Gay South Fulton mayoral candidate gears up for election this month

Early voting kicked off this week to elect the first mayor of South Fulton, Georgia. Openly gay candidate Rafer Johnson hopes that many of the votes will be for him.

“The southern arc of this region will be the future. They can’t build on the north side anymore. We have all the natural resources that are needed … right here in our backyard. That’s where our huge opportunity lies as we go forward,” Johnson said. “We are going to be the future of the region and it’s critical that we stand that up in the right way where everyone can benefit.”

Johnson’s fellow candidates on the nonpartisan ticket are Robert Bonner Jr., Benny Crane, Robert Dawson, Bill Edwards, Ronnie Few, Gwendolyn Gillespie, Travis Townsend Jr. and Ken Wainwright.

South Fulton is the first majority black city to be incorporated in Georgia, a fact not lost on Johnson. If elected, he would not only be the first openly gay mayor in the state, but the first openly gay black mayor of Georgia’s first majority black city to be created.

The race to mayor hasn’t been an easy one. Last month Johnson was one of several candidates subject to subtle attack ads. His was related to his sexuality. People planted “Husband and Husband: Welcome to Our City” ads via text blast, email blast and even print copies distributed at a local school, which featured a photo of Rafer and his husband, Kelly.

“That’s the subliminal message of the ‘gay agenda,’ of ‘we’re turning this city gay,” Johnson said. “It makes me concerned, but more determined. I’m concerned because I hope that the voters don’t make a decision based on that. That’s not who we are, as a city.”

Building a city

Sandy Springs started the recent Fulton County trend of incorporating back in 2005.

“Politically, Sandy Springs wanted more local control. There’s been a cascade effect,” said Will Hatcher, associate professor of political science at Augusta University. “An area has to have around 200 or more people living in it, and it has to be developed. The statute means the area has to have subdivisions — it can’t just be 200 people in a really rural area. There has to be a local piece of legislation by the General Assembly and then voters vote to incorporate or not in that area.”

The road to founding South Fulton was a long one. According to the website “Vote Yes – City of South Fulton,” it began in 2003, around the same time as that of Sandy Springs. Other cities in the county followed suit: Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills. In 2007, now-mayoral candidate Benny Crane and then-Sen. Kasim Reed were among those who campaigned for a city referendum bill for South Fulton, which passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor. However, the citizens of the unincorporated areas of south Fulton County who did vote at the time overwhelmingly voted “no.”

It wasn’t until 2012 that the journey picked up steam, according to the website. Political divides kept a second cityhood referendum and vote out of the area until 2016, when state House Bill 514 was “resurrected from its ‘Failed to Pass’ out of committee” just eight days before the legislative session ended. It passed, finally, with bipartisan support on March 25, 2016.

“We have not had an identity for so long,” Johnson said. “Right now we don’t have a lot of amenities. We have to travel outside of our borders for work, for jobs, for entertainment. … The idea of bringing ‘quality of life’ things into South Fulton, my legacy, what I’d like to leave is about making people proud.”

The type of government in each city is designed in its charter, which in South Fulton’s case was part of HB 514. South Fulton’s charter calls for a governing body that includes a city council and mayor. Each councilmember and the mayor will serve four-year terms. Mayors can serve eight years consecutively, but must then take a break from public office for four years before running again. The mayor has the authority to appoint a number of city officials, including treasurer, attorney and a chief administrative officer.

“Many of the new cities in Georgia have been ones with mayors, because the mayors come in and are the political leaders of that movement [to incorporate],” Hatcher said.

He said it’s “a hard political role” to come into an established area as a new city’s first mayor, and the actions taken by this first government will set the future of South Fulton.

Some of the changes coming will be in the realm of municipal services. South Fulton’s city government will be in charge of taxes, its own police force and its own fire department. Johnson said he does not anticipate taxes going up unless property values go up.

Election day for South Fulton is March 21, and if runoffs are necessary, they will be held April 18.