Top Georgia Senate Democrat faces first primary challenger in 16 years


The leader of the Georgia Senate’s Democratic caucus is facing his first primary challenger since being elected in 2002, and his opponent says it’s time for a changing of the guard.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, has served for 24 years in the chamber, first spending eight years there before leaving in 1998 to run unsuccessfully for labor commissioner. Henson, 59, returned in 2002 and has been the Senate’s minority leader since 2011.

His opponent, Sabrina McKenzie, an ordained minister and liturgical dance instructor who is known as the “dancing preacher,” is making her second bid to win a legislative seat.

The 47-year-old New York native, who moved to the Atlanta area in 1989 to attend Morris Brown College, ran for the state Senate in a different district in 2004, coming in third in a seven-way race.

No Republican is running in the district, so the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will fill the Senate seat.

It’s a contest that reflects changes in the district since Henson first took office. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2000, 54 percent of the residents in Henson’s district were white and about 17 percent were black.

In 2015, the district was 22 percent white and 52 percent black.

Still, Henson, who is white, said he doesn’t think the shifting demographics will hurt his candidacy.

“I’m comfortable with that,” he said. “I’ve ran in districts that were more African-American.”

It’s somewhat similar to the caucus he leads. Of the 19 Democratic state senators, 11 are women and 14 are black.

“Our caucus is diverse,” Henson said. “And they chose me to lead the Democratic Party in the Senate.”

McKenzie, who is black and lives in Stone Mountain, points to other changes, such as the loss of some of the district’s large businesses. She says those closings, which include a Sam’s Club and grocery stores, are examples of Henson’s failure to keep the community vibrant.

Henson said he’s trying to work with business owners who’ve left the area to bring them back to the community.

An administrator with a work skills training company, Henson’s roots in DeKalb County run deep. He moved there when he was 10 years old, graduating from what was Henderson High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Georgia.

Henson said he believes the work he’s done for the district for the better part of the past 30 years will resonate with voters.

“My record is strong,” Henson said. “My voting record is strong. … I stay active in the community. People know we need some experience in office.”

Since being elected, Henson says he has worked to expand access for minority-owned businesses in transportation contracts, helped to restore funding for domestic violence investigation and prosecution, and supported efforts for the state to fully fund public education.

His focus on education is why DeKalb County Board of Education member Melvin Johnson said he supports Henson.

“He’s done a great job working with the issues related to DeKalb County,” said Johnson, a Stone Mountain resident. “I’ve known him for 10 or 15 years, and he’s always been a great supporter of public education.”

McKenzie, in addition to her ministry, advocates for domestic violence victims, something she said she began doing after her sister was killed by her husband.

“As an advocate, you can do a lot, but you can do so much more when you have the platform (of public office),” she said. “I knew one day I would have to serve in this capacity. It’s a calling.”

Crystal Hampton, who has been friends with McKenzie for about five years and is volunteering with the campaign, said she’s seen McKenzie’s ability to get things accomplished while they’ve worked together to increase awareness of domestic violence.

“She’s a pretty powerful woman,” she said. “She’s passionate about anything she puts her mind to do.”

McKenzie founded the National Task Force Against Domestic Violence and established a partnership with Walmart to provide resources to victims through the DeKalb County Women’s Resource Center.

McKenzie’s experience also includes appearing in 2013 with her then-teenage daughter on the Style network reality show “Big Rich Atlanta.”

It’s the same period when she published some comments in social media that are generating some heat now. The LGBT community has pushed back against statements McKenzie made on Twitter from 2012 to 2016 opposing gay marriage and supporting “transgender bathroom” legislation.

McKenzie said last week that she believes gay people deserve equal rights, but she worries about allowing those who are transgender to use the bathroom for the gender for which they identify.

“I don’t care who you sleep with or who you marry,” she said, “but there has to be boundaries because you can’t infringe on another person’s rights.”

According to March 31 campaign filings, Henson had raised almost $214,000 and McKenzie reported about $3,500 in donations. McKenzie said that since then she’s raised an additional $20,000 from small donations made at fundraising events, although there’s no way to document that because candidates don’t have to file campaign finance reports again until July.

McKenzie says it has been a tough campaign against Henson.

She filed a lawsuit in late April accusing Henson and state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, of trying to bribe her not to run. In the suit, McKenzie accuses Mitchell of offering her $50,000 and a leadership position in the Georgia Democratic Party in exchange for dropping out of the race.

McKenzie filed an ethics complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee making the same accusations. Henson denies the claims, and he filed a motion Friday to dismiss the suit.


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