In the 2021 legislative session, Houston Gaines, who represents part of Oconee County and part of Athens-Clarke County in the Georgia House, introduced legislation to ban some local governments from reducing their law enforcement budgets.
The bill, which targeted Athens-Clarke County, passed and became law, with the support of Rep. Marcus Wiedower and Sen. Bill Cowsert, who also represent Oconee County, as well as parts of Athens-Clarke County, in the General Assembly.
In February of last year, Gaines paired up with Wiedower to ask the state Judicial Council to consider breaking up the Oconee and Clarke County Western Judicial Circuit after the majority of voters–led by those in Athens-Clarke County--selected a Democrat as District Attorney.
Earlier this year, Gaines, Wiedower, Cowsert upturned the election of members of the Athens-Clarke County Commission with a redistricting map rejected by a majority of Athens-Clarke County Commission members.
And last month, Gaines asked the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives to dissolve the citizen Public Safety Oversight Board appointed by the Athens-Clarke County Commission.
Why are Gaines, Wiedower and Cowsert, who are elected by voters in Athens-Clarke County, so willing to buck voters of Athens-Clarke County and the leaders they elect?
An analysis of voter registration data, past voting records, campaign contributions, and campaign spending for the three elected Republicans gives the answer.
The three can afford to alienate many Athens-Clarke County voters, in part because of their support in Oconee County.
New House Districts
Athens-Clarke County, with the maps approved by the General Assembly along party lines last year, is divided into four House districts: 120, 121, 122, and 124.
Oconee County is split between House District 120 and 121.
House District 120 also includes parts of Barrow and Jackson counties.
House District 122 is entirely in Clarke County.
House District 124 includes the eastern parts of Clarke County as well as all of Oglethorpe, Greene, and Taliaferro counties and parts of Putnam County.
The new House District 120, which Gaines is seeking to represent, includes two of Oconee County’s eight precincts.
The new House District 121, which Wiedower is seeking to represent, has the remainder of Oconee County.
Gaines lives in Athens-Clarke County, and Wiedower lives in Oconee County.
House Districts And Registration
The Districts are created to make them equal in terms of population.
From the point of view of elections, the key is voter registration and then turnout.
The election tomorrow is the first for the new districts, so turnout data are not yet available.
The current registration numbers show that Clarke County’s voters are divided among those four House districts disproportionately.
A little more than a quarter of them is in House District 120. One in five is in House District 121. A little more than four in 10 are in House District 122. And about one in 10 are in House District 124.
In Oconee County, one in five of the voters is in House District 120, with the remaining four out of five falling into House District 121.
These ratios are based on data provided in March by Charlotte Sosebee, Director of Elections and Voter Registration in Athens-Clarke County and by Jennifer Stone, Assistant Director of Elections and Registration in Oconee County.
So Gaines, who was elected from the old House District 117 and is seeking to represent the new House District 120, would be representing only a quarter of Athens-Clarke County’s voters.
Wiedower, who was elected from the old House District 119 and is seeking to represent the new House District 121, would be representing even a smaller part of the county, about one in five.
And together, Gaines and Wiedower would be representing less than half of the registered voters in Athens-Clarke County.
House Districts And Counties
The votes of House districts are tabulated by county, but only the total votes matters, regardless of which county produced the votes.
While House District 120 includes only about a quarter of Athens-Clarke County’s voters, those voters make up about half of the registered voters in District 120.
Jackson County voters make up 26.2 percent of the voters, Oconee County voters make up 15.7 percent, and Barrow County voters make up 7.9 percent.
In the District 121, Clarke County voters make up 39.6 percent of the total registered voters, while Oconee County voters make up 60.4 percent.
To win in House District 120, Gaines needs to run up big numbers in Republican Oconee, Barrow, and Jackson counties to offset the Democratic vote in the parts of the 120th House District in Athens-Clarke County.
To win in House District 121, Wiedower needs to run up a sizeable number of Republicans in Oconee County to offset the Democratic vote in Clarke County.
The two districts are set up to make it likely that they will be successful.
Assisted By Redistricting
The redistricting plan approved by the Republican-dominated legislature last year makes it easier for Gaines and Wiedower to succeed than was the case in the old districts from which the new ones were created.
Both House District 120 and House District 121 contain less of Clarke County than did the old House District 117 and House District 119.
The new 120th House District contains six precincts in Clarke County and parts of a seventh. The old 117th, from which Gaines was elected in 2020, contained seven whole and one partial precinct in Clarke County.
The new House District 120 lost part of Oconee County, but it gained more territory and voters in Jackson County.
The new 121st House District has four whole precincts in Clarke County and parts of three others.
The old 119th District, from which Wiedower was elected in 2020 and from which the new 121st District was created, had six whole and two partial precinct in Clarke County.
In redistricting, the eastern part of Democratic Athens-Clarke County was added to what had been the 120th House District to become the 124th House District.
Trey Rhodes of Greensboro, a Republican now representing the traditionally Republican 120th House District, is running for re-election in the 124th.
Spencer Frye, the only Democrat in the Athens delegation, now representing the 118th House District, is running for re-election in the geographically smaller 122nd House District.
Challengers In New Districts
Clarke County is heavily Democratic, with 70.1 percent of its vote going to President Joe Biden in 2020, the fifth highest percentage among Georgia’s 159 counties.
Yet it has only the one Democratic House Representative, Frye, and no Democratic representative in the Senate.
Oconee County ranked 75th in the state, or just above midway in the distribution of the 159 counties in vote for Biden, with 32.4 percent of its voters selecting he Democrat.
Oconee County gave then President Donald Trump 65.9 percent of its vote, compared to 28.2 percent in Athens-Clarke County.
Gaines is being challenged by Mokah Jasmine Johnson in November, while Wiedower is being opposed by Jeff Auerbach. Both are Democrats, and both are from Athens.
Frye has no Republican opposition.
Rhodes is being challenged by Democrat Kathryn Howkins of Winterville.
Consequence Of Redistricting
The effect of redistricting was to shift the boundaries of the District in Oconee and Clarke County north, making Athens-Clarke County a less important part of the two Districts represented by Gaines and Wiedower and making it part of the District represented by Rhodes.
The consequence is that Athens-Clarke County has three incumbent Republicans and one incumbent Democrat seeking election in the new House Districts.
In the General Assembly just completed, Athens-Clarke County was represented by two Republican and one Democratic.
In 2020, Gaines and Johnson also competed in the 117th House District.
Gaines won with 56.6 percent of the vote, but he received only 41.6 percent of the vote in Clarke County. That was offset by his 72.2 percent of the vote in Oconee County.
In the 119th, Wiedower competed with Democrat Jonathan Wallace.
Wiedower won with 54.9 percent of the vote, but he got only 32.5 percent of the vote in Clarke County, offset by 71.7 percent of the vote in Oconee County.
Districts More Republican
My analysis of those elections extrapolated to the new House 120 and 121 suggests that the New House District 120 is about 6 percentage points more Republican than the old 117th.
The New House District 121 is 2 percentage points more Republican than the old 119th District.
Redistricting, in short, has empowered Gaines and Wiedower to be more outspoken against Athens-Clarke County. That plays well in the new Districts 120 and 121 they are seeking to represent.
The attempt by Gaines and Wiedower to change the boundaries of the Western Judicial District was very popular with Oconee County Republicans, for example. The county voted for the candidate who did not designate a party in the 2020 special election for District Attorney. (No Republican ran in the district attorney race.)
The Judicial Council turned down the request for a boundary change of the Western Judicial Circuit in August of 2021.
Gaines and Wiedower told Oconee County Republicans in November of last year, however, that they are still working to bring that about.
All of Oconee County falls in the 46th Senate District, represented by Cowsert.
In redistricting, Oconee County remains the only county entirely in the new 46th Senate District.
In the old 46th, Oconee was joined by parts of Clarke and Walton counties.
In the new 46th, Oconee is joined by parts of Clarke, Walton, Gwinnett, and Barrow counties.
Based on the voter registration data given me in March for Athens-Clarke County, 37.1 percent of Athens-Clarke County falls in the 46th Senate District, while 62.9 percent falls into Republican Frank Ginn’s 47th Senate District.
The new 47th District also includes all of Madison County and parts of Jackson and Barrow counties.
Oconee County makes up only 19.1 percent of the new 46th Senate District. Athens-Clarke County is only 18.0 percent.
Walton County is dominant, with 44.6 percent of the registered voters.
Gwinnett has 11.5 percent, and Barrow 6.7 percent.
Consequence of Senate Redistricting
In 2020, Cowsert won with 61.0 percent of the vote.
He got only 32.6 percent of the vote in Clarke County, but he received 71.5 percent in Oconee County and 76.9 percent in Walton County.
My analysis of voting in 2020 indicates that the new Senate District 46 is unlikely to be changed much from the existing Senate District 46 in partisan vote.
The new Senate District 47, which now incorporates much more of Clarke County than the old 47th, is likely to be less Republican, though it still is likely to produce a Republican outcome.
Cowsert, an Athens attorney, is being opposed by Democrat Andrew Ferguson in November.
Ginn, an engineer from Madison County, has Republican opposition in the Republican primary on Tuesday.
Conolus Scott has qualified as the Democratic candidate.
After the election in November, heavily Democratic Athens-Clarke County is once again likely to be represented in the state Senate by two Republicans willing to support legislation targeting the unified city-county government.
Ginn joined with Cowsert, Gaines, and Wiedower in the redistricting plan for Athens-Clarke County that targeted three incumbents made ineligible for re-election on the nonpartisan ballot tomorrow.
Gaines’ Campaign Finance Report
An analysis of campaign finance reports for Gaines, Wiedower, and Cowsert also shows that their critical stance toward Athens-Clarke County is not likely to have serious negative consequences on their fundraising.
Based on the two most recent Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports, covering the period July 1, 2021, to April 30, 2022, Gaines continued his phenomenal record as a fundraiser, bringing in $164,150 in contributions of more than $100.
Those contributions have to be logged, allowing for an identification of the donor as well as the location of that person or organization.
The vast majority of that money, $142,050, was from someone or some entity in Georgia.
But only about a third of the total, $59,450 was from someone or some entity with an Athens Zip Code. That includes $44,850 from the 30606 Zip Code which cuts across Athens and Clarke County, so the total in Athens itself is likely much smaller.
Gaines recorded $1,650 from Bishop, $3,550 from Bogart (which also cuts across the Clarke and Oconee boundaries), $2,250 was from Statham, and $13,200 from Watkinsville.
Gaines Campaign Spending
Campaign spending is a more difficult to tag geographically because of use of credit cards for payments.
In the Feb. 1 to April 30 period, Gaines spent $17,581, with only two recipients with an Athens address.
One was $22 to the Athens Banner-Herald for a legal advertisement, and the other was $1,000 to the Kemp for Governor campaign.
In fact, $12,500 of the $17,581 Gaines spent was contributions to campaigns of other candidates.
Gaines reported having $243,662 on hand at the end of April.
Johnson, running as the Democrat, reported having $16,262 on hand at the end of April.
Wiedower’s Campaign Finance Report
The weak pull that Athens-Clarke County has on Wiedower through voter registration is reinforced by his campaign contributions.
Wiedower reported receiving $95,777 in campaign contributions from July 1, 2021, to April 30, 2022.
Of that amount, $77,675 came from Georgia, with other contributions from Washington, D.C., Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Only $16,650 came from Athens, including $9,400 from Zip Code 30606, which overlaps Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County.
He received $3,750 from Bogart, which also overlaps Oconee and Athens-Clarke Counties, $1,000 from Statham, which overlaps Oconee and Barrow Counties, and $8,100 from the Watkinsville ZIP, which includes a small part of Greene County.
Under the most generous of interpretations, Wiedower received only 21.3 percent of his campaign contributions from Athens-Clarke County.
Wiedower reported spending $49,640 during the July 1, 2021, to April 30, 2022 period, but only $1,474 of that was in Athens, with $1,200 in the 30606 Zip Code, which includes parts of Oconee County.
He also spent $8,329 in the Watkinsville Zip, to War Room Strategies, 3651 Mars Hill Road.
At the end of April, Wiedower reported having $109,780 in available money.
Auerbach had $14,209 on hand at the end of the period on April 30.
Cowsert’s Campaign Finance Report
Cowsert reported receiving $88,635 in campaign contributions in the July 1 to April 30 campaign period.
Of that, $58,635 came from Georgia, with other contributions coming from California, Florida, Washington, D.C., Texas, and elsewhere.
None of the Georgia money came from Athens-Clarke County or from Oconee County.
Cowsert reported spending $87,939 during that period.
The detailed reports list only $2,530 of that in Athens, with $2,500 to the University of Georgia Foundation.
He also reported spending $25 in Watkinsville as dues to the Oconee County Republican Party and $250 in Winterville for campaign materials.
Cowsert reported having $290,291 available on April. 30.
Democratic candidate Ferguson did not have a campaign finance report in the electronic files of the Georgia Campaign Finance System.
Gaines’ bill to prevent local police forces with 25 or more officers from cutting more than five percent of their law enforcement budget was aimed at Atlanta and Athens, neither of which cut funding to its police force.
Both had had some discussion of reallocated police funds for social services.
|Screen Shot From OnlineAthens|
The bill did not address the budget of the elected Sheriffs, who provide police protection in many counties, including Oconee. The Watkinsville police force is too small to be covered by the bill.
The bill also had no enforcement mechanism.
The bill produced big dividends for Gaines, with pictures of him in media around the state with Gov. Kemp when Kemp signed the bill into law in May of 2021 in Barrow County.
Gaines is a rising star in the party.
He was appointed chair of the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee in the House for the session just completed.
House Bill 890
Gaines and Wiedower authored House Bill 890, which redistricted Athens-Clarke County.
The bill was reported out favorably from the House Intragovernmental Coordination Committee, for which Wiedower is vice-chair.
The bill was approved with a host of other local bills in the House and Senate.
In the House, Gaines, Wiedower, and Rhodes voted in favor.
Frye voted against it.
Cowsert and Ginn voted for the bill in the Senate.
By renumbering the new Athens-Clarke Commission Districts, the bill removed Russell Edwards, Tim Denson, and Melissa Link from the Commission.
These are three of the more liberal of the Commission members.
Gaines recently has extended his dispute with Link by publicly criticizing her for a controversial statement claiming criminal behavior by University of Georgia football players.
The Athens-Clarke County ballot tomorrow contains the nonpartisan race for Mayor and five Commission seats, five nonpartisan Board of Education races, and renewal of the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
These are in addition to the state primaries and the non-partisan judicial races.
As of the end of early voting on Friday, 10,346 of Clarke County’s registered voters had cast a ballot either in-person or via an absentee ballot.
That represents 12.5 percent of the county’s 82,986 registered voters going into the election, or 14.5 percent of the county’s 71,380 active voters.
Oconee County voters have only one contested local race on the ballot--for the Board of Education Post 3 in the Republican Primary.
As of the end of the day on Friday, 16.7 percent of Oconee County’s 32,034 registered voters had participated in in-person voting or returned an absentee ballot.
If only the 29,251 active voters are used for the computation, the participation rate is 18.3 percent.
That difference in turnout provides another advantage to Oconee County voters over Clarke County voters.
And it is another reason why Gaines, Wiedower, and Cowsert can take positions that are adverse to many of their Clarke County constituents.