After 20 years as a Democratic stronghold in an otherwise Republican county, Hall County’s District 4 is turning red.
The Board of Commissioners district, which covers most of the city of Gainesville, has been led by an elected Democrat as long as anyone can remember.
Since 1992, when Frances Meadows took office, an African-American Democrat has been elected into that office every four years.
Incumbent Commissioner Ashley Bell, who switched parties to become a Republican in 2010, played a big role in ending the tradition.
This year, two Republicans will square off for District 4: Bell and political newcomer Jeff Stowe. No Democrat qualified for the seat.
In fact, the only Democrat who will appear on Hall’s primary ballot July 31 is Jody Cooley, running for the U.S. House 9th District seat.
What makes District 4 unique, and perhaps what kept it in Democratic hands for so long, is its diversity; 44 percent of the population is Hispanic and 16 percent is black.
District 4’s boundary includes most of the city of Gainesville, areas east of Atlanta Highway down to Poplar Springs Road, neighborhoods along Gaines Mill Road and those from Riverside Drive to Black and Cooley drives.
“My district as a whole is the most diverse out of the commission districts,” Bell said.
Still, Bell said he thinks District 4 is actually “a pretty conservative community,” pointing to Republican John McCain’s success in the district during the 2008 presidential election.
Beyond ethnic diversity, Stowe also points out there’s economic diversity among residents, especially since the emergence of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
“You’ve got the scale from poultry plant worker to neurosurgeon,” he said.
That diversity calls for a candidate with broad appeal. That’s especially true if voters who traditionally vote Democratic take a Republican ballot this time.
“Being that there isn’t a Democratic challenger, you have all the voters come out,” Stowe said. “You better not be only courting Republican voters.”
Stowe, who is white, said his upbringing in Gainesville and his attendance at Gainesville High School gave him experience with diversity at an early age.
With involvement in a list of community clubs and organizations, from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County to the Gainesville Kiwanis Club, he said he’s worked with economically diverse groups as well.
But Stowe doesn’t think the election is about race.
“Things that affect one community affect us all,” he said. “Some people I’m sure will make it a black-white issue. In my opinion, it’s about what’s best for Hall County.”
Bell, who was raised in Gainesville’s African-American community, agrees that communities don’t vote in blocs, but it’s important to reach out to the diverse groups.
Bell said he believes that the lack of a Democratic challenger will play to his advantage in the race.
“When I switched parties, part of the decision was trying to convince African-American voters to participate in the Republican primary,” Bell said.
It’s too soon to tell if that’s going to happen, but African-American leaders are organizing efforts to connect the community with the candidates.
Later this month, the 20-25 Club — a group of 20 community leaders who pledged to each get at least 25 residents to the polls — is holding a candidate forum at St. John’s Baptist Church. The July 24 forum has invited local candidates for the county commission, sheriff, probate judge and tax commissioner races.
Qiana Keith is one of the organizers of that forum. She is a black Republican and said she’s excited about the chance for the black Gainesville community to get “reintroduced” to the Republican Party with the primary ballot.
“As far as I’m concerned, the African-American vote has just been a given,” Keith said. As she describes it, many black voters go with Democrats, even if the candidates don’t engage the community.
This time, Keith said, voters are more likely to think about their choices.
“Black people aren’t deciding on Republican and Democrat,” she said. “You have to learn the candidates, learn their past ... and find out what they’re going to do to make sure your interests are served.”
Even with Bell’s roots in the black community, allegiance to him is not guaranteed.
Emory Turner, a Gainesville resident and civic participant in the black community, said a lot of people are still upset about Bell’s party switch. That could lead some of those voters to stay home.
But the Democratic-leaning Turner sees it differently. He points to Bell’s 2010 party switch as just the latest in a long line of defections following those of Gov. Nathan Deal, the former 9th District U.S. Rep., and state Rep. Carl Rogers, who also switched to the Republican Party.
“It’s beginning to be par for the course,” Turner said. “You vote for someone and they switch parties.”
Turner predicts that in the end, the race won’t be along racial lines but on the issues.
Beyond this election, though, Turner isn’t sure District 4 will stay red. Given the large population of Hispanic residents, he said the future of the community could hinge on their participation.
Arturo Corso, a Gainesville attorney and a leader in the Hispanic community, said he’s not sure if the commission race will be important to Hispanic voters this year.
“I think there is a lot of interest in the sheriff’s office race,” he said, “but not that I’ve heard in the county commissioner’s race.”