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Contested City Council race rare in Gainesville
Apathy, complacency, ward system blamed as incumbents are seldom challenged
Gainesville - photo by Tom Reed

City of Gainesville

Ward 2
Occupation: Retired
Political experience: Gainesville City Council, 42 years
Education: Emory at Oxford, Emory University at Atlanta Law School
Family: Wife, Carolyn A. Hamrick; three children; and five grandchildren
History in Gainesville: Lived in Gainesville since 1948; five generations of family have lived and are living in Gainesville
Website: None

Occupation: Registered nurse, medical practice manager, general contractor and property manager
Political experience: None
Education: Degree in nursing, certificates in critical care nursing, procedural coding, business classes
Family: Husband, Franklin Douglas "Doug" Harkrider
History in Gainesville: Not answered

2011 Municipal elections voters guide

What: Voters will select candidates for city governments and school boards, as well as special elections for open seats in the General Assembly. Some cities will include referendums, including allowing Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages.
When: Nov. 8
What's next: If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote plus one, a runoff will be held Dec. 6 between the top two candidates.
When: Polls are open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Election Day. Any voter waiting in line to vote at closing time will be allowed to vote.
Where to vote: City elections are held at designated polling areas. Legislative races will be held at county voting precincts within the district where the seat is contested.

Election office contacts
Hall County: 770-531-6945,
Gainesville: 770-535-6860,
Flowery Branch: 770-967-6371,
Clermont: 770-983-7568,,
Lula: 770-869-3801,,
Forsyth County: 770-781-2118,,
Habersham County: 706-754-4068,
Dawsonville: 706-265-3256,
Alto: 706-778-8035,
Demorest: 706-778-4202
Braselton: 706-654-3915,
Hoschton: 706-654-3034,
Jefferson: 706-367-5121,
Maysville: 706-652-2274,
Pendergrass: 706-693-2494
Dahlonega: 465 Riley Road, 706-864-6133;
Cleveland: 85 S. Main St., 706-865-2017
Helen: Chattahoochee Street, 706-878-2722

On the ballot

Special elections

State House District 25: Democrat Paul Wayne Godfrey; Republicans Bobby Banks, Emory Dunahoo Jr.; Dominic Ottaviano; Todd Reed; Sonny Sykes; Kris Yardley.
State Senate District 50: Democrat Mary Beth Focer; Republicans Curtis Burger, Rick Austin, John Wilkinson, David Strickland

Hall County
Clermont: City Council, three at-large seats, John Brady (I), Seth Weaver (I), Donna Reeves, Debra Armour
Flowery Branch: City Council, Damon Gibbs, Amanda Swafford (I); Mary Jones, Chris Fetterman (I); Sunday package alcohol sales
Gainesville: City Council, Ward 2, Debra Harkrider, Bob Hamrick (I); Ward 3, Myrtle Figueras (I); Ward 5, Ruth Bruner (I); Sunday package alcohol sales. Board of Education: Ward 2, Maria Calkins (I); Ward 3, Willie Mitchell (I); Ward 5, Sammy Smith (I)
Lula: City Council, Post 1, Veneda Simonelli, Larry Shuler (I)
Oakwood: Sunday package alcohol sales

Around Northeast Georgia

Dawsonville: City Council, two at-large seats, Mike Sosebee (I), Mike Wilson (I), Frank Craft, Jason Power, Chris Gaines; Sunday package alcohol sales
Forsyth County:
Renewal of special purpose local option sales tax
Habersham County:
Renewal of SPLOST for education
Mayor, Audrey Turner (I), John Closs
City County, two at-large seats, Donnie W. Bennett, John M Popham Sr. (I), Timothy Suda
Sunday package alcohol sales
Sunday package alcohol sales
City Council, Ward 1 Steve Kinney (I), Robert Yates; Ward 5, Roy Plott (I), David Parks; Sunday package alcohol sales, Sunday sales of distilled spirits
Mayor, Donna Chesonis, Richard Presley, Lynn Villyard; City Council, Ward 1, Kathleen Bush, Clay Dorsey (I); Ward 2, Clyde "Junior" Hardy, Jerry C. Parr; Ward 4, Ricky Akins, Scott Harper
City Council, two at-large seats, William Ellis, Hilda Gee (I), Thomas Marlow (I); Sunday package alcohol sales
City Council, Post 4 Michael G. Clemons (I), Bruce Hoffman; Post 5, Stu Batchelder, Sam Norton; Post 6, Regina Harper-Odom, Terry Z. Peters (I)
City Council, Ward 1 Billy Helton, Rush Mauney (I); Ward 2, Jake Brown, Bea B. Chambers, Annie Sutton (I)
Helen: City Council, two at-large seats, Dona K. Burke (I), Jeffrey Ash Sr., Michelle Turner; Sunday package alcohol sales

Debra Harkrider, as a new person seeking to unseat an incumbent on the Gainesville City Council, is somewhat of an anomaly in the city's political landscape.

A local business owner and registered nurse, she is the first person in eight years to challenge an incumbent on the board.

The faceoff between Harkrider and longtime Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick at the city polls Nov. 8 will also be the first contested race seen in Gainesville since a special election to fill an unexpired term drew three candidates in 2006.

Gainesville's city council doesn't see a lot of turnover, nor a lot of interest.

Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, who was first elected to
represent Ward 3 in 1996, said she would not have sought re-election if someone from her ward had stepped up to replace her.

Instead, she runs unopposed in the Nov. 8 election, as she was in 2007.

Some blame comfort. Others blame apathy or the intimidation of incumbency.

But Faye Bush, a resident of Figueras' district and local activist, blames the city's at-large voting system.

Council candidates in Gainesville run to represent one ward but are elected citywide by residents of all five.

Bush's group, the Newtown Florist Club, once sued the city over the voting practice and lost.

"I think people now just don't try ... they know they can't stand a chance because of at-large voting," said Bush. "I know I talked to people and they said ‘well, there's no point, because you can't win.'"

Bush never ran for City Council, because it wasn't her thing, she said

"Sometimes, you can do more on the outside than you can on the inside," she said.

But once you're on the inside, for the most part, you can stay there in Gainesville.

Political scientists regularly tout the power of incumbency in all levels of government. Incumbents often generate no opposition because they have already gained notoriety and likely have a longer list of achievements than their novice opponents.

Harkrider is only the fourth candidate to take on Hamrick since he was first elected in 1969.

When Hamrick was last challenged in 2003, he received 74 percent of the vote, defeating Tom Nichols, who later said he would have never run had he known Hamrick was going to seek re-election.

"Apparently, he has never been controversial," longtime Gainesville government observer Alley Terrell said of Hamrick. "I think everybody has liked him."

Neither has Harkrider been willing to take a shot at her political opponent. Her campaign website lauds Hamrick's work on the council and says part of her mission is for Hamrick to "sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor" and to inject "new energy and new ideas" into the city government.

But in recent history, only vacancies on the council have been successful in bringing new members to the board.

In 2003, the same year that Nichols challenged Hamrick, three people sought the Ward 5 seat left vacant by Emily "Sissy" Lawson. In that race, Bruner, Lawson's neighbor and appointee to the city Board of Education in 1991 (when City Council made such appointments) took 56 percent of the vote.

And again, in 2006, the early departure of Mark Musselwhite from the council drew three more newcomers to the ballot. That race ended in a runoff, a phenomenon Gainesville voters hadn't been subjected to in 20 years.

The result was a victory for Danny Dunagan, owner of a local dry cleaning chain and current mayor pro tempore.

Dunagan, who beat out current Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell in the runoff, hasn't been challenged since.

"I don't know why local people aren't willing to step up to the plate," Terrell said.

A general level of comfort could be to blame. At least it's one of the reasons attorney Joe Diaz lists for the lack of interest in the city's elections.

"I'm satisfied with the city of Gainesville's government, relative to other governments," said Diaz, a one-time City Council hopeful and a former vice chairman of the city's Planning and Appeals Board. "I notice that their budget's balanced. I notice that they're not furloughing employees. Contrast them to Hall County (government) and it's a pretty stark contrast, I think."
But if it isn't comfort that Gainesville residents feel, it is the numbness of apathy. And that's what Diaz and Terrell sense the most.

Terrell says she notices that each year only "a miniscule amount of people" turn out to vote in city elections. Even in the 2006 special election runoff, which drew the most excitement in city politics in two decades, fewer than 1,900 voters went to the polls.

This year, Terrell says she's hardly heard anyone mention the race between Hamrick and Harkrider. She's only seen a few signs for one candidate or the other in local shops and yards.

"It just seem like people are just not that interested," Terrell said.

When Diaz ran against Dunagan and Bell for the Ward 1 post in 2006, he theorized that if the candidates focused on the issues that would improve the city and not on each other's flaws, residents would feel engaged and respond at the polls.

In the end Diaz concluded the opposite, he said.

"I think people don't pay attention, is what it amounts to," said Diaz, who is admittedly cynical. "They don't know what's going on. They don't know what people stand for, and it's easier to not get involved. It's just apathy."

And Diaz knows exactly why one would hesitate to run for the City Council. Diaz said the experience — the time and money spent and the emotional drain of defeat — didn't leave him wanting for more.

"Those that have experience in the system, I think, recognize that you do a whole lot of work, make some enemies in the process, and in the end, nobody cares," he said.