1:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with remarks from fellow candidate Robert Dawson.
A series of political attack ads aimed at a gay mayoral candidate has Fulton County’s LGBT community and allies furious.
Rafer Johnson, an openly gay man running for mayor of the new city of South Fulton, and his husband are the subject of the ads, which he said aim to make voters feel awkward about electing a LGBT candidate.
“If you look at the ad, it’s a subliminal [message], ‘husband and husband,’” Johnson told Georgia Voice. “It says, ‘Husband and husband, welcome to our city.’ That’s the subliminal message of the ‘gay agenda,’ of ‘we’re turning this city gay.’”
The ad is a perversion of an existing ad Johnson created earlier to endorse John Eaves as Fulton County Chairman. Underneath a photo of Johnson and his husband, a purple band proclaims “Husband and Husband,” and beneath that an altered version of Johnson’s campaign logo, which now reads “Welcome to our new city of South Fulton.”
“They literally sent this out as a text bomb, which I had no idea you could even do. People started getting texts on their phone with the image attached. Subsequently, they sent it as an email,” Johnson said. “On Friday, they actually littered an elementary school with it, and these were print-outs this time.”
Johnson was hesitant to come forward about the ads, because he did not want to encourage backlash, but after speaking with friends in the city both gay and straight, he felt it was important for people to hear a response from his campaign.
“It didn’t come to us. I got it initially from a City Council candidate and then the phone calls started coming in from residents and candidates saying that there’s a text going on about you,” Johnson said.
There’s a lot of speculation as to who is behind the attack ads.
“Some of the other members of the community have seen this before, very, very similar, where it has happened to one of our LGBT candidates … in his race for senator,” Johnson said. “They told me it was almost the exact same thing, the exact MO. They’re suspicious it is the same operative.”
Because he has no proof, Johnson doesn’t believe it will do much good to take the ads to the police. His campaign tried tracing the email address and phone number involved in the distribution, but have not had luck yet. He said similar, more soft attack ads were printed about one of his opponents, and the individual he suspects behind the ads works for that person. Johnson believes this could be a way to throw them off the scent.
“It makes me concerned, but more determined. I’m concerned because I hope that the voters don’t make a decision based on that,” Johnson said. “That’s not who we are, as a city. We have to be progressive. Most young people don’t believe in the same way older people do. Let’s be welcoming. Let’s really talk about our future.”
Fellow mayoral candidates Bill Edwards and Robert Dawson were also attacked with similarly designed ads, Dawson told Georgia Voice.
“The rhetoric they’re speaking against Rafer, he’s a friend of mine even though he’s a competitor, I completely disavow and have utter disdain for what has happened,” Dawson said. ”
South Fulton was approved as a city during the November 2016 election, so a campaign trail and election to elect its first mayor has been quick, Johnson said. South Fulton is the first majority black city to be created, and it will also be the second-largest city in Fulton County.
Dawson said it’s a city of thinkers who will not be influenced by ads such as these.
“Gimmicks aren’t going to work. Slogans aren’t going to work. Smears aren’t going to work. Negative attacks aren’t going to work,” he said. “This type of ignorance is not going to work.”
Johnson said it’s not his being gay that frightens some people, it’s the idea of him being married and having to have both a gay mayor and a “first gentleman” of the city. They don’t hide their marriage — both are active in the community — but they take offense to these ads trying to tell South Fulton residents that Johnson should be voted against because of his sexuality.
“Are you going to pick a candidate who’s doing this kind of work, or are you going to pick a candidate to be progressive and bring economic development?” Johnson said. “Whether the person is gay or not is irrelevant. Let’s get the best leaders available.”