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Gainesville mayoral field offers diversity to voters
4 candidates split on at-large voting system
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Election calendar

Oct. 7: Last day to register to vote

Oct. 14: First day of early voting

Nov. 1: Last day for early voting

Nov. 1: Last day to mail ballots

Nov. 5: Election Day

Dec. 3: Runoff, if necessary

Gainesville voters who cast ballots in November will be the first to directly elect a mayor.

Four candidates are running to be the first elected Gainesville mayor, all business people but each unique in race, background and gender.

The Gainesville City Council will add the elected mayor position to a council of five people representing five wards, for a total of six council members. Currently, one of the five members has served as mayor, with the position elected by the council and rotating every two years.

The governing style of the council is more of a legislative body with a ceremonial mayor and a strong city manager who acts as the CEO of the city and reports to the council. Voters approved the elected mayor position in a 2009 referendum.

Brenau University political science professor Heather Casey Hollimon calls Gainesville progressive, but notes there is a lack of some cross-cultural cooperation.

Mayoral hopeful and community activist Rose Johnson, who ran for council in 1990, said she think this will be a new opportunity for greater civic participation.

“Because we are such a multicultural and multiracial community, I’m just so excited that we have such diversity in the race,” she said.

The new mayor will have less power than others on the City Council or in city government, allowing more people to run in a nonpartisan race with no entrenched political power struggles, Hollimon said.

“It’s pretty representative of Gainesville,” Hollimon said of the field. “And it was really cheap.”

The qualifying fee to run for mayor was $35. State election law calls for 3 percent of the salary paid in the previous year, but there wasn’t an elected mayor before to set the rate.

Because of that, “we had to fall back on state law, which says that fee can’t be any higher than $35,” City Clerk Denise Jordan said.

The other candidates include former Mayor Danny Dunagan, Debra Harkrider and newcomer Charles Alvarez.

Dunagan, who was elected to the City Council in 2006, resigned from his post at the end of August to run for the new seat. Harkrider ran for the Ward 2 post in 2011 and lost to longtime incumbent Bob Hamrick. Johnson lost her 1990 bid to incumbent John Morrow Jr., the city’s first black councilman and mayor.

The diverse candidates are split on one particular issue: at-large voting.

The city charter allows voters to cast ballots for all candidates instead of voting for council members by ward. The mayoral position, in any case, will be elected by all registered voters.

Dunagan and Harkrider both support the at-large system while Johnson and Alvarez oppose it.

Johnson challenged the system in court after her 1990 defeat because she won the Ward 3 vote but lost the election because of votes from other wards. Gainesville won that court battle after more than 10 years.

“In order for our city to truly rise to the occasion of being the progressive community that we are, there should be no election system in place that restricts voter participation,” Johnson said. “I believe at-large voting does, in fact , disenfranchise voters.”

Dunagan has been involved in warding off a new challenge to the city’s at-large system from the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. GALEO members have said since 2011 that Gainesville’s current system dilutes minority votes and violates the Voting Rights Act. The group had planned to file a lawsuit against the city this month but is now eyeing such a move early next year so it has more time to raise money to pay court-related costs.

“Until Gainesville gets to the position that it needs to look at district voting, I think Gainesville’s small enough,” he said. “We represent the whole city and I totally support at-large voting.”

Alvarez shares the concerns that others in the Hispanic community have about at-large voting. He has participated in GALEO meetings held in Gainesville.

“I don’t agree with it. I think it’s time for it to be different,” he said. “I think the city’s demographics show that.”

Harkrider said it’s still a viable way to go since it represents everyone.

“It’s a fair way to have us vote,” Harkrider said.

Hollimon said that nationally, at-large systems dilute minority votes. Turnout rates are less for hourly employees, people who lack transportation and are in a lower income bracket, she said.

“The people that have higher turnout rates can dilute the vote of the minority groups,” she said.

While GALEO officials are focusing on the issue during the campaign period, Hollimon said she doesn’t think it will increase Latino turnout, which is typically low in Gainesville. A GALEO study released last month showed Hall leads the state in growth of new Latino voters.

While questioning her own cynicism, Hollimon said this is not a big election year and there’s no issue so pressing that will bring out a lot more voters.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the political scene that much in the city,” she said. “I think the (Hispanic turnout) is going to stay low.”