In her effort to become the first female mayor of Snellville, 34-year-old attorney Kelly Kautz was at something of a disadvantage.
Her opponent, Barbara Bender, a certified public accountant, was upfront about her Republican connections. In GOP-dominated Gwinnett County, this is usually considered a foolproof strategy.
When pressed about her own party affiliation during a fractious campaign, Kautz declared herself to be an independent, a status upheld by her voting history. She’s always been a general election voter – and has never cast a ballot in either a Democratic or Republican primary.
So it was something of a surprise when, two days after Kautz had pulled an upset with 52 percent of the vote, the state Democratic party declared her contest to be its biggest Election Day victory.
Kautz says no subterfuge was involved in her claim to non-alliance. “I still stand by that. In today’s time, I don’t think anybody’s ideology should be pigeon-holed into any label. Being an attorney, I’m more socially liberal. On fiscal issues, I’m more conservative,” she said.
State Democratic chairman Mike Berlon said he hasn’t totaled up the money spent on the Snellville race – and contests in a number of other cities across the state. But robo-calls and mailers were part of the formula, as well as strategic advice he provided to Kautz.
One fact that may not have received too much exposure during the bitter clash between the two former members of the Snellville city council: Berlon gave Kautz her first job several years ago, as a law clerk in his firm.
“It’s exciting for me to watch someone begin a political career,” Berlon said Friday.
But the Snellville race for mayor has less to do with stealthy tactics and more to do with metro Atlanta’s changing face – and the Democratic party’s search for a way back to influence in Georgia.
Slowly but surely, the northern suburbs closest to I-285 are becoming a jambalaya of voters. Kautz herself is a small example – a native of Gwinnett, but a Catholic who grew up in a Southern Baptist sea.
“When I was growing up, our Catholic church wasn’t even built until I was in elementary school,” she said. Republicans as well as Democrats understand what it all means.
In the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a 2-to-1 margin in Gwinnett. In 2008, Republican John McCain still beat Barack Obama in the county, but only with 55 percent of the vote.
If anything, Snellville – where African-American and minority voters make up 37 percent of the city’s 10,635 voters — is a step or two behind Gwinnett as a whole when it comes to demographic transformation. Blacks and other minorities make up 43 percent of registered voters in the county.
In addition to open Republican support, Bender received the endorsements of four of five members of the Snellville city council.
Kautz said she had GOP backers as well. “If you look at my campaign disclosures, my biggest monetary contributions came from hardcore Republicans,” she said.
But she needed more. Kautz is not sure whether African-American turnout in the race reached record proportions, but it will be a few weeks before the data becomes available. Even so, the attorney also had to look for votes in untraditional caches – which may soon become quite traditional.
“I had the Arabic group come out. I had Bosnian groups come out. I had kids at South Gwinnett high school going door-to-door for me. Just the whole community came together,” she said.
Snellville Councilman Mike Sabbagh, an ally whom Kautz named mayor pro tem last week, is of Middle Eastern descent and brought his friends to the polls, she explained. “And I knocked on a door of a family from Bosnia, and they have a Bosnian-American group that I went and spoke to. All demographics came out,” she said.
Berlon said the aim of Democrats was to boost the turnout of their voters by 5 percent. In Snellville, they were able to juice the vote by 10 to 15 percent, he estimated.
“That shows that we know how to do it. It’s all fundamentals,” said the chairman of a party that no longer controls any statewide office. “Within two or three election cycles, Gwinnett becomes a Democratic county. The voters are there. You’ve just have to reach out and get them. The trick is the size of the county and the resources you have to pour in to make it work.”
Snellville, in a larger scheme, becomes a toehold. If Democrats in Georgia are ever to be competitive again, Berlon said, they will first have to take Gwinnett, and then Cobb County – a tougher nut to crack. Together, the two suburban giants made up 15 percent of the vote in 2008.
“But when Cobb and Gwinnett flip, that’s when a statewide comeback becomes possible,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider