Georgia’s 2021 municipal runoff elections saw dozens of progressives elected as new mayors, city council members and local officials in a wave that challenges the political narrative that only centrists can win in Southern battleground states, according to several organizers of voter outreach efforts.
“Last night proves two things,” said Ray McClendon, the Atlanta NAACP’s political action chair, speaking a day after the November 30 municipal runoff elections. “One, it proves the value of the grassroots relational organizing that we’re doing. And two, it explodes the myth of what the national narrative is about a progressive capacity for victories.”
“In other words, progressives are not the problem,” said Andrea Miller, executive director of the Center for Common Ground, whose tools for finding and informing Black voters were used by the NAACP and its allies in the runoffs, as well as in Virginia’s recent statewide elections where they led to some of that state’s highest voter turnout in communities she targeted.
McClendon and Miller made their remarks during a Zoom briefing that discussed a new e-book, “The Georgia Way: How to Win Elections,” which McClendon co-authored. The e-book is an oral history of the bottom-up organizing that turned out infrequent voters from communities of color to vote in its 2020 elections. Voting Booth’s Steven Rosenfeld is also a co-author.
The organizers’ approach combines the use of cutting-edge digital analytics and voter contact tools with “relational organizing,” which emphasizes listening to overlooked people’s concerns, helping with their upward mobility, and then asking them to register and vote. Both McClendon and Miller said that this strategy’s impact in 2021’s elections was a template for 2022’s midterm elections.
“We suddenly find a community that [reportedly] doesn’t vote with 18 percent early voting turnout among the Black voters,” Miller said, referring to the center’s recent targeted outreach in Virginia’s 2021 elections. “In Fairfax County, which is in northern Virginia, [the region prioritized by the state Democratic Party’s campaign ads,] the early voting turnout [among Black voters] was 8.77 percent.”
The victories of progressives across Georgia have been slowly recognized by the state’s media. Georgia’s most influential newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, initially characterized the runoffs’ results as a bad day for incumbents rather than voters embracing progressives.
“Holders of political offices across metro Atlanta didn’t like what they saw Tuesday night after runoff votes were counted,” began the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s report on December 1. That report noted, however, that in South Fulton, the state’s eighth most populous city, that Khalid Kamau, a “prominent Democratic Socialist… got 59 percent of the vote.”
On December 2, the paper noted that two city council members with a combined “four-and-a-half decades of experience” on the panel “were ousted Tuesday by younger, more progressive challengers.” (One victor, 34-year-old Antonio Lewis, is among the activists featured in “The Georgia Way.”)
Lewis defeated four-term incumbent Joyce Sheperd, 69, who told the paper that Tuesday’s results across the city were “part of a paradigm shift.”
McClendon added that November 30’s municipal election results were part of a wider trend across Georgia, which reflected the state’s changing electoral demographics. He noted that in 2016, Republican Donald Trump won the state’s presidential election by about 211,000 votes; in 2018, Republican Brian Kemp was elected governor by about 55,000 votes; but in 2020, Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump by more than 12,000 votes, and two Democrats were elected to the Senate in January 2021’s runoffs. (Kemp’s 2018 opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, announced her 2022 candidacy for governor one day after 2021’s municipal elections.)
“We have, first of all, elected a very progressive new [Atlanta] mayor… Andre Dickens,” said McClendon. “We also have turned over a substantial number of city council seats that will make the council more progressive and more prone toward action. And then across the state, the state has elected first-time Black mayors.”
McClendon cited the mayoral elections of Cosby Johnson in Brunswick (where Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, was killed by white vigilantes); LaRhonda Patrick in Warner Robins; and Sandra Vincent in McDonough. He noted that Vincent was elected in the city that was home to the former governor and U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge, who was a staunch segregationist.
“Over 50 municipal seats flipped to progressives in the most recent cycle,” McClendon said. “This completely debunks the national narrative that there is not a [progressive] movement afoot… And what we need to do is get the word out that when you do bottom-up, relational organizing with a digital strategy like the Center for Common Ground[’s tools], we can make major inroads. So, ‘The Georgia Way’ is really a blueprint that we can build on.”
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.