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Election 2017: Latino vote looms as potential factor in Gainesville council race
Three-way contest for seat will test voting strength of growing population
0903 At-Large Voting
Voters enter the Gainesville Civic Center to cast their ballot at the Gainesville I precinct on Nov. 5, 2013. - photo by Scott Rogers

The race for the Gainesville City Council Ward 4 seat again looms as a litmus test for the strength of Latino voters in a city where they are 41.3 percent of the population.

Adding interest to the outcome is the participation of Maria Del Rosario Palacios, who is hoping to become the first Hispanic elected to Gainesville City Council. She’s banking on succeeding where other Hispanics before her have failed by turning out the Latino vote in large enough numbers to upend incumbent George Wangemann, who has been on City Council for 30 years.

Businessman and former downtown Gainesville restaurateur Albert Reeves is also contesting the seat.

Wangemann is taking nothing for granted. Last week, he visited a stretch of Atlanta Highway where more than 90 percent of the businesses are owned by Latinos.

Latino vote trajectory in Gainesville

Year Registered Voted Turnout

2004:      346                  138         39.9%

2008 815                  298 36.6%

2012 1,017          322 31.7%

2016 2,129          709 33.3%

Source: Georgia Secretary of State

Election 2017

Early voting: Runs through Friday

Election Day: Nov. 7

More info: For voting locations and sample ballots, visit the Hall County Elections page

Gustavo Godinez, owner of El Griton Mexican Grill, was glad to see Wangemann drop by his restaurant.

“I’m here to help you in anything you want to do,” Godinez told Wangemann. “Me and my family are ready to help. Let us know. Me and my family are with you. We are with everybody. We want to see more people coming in, more people getting involved in the Hispanic community.”

Godinez and Wangemann talked about getting involved in a cleanup project through Keep Hall Beautiful.

“You know, once in a awhile the Hispanic community cleans all these creeks,” Godinez told Wangemann. “They put two dumpsters in the back and Hispanic school kids come and clean all the creeks, the rivers you know. I like it that way. I feed them, 60, 70 burritos.”

Art Gallegos, who along with Angel Rosario founded the Latino Conservative Organization, accompanied Wangemann to the meeting with Godinez. Gallegos has let it be known that when Wangemann decides not to run again, he would definitely seek the Ward 4 seat and would hope to get Wangemann’s support.

Wangemann said this would likely be his final election, and he would like to finish his career with 35 years under his belt as an elected city official. He said actively seeking the Latino vote is important to achieving his goal because the number of such voters will continue to grow.

“If you look at the Gainesville school system, I think 65 to 70 percent of the students are Hispanics,” Wangemann said. “Years ago, the Hispanics were not what I would call a significant force like they are today. It’s different today, so you do have to get to know the people, and you have to work with them and be out there in their parts of the community.”

Gains made by Latino voters are evident by looking at the jump in the number registering and turning out to vote in the city. In the 2016 elections, 2,129 Latinos registered to vote in Gainesville, an increase of 109 percent from the 1,017 on the rolls in 2012, according to numbers filed with the office of the Georgia Secretary of State.

The number of Latinos who voted in 2016 climbed to 709, a jump of 120 percent from the 322 who voted in 2012.

Palacios, a University of North Georgia Gainesville graduate, has been active in recent years registering Hispanic voters and trying to strengthen the Latino voting bloc. She’s on the staff of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, an organization that’s had run-ins with Gainesville for its at-large voting policy.

Though the city is divided into five wards, with each member of City Council residing in and representing one of the wards, voting is applied citywide for each council race. Palacios and GALEO insist there would be more minority representation on City Council if voting was restricted to those living in a ward.

Palacios said that while she’s been going out to all the wards meeting voters, she’s struck by how many people don’t even know there is an election coming up Nov. 7.

“Honestly, out of 30 people I come across, one of them will know about the election,” Palacios said.

Palacios said she would have run for office before, but only became a naturalized U.S. citizen in June.

“This is the first year I’ve ever qualified to run for office,” Palacios said.

It also will mark the first time she’ll vote, and she’s proud her first vote will be under her name on the ballot.

Reeves said it would help voter turnout if some group would organize a candidates’ forum for the only contested race in Gainesville. Mayor Danny Dunagan and Ward 1 Councilman Sam Couvillon are also on the Nov. 7 ballot, but are running unopposed.

“I’m surprised the Chamber of Commerce or some other organization has not stepped up to hold a candidates’ forum,” Reeves said.