JOHNS CREEK, Ga. (AP) — As she accepted an endorsement from a group called Veterans for Trump, Stacy Skinner spoke about how she got into politics because Democrats “were starting to infiltrate on the local level.”
Former President Donald Trump and other national Republicans often warn of takeovers by China or people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Skinner is running for reelection to the City Council of Johns Creek, an Atlanta suburb of about 85,000.
Yet the 44-year-old does not openly promote her Trump association, telling inquisitive voters in this Republican-leaning enclave only that she is “conservative.” Skinner’s opponent, Devon Dabney, meanwhile, faces questions about being a Democrat.
Going into the 2024 presidential election, the dynamics in Johns Creek and other nearby Atlanta suburbs reflect how partisan and cultural divisions that intensified since Trump’s 2016 run have trickled down to local campaigns. Some activists and voters now view these nominally nonpartisan contests as critical fronts in shaping the nation’s identity.
“People have a right to know who they’re voting for,” said Betsy Kramer, a Republican Party volunteer who is backing Skinner in Johns Creek, which is about 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta in Fulton County. “I’m not voting for a Democrat,” Kramer said. “I’m concerned that if Democrats start taking over north Fulton, the whole area is going to change dramatically.”
The suburbs of Georgia’s largest city once anchored the state’s Republican establishment. Today, they play a prime role in determining the outcomes of statewide races. In 2020, they were pivotal in Democrat Joe Biden’s close victory over Trump, the Republican incumbent, in the president election.
This swath of the metro area has become more demographically and politically diverse over recent decades, with growth among Asian American, Black and Hispanic populations that help boost Democrats’ vote totals. The share of Georgia residents who identify as white and non-Hispanic fell in the most recent census to 50.1%, the lowest on record.
Additionally, some Republicans who still make up north Fulton County’s electoral majority have never marched in lockstep with Trump and the tea party, a movement that opposes the Washington political establishment and espouses conservative and libertarian philosophy. In 2020, Trump underperformed historical Republican advantages in the area on his way to losing Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast. And the region once elected Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state who bucked Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat, to the state Senate.
Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp drew strong support here in their comfortable reelection victories last year despite furious criticism from Trump for not going along with his bid to overturn the election. Trump’s efforts are now the focus of a racketeering indictment in Fulton County.
The national undercurrents do not mean that the usual list of hot topics at city halls has changed. It’s still mostly zoning and other development rules; sales tax and property millage rates; and how best to deliver services like public safety, fire protection and garbage collection. But candidates and voters talk about old, familiar debates in a different way as partisan influences rise.
“We are seeing this nationalization everywhere, especially in school board elections but also extending to cities,” said Michigan State University professor Sarah Reckhow, who tracks American campaign trends.
Reckhow pointed to several variables: the gutting of local journalism that means voters hear mostly about national politics; voter demands revolving more around cultural hot buttons rather than traditional local policy; and low voter turnout that increases the power of the most engaged and partisan citizens.
“This creates a cycle,” she said, where voter preferences, media narratives and politicians’ rhetoric become “kind of reinforcing.”
The new landscape may help explain why Skinner is circumspect about Trump and how she and Dabney are carefully navigating their partisan preferences.
“President Trump is obviously divisive,” said Skinner in a interview, insisting the endorsement “was about the veterans” rather than Trump himself. “Everything has gotten more divisive than I think it needs to be.”
Dabney, a Black woman, nonetheless sees herself as a target. She bemoans what she says is a “whisper campaign” that casts her as a threat to Johns Creek’s identity because of her voting history.
She acknowledged getting door-knocking and other help from grassroots progressive groups in Johns Creek and Democratic activists from elsewhere but said that came only after she was being attacked by Republicans.
“My parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “It’s no secret that most Black people have voted for Democrats since then.”
But “this is a nonpartisan election,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter.”
The new intensity is especially obvious in discussions over development, conversations that usually revolve around “high-density” construction of apartments and condominiums.
Zoning has long been contentious in U.S. suburbs, which blossomed after World War II and through the Civil Rights Movement as places for middle-class and upper middle-class whites to establish self-contained communities set between the economic challenges of rural America and the racial and ethnic diversity of large cities, including Atlanta.
Now, those zoning issues are a flashpoint in partisan politics. They are reflected in national rhetoric like Trump’s call to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, arguments over “sanctuary cities” run by liberals and tighter federal restrictions on legal immigration.
“I don’t want our city to become a hellhole. I don’t want to become Atlanta,” said Kramer, the Johns Creek Republican. She associated Georgia’s capital city with “crime” and “riffraff,” similar to how Trump once disparaged Atlanta as “crime infested” and “falling apart.”
Atlanta’s population is 48% Black and 41% white. Johns Creek is about 52% non-Hispanic white. Asians make up about one-quarter of the population and Black residents about one-tenth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Some of them are my very good friends,” Kramer said of Johns Creek’s many nonwhite residents. But the white Boston-area native, who moved to Georgia decades ago, argued that putting more Democrats in local office guarantees housing policy that would “change the demographics.”
“I want anybody that can come afford it to live in our city,” she said. “We live in a high-rent district, and I want to keep it that way. I’m not trying to keep anybody out.”
In nearby Roswell, City Council candidate Jason Miller said the “high-density” debate has yielded a perceived battle between “two slates.”
Miller, who moved to Roswell from Atlanta with his husband, is among the candidates who does not want to give developers free rein on residential high-density projects. He wants to focus on business development first.
“I want us to be intentional … so we give more Roswell residents the opportunity to work closer to home rather than be a bedroom community that feeds Atlanta and other suburbs,” he said. “I’m all about growing density, as long as we do it wisely.”
Others running in Roswell, though, talk about development in the context of partisan control.
“The other side is about bringing in new voters,” candidate Allen Sells, a self-described conservative, said at a recent event for several council hopefuls. “That’s what they’re all about.”
Miller, describing himself as a left-leaning independent, said the atmosphere leaves him miscast, with some voters associating him with “far-right thinking people” and some conservatives thinking he is a “socialist.”
He characterized his voting history as “mostly Democratic but plenty of Republicans” but said some voters want to know his specific candidate choices and demand his take on issues that rarely, if ever, come before city government.
“I’ve gotten emails and questions from voters asking me about my position on abortion,” he said. “It’s bizarre,” Miller lamented, how the partisan mindset “filters all the way down to local elections.”
Indeed, at the gathering where Miller and Sells spoke, the biggest cheer of the evening came during introductions of other local elected officials. The crowd roared at the mention of Fulton County Commissioner Bridget Thorne, an outspoken conservative who won her seat after pushing the lie that widespread voter fraud marred Georgia’s 2020 elections.
In Johns Creek, at the only event where Dabney and Skinner have shared the same stage, they staked out essentially the same approach to development, saying they would adhere to the city’s existing master plan. Skinner called it “responsible development” that allows residential and business growth. Dabney lamented later that her actual positions on issues have taken a back seat.
“I was always well-liked in the community,” she said. But once she launched her campaign, “then it’s, ‘Well, she’s this Democrat. She’s going to bring density and affordable housing.’ … This should be about what’s right for our community.”