An Athens mayor is exiled in a fraught test of bipartisanship

Athens Mayor Nancy Denson has been a member of the local Democratic Party for more than three decades. She identifies as a Democrat, and she’s held a string of fundraisers for prominent party figures at her home over the years.

But at a testy meeting this week at an Athens library, Denson was ousted from the local party’s committee for an affront many fellow Democrats considered unforgivable: She openly supports Republican Houston Gaines, a candidate for an open state House seat up for grabs on Nov. 7 who was her campaign manager.

The overwhelming vote — only three out of dozens of Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee members pushed to keep her in the party’s fold — was an unmistakable symbol of the sky-high tensions in liberal bastions such as Athens over President Donald Trump.

Even the letter to Denson informing her the party was set to revoke her membership cited her “support of Donald Trump’s party.”

“This is not a good moment for the Athens Democrats,” said Russell Edwards, a local Democratic activist and candidate for the County Commission. “Never before in our history, that we’re aware of, has a member been removed. This is not a decision that we take lightly.”

He headed a subcommittee that earlier called unanimously for her ouster because she violated a party bylaw that said no member shall “use his/her office to support an opposed primary or special election candidate.”

Denson doesn’t deny she did just that. She hosted a fundraiser for Gaines at her Athens home and donated $1,000 to support the candidate, even though a Democratic candidate — Deborah Gonzalez, an attorney and administrator — qualified for the race.

She wasn’t at Thursday’s meeting. But she told Flagpole, a local publication, that she didn’t violate the rules because it’s a special election that is technically nonpartisan. Besides, she added, she will resign from the committee if Gaines wins because she wants to continue supporting her former campaign hand.

“As an American, as an Athenian and a Georgian, I want the best candidate,” she told Flagpole.

The seat was vacated by Republican Regina Quick after she was tapped for a judgeship, and although Athens is a liberal stronghold, the district is so conservative that Quick has never faced a general election opponent since she won her party’s nomination in 2012.

That’s because it encompasses about half of Athens but stretches east to include ruby-red territory in nearby rural counties. Still, Democrats see an opening: Trump won the territory by about 3 points.

Just a year removed from college, Gaines hopes to keep it in GOP hands.

At 19, he was Denson’s campaign manager. Two years later, he won the vote at the University of Georgia to become student body president. A year after his reign ended, he qualified for the seat and scared off a potential rival — former state Rep. Doug McKillip, who had considered a run.

Gaines has quickly consolidated local GOP support; campaign disclosures show he’s raised at least $66,000 while Gonzalez has collected less than $8,000.

The Republican also hasn’t stayed on the sidelines while his former boss came under fire. In a statement, Gaines said that local Democrats have publicly displayed their “extremism” by revoking the mayor’s party membership.

“The mayor has served this community throughout her life, and her record gives her credibility when she says she’s supporting the candidate she believes is best to represent us,” he said.

The vote Thursday was a somber moment, and there were no cheers or celebration after Denson was exiled. Denise Ricks, the local party’s chairwoman, said there was little choice.

“The unfortunate event is that she has left our Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee ideals,” Ricks said.

Denson’s supporters, meanwhile, said the ouster should send alarm bells about bipartisanship in Georgia.

“I know what we’re doing now is not going to hurt Nancy,” said John Jeffreys, a party member who called for a more lenient punishment for the mayor. “It’s going to hurt us as a party.”

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