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Forsyth County defies political landscape

Democrats in Forsyth are few, but hopeful

Sharon Gunter

Ethan Underwood

Hal Schneider (click for larger version)

Mary Chatfield (click for larger version)
July 24, 2012
FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Despite a history filled with Democratic senators, representatives and even a president, Georgia has swung to a predominantly Republican-controlled state in the past 20 years.

And Forsyth County politics have followed suit.

"This county used to be solid blue, blue enough to be purple," said Sharon Gunter, chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party. "Then the Civil Rights Act passed, and it got a little redder. And then there were some incidents in the county where the few black people who did live here left."

From the 2010 Census, the county's population of 175,511 consisted of 4,510 African Americans, or about 3 percent.

For the Forsyth County Tea Party Chairman, Hal Schneider, it's the county's demographics that have all to do with the Democratic Party's small presence.

"Forsyth County is very rural," Schneider said. "It is historically very white and it is an affluent county. These things add to the fact that you have a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives in this county."

However, Ethan Underwood, chair of the Forsyth County Republican Party, said the political shift in Forsyth was due to the liberal stance associated nationally with Democrats.

"I think the Democratic National Party became more liberal," he said. "I don't think that Forsythians agreed with the views on social issues, add to that, the growth of Atlanta. Many self-employed folks who are paying taxes and paying employees are the ones who live in Forsyth County, and those folks tend to vote Republican."

Underwood said that the Republican Party normally ranges between 79 to 86 percent of the vote during an election.

In the 2010 Forsyth County Commission District-1 race, Mary Chatfield ran on the Democratic ticket.

Chatfield, president of the Democratic Women of Forsyth County, said that in spite of assuming she would lose to Pete Amos, the Republican candidate, she wanted residents to know Democrats are still in the county, albeit, as a minority party.

"I wanted people to know this wasn't a one party county," she said. "I was surprised I got as many votes as I did."

Chatfield brought in 1,208 of the 8,382 votes, about 14 percent.

Georgia maintains open primaries, meaning no one has to register as Republican or Democrat; the Tea Party is not associated with a political party, but lean on the conservative side with Republican candidates.

Open primaries allow a broad range of political ideas, but it places more pressure on primary elections in Forsyth County because they tend to serve like the general election.

With the Democratic minority, some Forsyth politicians will put their name on the Republican ballot because they know it is near impossible to win on the other ticket, regardless of their political affiliation, Underwood said.

"Everyone has a voice in the county," Underwood said. "I think that makes it difficult and important to make sure the Republican Party's ideas are put out [on the Republican ballot], and it's not just Democrats running as Republicans because they feel they have to."

Schneider said that Forsyth Democrats don't have strong enough candidates to sway Republican votes.

"Most elections in Forsyth are decided in the primaries because there is typically not an opponent in the general election against Republicans," Schneider said.

The Tea Party puts the county candidates through a questionnaire to understand each one's values; it doesn't matter what party the politician associates with as long as he has a similar conservative perspective, he said.

However, Schneider said Republicans are often endorsed because Democratic candidates don't run.

But Democrats in the county remain hopeful.

Gunter and Chatfield said they believe the Democratic Party is growing and closet Democrats do exist in Forsyth.

"We are slowly gaining momentum under the radar," Gunter said. "People are not admitting they are Democrats for fear of their business, fear of their livelihood. That's a real shame.

"We've always been here," she said. "There have been times when we're totally silent. I think the other parties, particularly the leaders, are starting to realize we are here and recognize we have the best interests of the citizens at heart."

Chatfield said because Forsyth County has continued to grow, more Democrats are moving in.

Schneider agreed that the county is becoming more diverse.

"We probably will see a larger number of Democrats in the county," Schneider said. "At what point will they become a real challenge? I don't see that happening for another 10 years."

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    We Aren't Racist
    July 25, 2012 | 11:20 AM

    "This county used to be solid blue, blue enough to be purple," said Sharon Gunter, chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party. "Then the Civil Rights Act passed, and it got a little redder. And then there were some incidents in the county where the few black people who did live here left." - Interesting quote by Ms. Gunter. It seems to imply that passage of the Civl Rights Act was a key factor in moving the county from Democrat to Republican. It suggests that the move right was motivated by prejudice or perhaps even racism. I find that objectionable in the extreme. Forsyth County is one of the most prosperous and fastest growing counties in the state. My strong suspicion is that such growth has resulted in a whole new mix of citizens and that many, if not a majority of our neighbors (of all races and ethnic backgrounds) were not even here when the civil rights act passed. I doubt seriously that prejudice is the root cause of the conservative revolution in Forsyth County. I find Mr. Underwood's explanation to be more plausible. I moved to Forsyth County because of low taxes, accountable county government, low crime, and less burdensome regulations. I would bet that those are the reasons many of our other new neighbors selected this county over Democrat controlled counties in the area. I prefer to back candidates and political parites who understand the needs of the citizens as opposed to parties who undermine the civility of our county and use spurious claims to drive a wedge between us and our neighbers. I welcome the Democrat Party and am always open to listening to positive new ideas. However, accusing the entire county of racism does not strike me as an effective method of persuading people to support a cause.

    Richard McElrath
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