Oct 28, 2021 - Politics
Candidates drag Atlanta crime into suburban elections
Fulton GOP Sandy Springs mailer
Image courtesy of Fulton County Republican Party

Political campaigns in metro Atlanta’s rapidly changing suburbs are using what some call dog whistle politics to take advantage of voter fears about crime in the capital city.

Why it matters: As metro Atlanta becomes more diverse and more people of color run for office, the Southern Strategy – attempted in 1964 by Barry Goldwater, but successfully deployed in 1968 by President Richard Nixon – will become part of the suburban political landscape, said Dr. Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University.

  • Gillespie said Nixon couldn’t explicitly talk about race but won over white voters by campaigning on issues like school busing, which played on voters' fears of Black people moving into their communities, and rising crime, which tapped into stereotypes that Black people were prone to criminality.

Driving the news: The Fulton County Republican Party was criticized over the weekend for a mailer it distributed to Sandy Springs and Johns Creek residents.

  • The mailers said, “We can’t let Sandy Springs [or Johns Creek, in that city's case] turn into Atlanta” and included side-by-side photos of a rundown apartment building and a protest.

Both cities have several people of color running for mayor and City Council seats.

  • Brian Weaver, a Black retired police officer, is in the running against City Council member John Bradberry to become Johns Creek’s second mayor.
  • Dontaye Carter is a Black candidate running against incumbent Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

What they’re saying: Carter said he believes Fulton GOP’s messaging amounts to “dog whistle” politics.

He said critics initially raised questions about his experience, but when he pushed back on those assertions, that’s when the messaging from his opponents “went the other way.”

  • “It’s easy to run this divisive and deadly rhetoric,” he said, adding the messaging got so bad that his family received death threats.

The other side: Axios called and emailed Fulton County Republican Party Chairman Trey Kelly for a statement on the mailers, but he did not respond.

  • Bradberry told Axios that he uses crime in Atlanta as part of his campaign messaging because “we are seeing things happen in Johns Creek” that have never occurred.
  • “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about any issues that might affect the future of Johns Creek,” he said.

Yes, but: Gillespie said Atlanta has a long history of being majority Black, so when campaign materials reference the city, it’s often used as “code for Black.”

  • “You can’t ignore the racial subtext,” she said. “It’s hard to think that’s not what these candidates are doing when invoking those things that have been used countless times.”

It’s no coincidence that this type of messaging is becoming more widespread in suburban elections, Gillespie said. These communities, which were destinations for White Flight that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, are now seeing a spike in residents of color.

  • “With these new residents come new demands for representations and a wider or deeper bench of candidates of color to run for political office,” she said.

Fulton GOP’s mailer was criticized on social media and labeled by some as an example of fear mongering. Twitter users also noted the photos used in the mailer were not taken in Georgia.

  • One user said the picture of the protest was taken at an August 2020 Black Lives Matter rally in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.
  • Another Twitter user pointed out that the picture of the dilapidated apartments is from Baltimore.

One Sandy Springs elected official pushed back against the mailer. Incumbent Andy Bauman, who is facing a re-election battle against Fulton GOP-endorsed challenger Jeff Howe, said on Twitter and said he found the mailer to be “despicable.”

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