“I’m one of the few Democrats in this room that has a concealed carry license.”
Thus spoke Alana Watkins, a local resident and candidate for state office, at the Hall County Democratic Party meeting on Monday, March 12, where more than two dozen people gathered for the party’s monthly huddle — a huddle that included some heterodox views from the left as the party tries to regain its foothold in ruby red North Georgia.
Watkins is running for a Georgia House seat in District 30, a seat currently held by Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville. She’s one of seven Democratic candidates who qualified to run for local office this year in Hall County across races for federal, state and county offices.
Seven candidates is more than the party has fielded in 2016, 2014, 2012 and 2010 — combined. In 2014, the county party qualified zero people, according to chairman Kim Copeland. The most it put up in those four cycles was three people in 2010.
But this year, Hall County Democrats have a presence in races for Hall County school board, Hall County Board of Commissioners, House District 29, House District 30 and the Georgia 9th District seat in Congress.
Democrats have a primary race in two of those seats: House District 30 and the Georgia 9th seat, though the latter is between Gainesville resident Josh McCall and Clayton’s Dave Cooper for the chance to face U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, in the fall general election.
Other candidates include Michael Parker, running for the District 1 seat on the county commission, Stephanie Lopez-Burgos, running for the at-large seat of the Board of Education, and William Wallace, running for the board’s District 2 seat.
The number of Democrats signing up to run for office and showing up to meetings and donating to campaigns reflect a party energized by the opportunity they see in poor polling on the part of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party in Congress.
And seeing an opening, the Hall County Democrats are trying something new this year: Pitching to Republicans.
It’s not just Watkins on the issue of gun ownership. Michelle Sanchez Jones, the head of the Young Democrats of Hall County, said the group is planning a meet-and-greet with the Democratic candidates this month that will make a case to moderate Republicans.
“We don’t want this to be just for Democrats,” she said. “We’re going to be picking parts of everybody’s platform and finding a way to reframe it so it can sound like a conservative issue as well.”
Whether it’s a small-government policy or an anti-regulation position, the event is intended to give moderate Republicans not only a reason to show up to the event but, if they’re lucky, shift some votes.
“We want them to come out; we want them to meet these candidates,” Sanchez Jones said.
The party is also fielding candidates with an economic message. Patrick Anderson, a certified public accountant running against Watkins in the District 30 primary, has worked for Cargill, KIK Custom Products and American Home Products, a supplier for The Home Depot.
“I’ve hired a lot of people. I’ve seen resumes and gotten to know everyone that I work with,” Anderson said Monday. “One of the things I want to try and work on is higher paying jobs. Lots of people are driving long distances for higher-paying jobs in Atlanta, or kids are living in their parents’ basements — I’ve got one.”
His last line pulled some laughs out of the audience: Anderson wasn’t the only one in the room with a child still living at home.
The room in general was full of laughter on Monday. Hall County Democrats have apparently gotten over their post-Trump election depression and are looking to the future even if the party’s chances of reclaiming any of the seats they lost in the 1990s remain slim.
“I’m really excited that we’re having such a great turnout for Democrats. Alana and I, it’s amazing we’re having a primary,” Anderson said.
“This is better than football, Patrick,” Watkins shot back. “We need something to excite everyone.”
The party still has its solidly progressive candidates, including McCall and Maria Palacios, who is now running for Gainesville’s House District 29 seat, currently held by Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville. Palacios put in a bid for a Gainesville City Council seat last year and works as a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
And just like the moderates, they’re more energized this year in Hall than they have been in years.
“Now is the time. If ever we thought there was a chance, there’s a wave this year,” Palacios said. “It’s a 2018 tidal wave and all of us is in it — and we’re rising. I need each one of you to help, and I know that we can win.”