Civic activist wants to be Georgia’s first gay state senator

Kelly Johnson – often a political strategist working behind the scenes – has jumped into the race for a Georgia Senate seat and hopes to oust a popular Democrat and longtime incumbent.

Johnson (photo), a 39-year-old operations analyst for Delta Air Lines, would become the first openly gay member of the state Senate if wins the District 35 seat. But first, he must defeat state Sen. Donzella James in the Democratic primary in May and win the general election in November 2020.

“It’s really about new energy,” Johnson told Project Q Atlanta. “Donzella has done an okay job at representing us, but for me it’s time for me to take the baton and run with it and take our state and our district much further.”

“I think we’ve plateaued in our vision and our growth,” he added.

It’s a step out from behind the scenes for Johnson, who helped run the unsuccessful campaigns of his husband, Rafer, for the state House, South Fulton mayor and the Fulton County Commission

Kelly Johnson has served on the Fulton County Zoning Board, as a board member for Georgia Equality and a leader in the movement creating the city of South Fulton.

Johnson is running in part to fight anti-LGBTQ bills like the one that would make it a felony to give hormone treatments or perform gender affirmation surgery on minors. State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart announced her sponsorship of the bill in October. 

“I think it’s a disgusting bill. That is the reason why we need more LGBTQ people and allies in the legislature,” Johnson said. “This bill serves no purpose. This is a coordinated attack on LGBTQ rights.”

“It’s a nasty way to do this stuff. You’re taking a marginalized group and marginalizing them even further,” he added.

Electing an openly gay person to the state Senate would be a “huge accomplishment,” Johnson said.

“It’s unfortunate we’re still needing to break those barriers in 2020,” he said. “It would also show that the mentality of Georgia is starting to change and that’s something that can draw more investment in Georgia because people see it’s a more progressive state in the South.”

Former state Sen. Curt Thompson is bisexual, but his sexual orientation was little known until after he left office. Thompson is running for Gwinnett County Commission chair. 

Rev. Kim Jackson is running for the state Senate District 41 seat in 2020. She would be the first lesbian state senator in Georgia if she wins.

James represented Senate District 35 from 1993 to 2002, ran again in 2009 and has held the seat since. She beat a 2018 primary opponent by 45 points, a 2016 primary opponent by 50 points, had no primary competition in 2014 and won the general election by 50 points, and beat a 2012 primary opponent by 60 points.

Most of the district sits west of Interstates 285 and 85 and south of Interstate 20, and includes portions of Fulton and Douglas counties.

Photo courtesy Kelly Johnson