Last November, Georgia Democrats rejoiced when state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, launched his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. Most political conversations have since revolved around whether or not the Candler Park resident can unseat Gov. Nathan Deal. But win or lose, Carter's political gamble means the Democratic-leaning district he's represented for the past four years is now up for grabs.
In the weeks after Carter's announcement, Democratic candidates Elena Parent and Kyle Williams decided to run for the lawmaker's DeKalb seat that spans from Buford Highway to the north, Candler Park to the west, East Lake to the south, and Decatur to the east. The two political hopefuls are now mired in one of the state's closest races.
On May 20, voters will decide which Democrat will be on the November ticket against Republican mortgage banker Greg Williams. And considering nearly three-quarters of the DeKalb County district's voters cast Democratic ballots in 2012, the odds are that whoever wins the primary will ultimately replace Carter.
In November 2010, Parent pulled off an unlikely upset of incumbent Republican state Rep. Jill Chambers. But her stint in the General Assembly representing the Chamblee area was short-lived thanks to the GOP's redistricting of Democratic-leaning areas. Instead of running against fellow Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb in a potentially contentious primary, Parent stepped down and became the executive director of consumer advocacy organization Georgia Watch. She says that experience allowed her to stay involved in policy in the interim. Last April, Parent moved to the district. Now she says it's time to return to the Gold Dome and finish the work she started.
"I always knew I would run again at some point," Parent says. "The opportunity came up more quickly than I anticipated. ... I didn't really expect [Carter] to run before 2018."
If elected, Parent says she would fight to restore funding in the state budget so that every Georgia student can attend school for a full 180 days. She's also a strong advocate for Medicaid expansion, abortion rights, and minimum wage hikes. The public transit advocate says she would also push for smaller regional transportation funding solutions.
But Parent's return to the Gold Dome requires fending off a strong campaign effort from Kyle Williams, a Decatur trial attorney who's lived in the district for more than decade.
Williams wants to continue the district's long tradition of progressive advocacy on issues such as education, civil rights, marriage equality, and the environment. If elected, he would become the state's only openly gay male senator.
"I've seen and watched the right-wing extremists down at the Capitol take us in a direction that's bad and down the wrong path," Williams says. "We've seen votes that gut schools, punish teachers, undermine higher-education opportunities, and everything in between. I'm frustrated and I'm mad and I think it's time to stand up and step up."
The longtime Decatur resident pledges to fight for progressive causes by working to improve Georgia's education, supporting efforts to expand Medicaid, fighting for equality measures, and blocking discriminatory legislation. Williams has never held elected office — he ran unsuccessfully for the Decatur City Commission in 2009 — but he points to his history fighting the state's gay marriage ban and term as a former Georgia Equality board chair.
In addition, Williams claims he knows the area's needs far better than Parent because he's lived there longer. The former state rep disagrees with her opponent's assessment and thinks her past legislative experience will better serve her potential constituents.
Throughout this Democratic battle, which has become an increasingly rare sight over the past decade, the two have tried positioning themselves as the more progressive candidate. Williams has accused Parent of attending an American Legislative Exchange Council conference that was partially funded by the Koch Brothers during her time in office. His campaign also accused Parent's team of conducting a poll claiming that Williams had accepted contributions from an organization that has supported Republican lawmakers. (Parent says she attended to "spy" on behalf of progressive groups; Williams denies receiving cash from that kind of group and Parent's campaign says it never ran such a poll.)
Both candidates are well-funded headed into the primary. As of March 31, Parent claimed $140,965.19 cash on hand and Williams reported $104,464.51. Parent has received endorsements from more than a dozen state lawmakers and DeKalb County officials. Williams' campaign has taken a more door-to-door approach, shaking hands with local residents and talking to community leaders.
"We'll build the grassroots support to win this," Williams says. "Don't get distracted by who's supporting who — what matters is who turns out on Election Day."
At this point, an endorsement from Carter for either candidate appears unlikely. So the race will likely stay close until DeKalb residents mash their names inside the voting booths. Whichever strategy reigns supreme will go a long way to determining who'll head to the Gold Dome in 2015.NOTE: This article has been altered to correct an error. Williams accused Parent's campaign of conducting the poll. "The Parent campaign never ran a poll accusing Kyle Williams of receiving contributions from a Republican group," a campaign spokesman said.
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