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Gainesville City Council runoff to test finalists outreach efforts
Brooks, Cheek aim to lure Latino voters, keep others turning out
Andre Cheek
Andre Cheek

Gainesville City Council runoff

When: Dec. 1

At stake: Ward 3 post on council

Candidates: Barbara Brooks, Andre Cheek

More information: Hall County Election Office

Will local Latinos decide the election? Will turnout keep pace? What role will current officials play?

Answers to any or all of these questions could determine who will win the Dec. 1 runoff in the Gainesville City Council Ward 3 election.

There’s a lot on the line in the contest that leaves Barbara Brooks, a retired social worker, and Andre Cheek, a program coordinator with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, fighting for a majority of votes.

Brooks captured about 44 percent of the vote in the general election last week, with Cheek earning 28 percent, neither enough for an outright win.

The four-way contest revealed many competing interests, but also the shared concerns of minorities living and working in the city’s most diverse ward. Brooks and Cheek will need to pick up votes to secure victory, but they will also need to retain the support they’ve already generated.

SWING VOTERS

The winning formula in the runoff may lie in just how many Latino voters Brooks and Cheek can bring to their side.

Lemuel Betancourt was the only Latino candidate in the race and took in about 20 percent of the vote last week.

“This means previously uninterested and disengaged citizens are gradually realizing the importance of having a voice at the ballot box,” Betancourt said in a Facebook post thanking his supporters.

Betancourt encouraged his supporters to stay engaged and continue to remain involved in get-out-the-vote drives before the runoff.

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and student activists from the University of North Georgia pushed to get Latino voters to the polls.

“You see, running for public office is only one of the many ways we can all participate in making our community a better place to live,” he added.

Brooks said she plans to reach out to Betancourt to secure his endorsement.

And Cheek acknowledged Betancourt’s huge influence in the race.

“(Lemuel) has run an amazing race,” she said. “He has been a leader in the Latino community, as well as Ward 3.”

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of GALEO, said he expects Latinos to have a major impact in the runoff. Turnout for this voting bloc increased over previous years thanks to dozens of new registered voters.

Gonzalez is pushing for Hall County to begin providing bilingual ballots to voters beginning in 2016 as a way to increase turnout and participation among the Spanish-speaking demographic.

“I think that they could have a tremendous impact (in the runoff),” Gonzalez said. “We will be out there knocking on doors to make sure Latinos know there is a runoff and that the candidates themselves need to be making sure they reach out to the Latino electorate.”

LEGACY OF INFLUENCE

For 20 years, Myrtle Figueras has been like a “mother” to Ward 3. Though she’s sailing off into retirement soon, the weight of her years of service as the City Council representative here have been felt in this year’s race.

“Ms. Figueras has been in the community for many years ... so she has a type of influence I might not even be aware of,” Cheek said.

Figueras said she has offered advice and encouragement to all the candidates, such as “be yourself” and “do your best.”

It’s the best method she could think of to remain as impartial as possible.

“That’s who I am,” she added. “Either one of those four people could have done the job. I just wanted all of them to do well.”

Brooks said Figueras has been helpful to her and others.

“She has always tried to even out her assistance,” she added.

But it’s clear that her support has been critical to both Brooks and Cheek.

“You’re not supposed to be a professional politician — you’re supposed to be interested in helping the lives of those around you,” Figueras said.

Will interest wane? Turnout in Gainesville reached about 18 percent in the Ward 3 race, about five points higher than in the last election cycle. But runoffs have a bad reputation for anticlimactic results.

“My hunch is the runoff will not bring as many voters out,” Brooks said, adding that means she will need to narrow her focus to retain current support and broaden appeal with other groups in and around Ward 3.

Cheek said she hopes turnout in the runoff remains steady.

“I believe in our community,” she added. “I believe they’re going to come out. ... I’m looking forward to representing the community and listening to them.”

THE FINAL CHARGE

Cheek said she plans to be visible in the coming weeks not only with signage, but in meetings with business owners, visiting churches and knocking on doors.

“I think there’s more to learn about us as candidates,” Cheek said, adding that she is open to another debate with Brooks.

Hall County Republican Party Chairwoman Debra Pilgrim told The Times she hopes her organization can hold a forum between the two candidates.

Brooks said she is working with supporters to devise a strategy for reaching more voters, and added that she will seek the support of local officials, community leaders and former candidates.

“That’s my strategy, to get out and meet as many people as I can,” she said.

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