon Ossoff instead. The Oconee County Republican Party asked people not to attend its convention on March 21and to send email instead and cancelled its March 23 meeting.

Candidates have had to adapt as well, and Mokah Jasmine Johnson organized a Virtual Town Hall meeting on March 24 with fellow Democratic candidates Deborah Gonzalez, Jonathan Wallace and Pete Fuller as a way of reaching out to citizens.

On March 21, Oconee County Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes passed away unexpectedly, creating an opening on the Commission that will remain until a special election is held on Nov. 3. That special election will be without a primary, meaning candidates simply announce and qualify for the race and chose a party label on their own.

May 19 Voting

On March 24 Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that his office will mail absentee ballot requests forms to all registered Georgia voters for the May 19 election, which now also includes the postponed March 24 Presidential Primary. Voters should begin receiving those forms next week.

Johnson Hosting Virtual Town Hall Meeting 3/24/2020

Voters who return the request form will then be sent an absentee ballot, which they must return for the vote to be counted.

Voters will be asked to select the party primary in which they wish to vote in completing the request form and will receive the appropriate ballot in response. All voters will receive the same ballot for the nonpartisan judicial races.

Voters will need to sign the forms with the ballot, add a 55-cent postage stamp, and put the ballot in the mail. Ballots received by 7 p.m. on May 19 will be counted.

According to the statement on the Secretary of State web site, Raffensperger is taking the action “to increase Georgia voter access and protect the public health of voters and poll workers during the COVID-19 emergency.”

Voters over age 65 years of age and those with a disability can request absentee ballots for all elections through the 2020 election cycle with one application, according to the statement.

Other voters will need to submit another application for elections beyond the May 19 election.

Local Office Action

The ballots of the voters who cast a ballot during early voting for the Presidential Primary will be counted, and those who had not yet voted will be able to do so by early voting, in person voting, or an absentee ballot.

Early voting for the May 19 primary is scheduled to begin on April 27.

Just less than 5 percent of Oconee County’s registered voters had cast a ballot in early voting for the March 24 Presidential Primary before Raffensperger suspended voting at the end of the day on March 14.

Oconee County voters had cast 929 Democratic Ballots in the first 11 weeks of early voting in the Presidential Primary, or more than one and a half times the 571 Democratic ballots cast in all of early voting in 2016.

County voters cast 557 Republican ballots in the 11 days of early voting, or a little more than a quarter of the 2,022 Republican ballots cast in early voting in 2016.

Fran Leathers, director of Elections and Registration for Oconee County, said in an email message to me on March 24 that the absentee ballot request forms for the May 19 elections will be sent from the Secretary of State Office.

“When the counties receive the applications back from the voters,” she said, “we will process the applications and, according to the information I received today, the State will be mailing out all of the ballots to the voters.”

Wilkes’ Seat On Commission

A memorial service for the family of Commissioner Wilkes took place on March 26.

A private graveside service was held at Antioch Christian Church, 1100 Antioch Church Road, in the south of the county, according to Lord And Stephens Funeral Home.

County Attorney Daniell Haygood told me in an email exchange on March 23 that the county enabling legislation requires a special election to fill what is Post 3 on the Commission since the vacancy is for more than 180 days.

Wilkes was elected to the Commission in 2018 and his term would not have expired until 2022.

Wilkes had served on the Commission until he was defeated by Chuck Horton in 2004.

The seat held by Wilkes will remain vacant until the special election, Haygood said.

Leathers, director of Elections and Registration, told me on March 23 that “we will hold a Special Election in conjunction with the November 3, 2020, General Election.”

Leathers said the dates for qualifying have not yet been set.

Amry Harden, former president and CEO at Oconee State Bank, has been public in recent months in stating his desire to run for the Commission but not in opposition to an incumbent.

Harden frequently attends Oconee County Republican Party meetings and has announced his interest in seeking a Commission spot there.

DA Decision Still Unknown

When District Attorney Mauldin, a Democrat, announced that he would resign effective Feb. 29, rather than fill out his term on Dec. 31, as previously announced, he put the future of the elections for his replacement in Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s hands.

Former State Rep. Deborah Gonzalez already had announced her plans to run in the Democratic primary for the District Attorney position, as had Mauldin’s Chief Assistant District Attorney, Brian Patterson.

Once the position became vacant, under state law, Kemp had the opportunity to appointment a replacement for Mauldin. The District Attorney serves both Oconee and Clarke counties.

If Kemp makes the appointment on or before May 3, a special election will be held on Nov. 3 to fill the District Attorney office. If Kemp delays his decision until after May 3, the election will be pushed back to 2022.

Patterson, who is now acting District Attorney under a succession set in state law, has indicated that he applied for the appointment.

Gonzalez, saying she wants Kemp to make an appointment quickly setting up a November special election, has said she has not applied.

Kemp has given no public indication of his plans.

Candidates Essentially Elected

Four of those who completed paperwork and qualified for election during the early March filing period essentially already have been cleared for election.

All four are incumbents, and no one filed to run against them in either the May primary or the November election.

The deadline for anyone wishing to file paperwork to run a write-in campaign in the county was March 18, and Director of Elections and Registration Leathers confirmed in an email on March 25 that no one filed.

Each of these four candidates is described below based on the information she or he provided in the required Declaration of Candidacy and Affidavit filed with the Oconee County Elections and Registration office. I have listed from that file the voting precinct of the candidate to locate the candidate’s address in the county.

Angela Elder-Johnson, 4341 Greensboro Highway, is Clerk of Superior Court. She lists her occupation as Clerk. She is 50 years old and said she has lived her entire life in Georgia and in Oconee County. Her voting precinct is Antioch.

Ed Carson, 1130 Elder Ridge Drive, is the current Coroner. He lists his occupation as emergency medical technician. He is 57 years old and says he has lived in Georgia his entire life and in Oconee County for the last 39 years. His voting precinct is Civic Center.

Jennifer Riddle, 1467 Mayne Mill Road, is the current Tax Commissioner. She lists her occupation as Tax Commissioner. She is 45 years old and says she has lived in Georgia for all her life and in Oconee County for the last 27 years. Her voting precinct is Farmington.

Tom Odom, 1060 Forest Hills Drive, currently holds Post 1, the chair position, of the Board of Education. He lists his occupation as retired. (He is a retired educator in Oconee County Schools.) He is 66 years old and has lived in Georgia for 66 years and in Oconee County for the last 26 years. His voting precinct is Marswood Hall (formerly Malcom Bridge.)

Sheriff’s Race

James Hale and Jimmy Williamson are seeking the Republican nomination for Sheriff in the May 19 primary. No one has filed as a Democrat for the office, so the Republican primary will determine who is the Sheriff once current Sheriff Scott Berry retires in December.

Oconee County Election Precincts (Click To Enlarge)

Hale, 5370 Colham Ferry Road, lists his occupation as deputy sheriff. (He is in the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.) Hale is 44 years old and has lived his entire life in Georgia and Oconee County. His voting precinct is Antioch.

Jimmy Williamson, 1091 Settlers Ridge Road, lists his occupation as law enforcement. (He is the retired police chief at the University of Georgia.) Williamson is 53 years old and has lived in Georgia for the last 42 years and in Oconee County for the last 22 years. His voting precinct is Civic Center.

Voters in Georgia do not register by party and can select the party primary of their choice for any given primary election.

A voter can decide to vote in the Democratic Party Presidential Primary and in the Republican Party local and state primary, or the reverse.

But a voter cannot vote in the Republican Primary locally and the Democratic Primary at the state level.

The competitive nature of the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. David Perdue may result in fewer Oconee County voters than in the past picking the Republican ballot and in those who traditionally vote Republican electing the next Oconee County Sheriff.

Chair, Board Of Commissioners

Two candidates have qualified to challenge incumbent Daniell in the Republican Primary for the position of Chair of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners. One person has filed as a Democrat.

Carol Bennett, 1054 Market Street, lists her occupation as educator. She is 57 years old and has lived in Georgia for the last two years and in Oconee County for the last two years. Her voting precinct is Civic Center.

Daniell, 1922 Elder Road, lists his occupation as Board of Commissioners Chair. He is 52 years old and has lived in Georgia for the last 43 years and in Oconee County for the last 25 years. His voting precinct is High Shoals.

Johnny Pritchett, 1120 Railroad Street, lists his occupation as fire code specialist. (He is retired and is the mayor of Bishop.) He is 70 years old and has lived his entire life in Georgia and Oconee County. His precinct is Bishop.

Eric Gisler, 1071 Collins Creek Road, lists his occupation as product manager. (He works in software in the banking industry and is the co-chair of the Oconee County Democratic Party.) He is 44 years old and has lived in Georgia for the lasts 17 years and in Oconee County for the last eight years. His precinct is Civic Center.

Gisler is the only Democrat on the primary ballot for the BOC Chair position on May 19 so will face off against Bennett, Daniell or Pritchett on Nov. 3.

Neither Bennett nor Gisler has served on the Commission. Pritchett was a commissioner for two terms before losing to Jim Luke in 2004.

While Daniell was on the Commission before being elected Chair in 2016, he was preceded as Chair by Melvin Davis, who had never been on the Commission. Davis was preceded as Chair by Wendell Dawson, who had been county attorney but had not served on the Commission.

Commission Competition Within Primary

Each of the two incumbent Board of Commission members whose terms expires this year, Mark Thomas and Mark Saxon, is being challenged in the Republican Primary, but no one has filed as a Democrat for those posts.

Jonathan Laster, 1251 Ashland Drive, lists his occupation as attorney. He is 50 years old, has lived in Georgia for the last 19 years and in Oconee County for the last 15 years. His voting precinct is Dark Corner. He is seeking Post 1 on the Commission.

Thomas, 3749 Greensboro Highway, lists his occupation as contractor and restaurant owner. (He owns Hot Thomas’ Barbeque). Thomas is 60 years old and has lived in Georgia all his life and in Oconee County for the last 56 years. Thomas, whose precinct is Antioch, is finishing his first term as Post 1 Commissioner.

Maria Caudill, 1300 Rossiter Terrace, lists her occupation as administrative manager. (She also is chair of the Oconee County Planning Commission.) She is 68 years old and has lived in Georgia for the last 36 years and in Oconee County for the last 22 years. She votes in the City Hall precinct and is seeking the Republican nomination for Post 4 on the Commission.

Saxon, 1812 Clotfelter Road, lists his occupation as retired. He is seeking his second four-year term as Post 4 Commissioner. Saxon is 57 years old, has lived in Georgia his entire lilfe, and has lived in Oconee County for the last 51 years. His voting precinct is High Shoals.

Board Of Education Competition

Tim Burgess, who holds Post 4 on the Board of Education, has no opposition in the Republican Primary on May 19 but does have Democratic opposition in November.

Wayne Bagley is stepping down from Post 5 on the Board of Education, and two Republicans have qualified for the May 19 primary. One Democrat also has qualified and has no opposition on the May ballot.

Burgess, 1030 Buckeye Pointe, lists his occupation as retired from the University of Georgia. (Burgess was senior vice president for Finance and Administration when he retired.) Burgess is 64 years old, has lived in Georgia all his life, and has lived in Oconee County for the last 21 years. He votes in the Athens Academy precinct.

Laura Williams, 1070 Rocky Branch Lane, lists her occupation as former analyst. She is 41 yeasr old, has lived in Georgia for the last two-and-a-half years and in Oconee County for that same amount of time. She is the only candidate in the Democratic primary for Post 4 and votes in the North Oconee precinct.

Michael Ransom, 1821 McRee Gin Road, lists his occupation as consulting forester. He is 38 years old and has lived in Georgia for three years and in Oconee County for three years. His voting precinct is Colham Ferry. He is seeking the Republican nomination for Post 5

Adam Spence, 1081 Lois Lane, lists his occupation as a police sergeant. (He is with the Jefferson Police Department.) He is 38 years old, has lived in Georgia his entire life and has lived in Oconee County for the last 13 years. He votes in the Civic Center precinct and is seeking the Republican Party nomination for Post 5.

Joan Rothman-Parker, 1100 Arborwood Ridge, lists her occupation as former demand side specialist. She is 54 years old, has lived in Georgia for 19 years and in Oconee County for 12 years. She votes in the High Shoals precinct. She is the sole Democrat in the primary for Post 5.

Probate Court Judge

Three candidates have filed to replace retiring Probate Court Judge David Anglin in the nonpartisan election held on May 19.

If one of the three candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the outcome will be determined in that election. If no one gets more than 50 percent, the race will go to a runoff on July 21.

Michael Hunsinger, 1100 Felton Drive, lists his occupation as Deputy Police Chief. (He holds that position in Athens-Clarke County.) Hunsinger is 55 years old, has lived in Georgia his entire life, and has been in Oconee County for the last 16 years. He votes in the City Hall precinct.

George Roberts, 1090 Calls Creek Circle, lists his occupation as Deputy Sheriff. (He is in the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.) Roberts is 54 years old, has lived Georgia 54 years, and has lived in Oconee County for the last 17 years. He is in City Hall precinct.

Jimmy Williams, 1010 Barnett Drive, lists his occupation as law enforcement. (Williams is captain in the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.) Williams is 54 years old, has lived his whole life in Georgia, and has lived the last 17 years in Oconee County. He votes in Colham Ferry Precinct.

Senate Competition

Oconee County voters also will vote for their representatives to the Georgia General Assembly.

The three Republican incumbents, Sen. Bill Cowsert, Rep. Houston Gaines, and Rep. Marcus Wiedower, have no challengers in the Republican Primary.

Three Democrats have filed for these seats in the General Assembly, and each has no opposition in the May 19 Primary.

Qualifying materials are filed in Atlanta for these races.

Cowsert, lists an Athens Post Office Box as his address in the online materials at the Secretary of State Office. He lists his occupation as attorney. He represents the 46th Senate District, which consists of all of Oconee County and parts of Clarke and Walton counties.

Zachary Perry does not list an address. He lists his occupation as law student. He has filed as a Democrat for the 46th Senate District.

House Seats

Gaines lists an Athens Post Office Box as his address and his occupation as financial services. Gaines was elected in 2018 to represent the 117th House District, which is dominated by Clarke County but includes three precincts (Athens Academy, Marswood Hall and Bogart) in Oconee County and parts of Barrow and Jackson counties.

“Mokah” Jasmine Johnson shows an Athens Post Office Box for her address. She lists her occupation as educator and activist. She has filed as a Democrat for the 117th House District.

Wiedower lists a Watkinsville Post Office Box for his address and his occupation as project manager. Wiedower was elected in 2018 to fill the House District 119 seat, which is split roughly equally between Oconee and Clarke counties.

Jonathan Wallace lists a Watkinsville Post Office Box for his address. He lists his occupation as software developer. He has filed as a Democrat for the 119th House District, which he represented in 2018.

Candidate Forum Cancelled

The Oconee County Chamber of Commerce cancelled a candidate forum it had scheduled for March 17 at North Oconee High School for local offices because of COVID-19. It does not intend to reschedule the forum.

Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, announced in the March 26 edition of the paper that he will host a virtual forum between Sheriff candidates Hale and Williamson at 6:30 p.m. on April 16.

The forum will be live-streamed on the paper’s Facebook page, Prochaska wrote. Citizens can submit questions to businessnews@oconeenterprise.com.

The Oconee County Democratic Party had invited Jon Ossoff, one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Perdue, to be the featured speaker at its meeting on March 19.

That event was switched to an online conference attended by 20 individuals. (I will post about that session at a later date.)

Johnson Town Hall Meeting

Johnson, running as a Democrat for the 117th House District seat, organized the online Town Hall Meeting on March 24 as a way for her and three other Democratic candidates to reach the electorate.

Joining Johnson were Gonzalez, hoping to run in November in a special election for the District Attorney position, Wallace, seeking the 119th House District spot, and Pete Fuller, running as a Democrat in the 31st House District from Jefferson in Jackson County.

At the end of the session, Johnson reported that 50 people had participated.

Most of the session was devoted to sharing information about resources for dealing with COVID-19 in the communities of the candidates, but each used as a backdrop a campaign sign for her or his campaign.

And in the wrap-up, each made an appeal to voters.

Learning How To Campaign Anew

Gonzalez used much of her closing time to comment on how COVID-19 has changed the election.

“We are in uncharted territory when it comes to campaigning through a crisis like this,” she said. “One of our main strategies is canvassing, being out there, talking to people. We cannot do that safely right now.”

“And so a lot of our interaction with voters and constituents is actually through social or through town halls like this,” Gonzalez said. “But I don’t want people to think that then there’s really not an election season. We are in the full election season.”

“We are having to learn how to campaign differently,” Gonzalez said. “How to interact and engage people out there as we try to keep our community safe still trying to keep our democracy strong.”

Video And Excel File

I created a spreadsheet containing the information taken from the local Declaration of Candidacy and Affidavits filed with the Oconee County Elections and Registration office.

It is available for download HERE.

I recorded parts of the Johnson’s Town Hall session on my computer as I watched.

There is a large gap between the video and the audio that was present in the session itself as I watched it on my computer.

The short clip below is of the closing five minutes to the hour-long meeting during which the candidates made their appeals and Gonzalez talked about the difficulty of campaigning in the COVID-19 crisis.

The full video of the town hall meeting is available on Johnson’s Facebook page.

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