In a race with six Democratic candidates, Rafer Johnson – a gay flight attendant, businessperson and community leader – has a tough field to compete against for the District 62 seat in the Georgia House.
“I’m a candidate that comes with the most experience in the field, I am the oldest person in the race," Johnson, 49, tells Project Q Atlanta. “So with that comes the most experience. I’m the only one with corporate leadership. I’ve led global teams, local teams, managed over a billion dollars in assets.”
Rep. LaDawn Blackett Jones announced she would not seek re-election in March 2015 and Johnson officially launched his campaign on May 4, less than two months later. With no Republican in the race, the May 24 primary election – and a likely runoff – will decide the race.
Since announcing the campaign Johnson’s husband, Kelly S. Johnson (second photo), has been involved. Johnson describes the campaign as coming with a definitive learning process.
“[Kelley is] our treasurer and finance director, so he’s never been a fundraiser or finance director before, but he’s quickly learned and applied a lot of the skill sets that we use in business, both of us, to drive the campaign forward,” Johnson says.
But they've learned quickly. Johnson's campaign has raised the second-highest amount of any of the candidates – $55,949.77 – and has $12,326.67 cash on hand. William K. Boddie Jr. has led fundraising in the race, with $57,723.04 in donations and $16,506.24 cash on hand.
Valerie Vie, also an LGBT candidate, trails the fundraising efforts of Johnson and Boddie, reporting $23,273.41 raised with $18,688.58 cash on hand. Aaron Johnson has garnered $20,035.18 in contributions and has $9,260.38 left.
Two candidates have been virtual no shows with fundraising. Larry Perkins Jr. has no website and has not filed campaign reports since December, at which point he had raised (and spent) $0. Joshua B. Butler IV has received $0 in campaign contributions but has spent $250.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, says the state's runoff system in elections encourages larger numbers of candidates to enter a race since they don't necessarily have to win the first round of voting to ultimately get elected. If a candidate doesn't receive 50 percent of the vote, plus one, in the May 24 primary, the two candidates with the most votes head to a July 26 runoff.
“In Georgia we have a run-off requirement ... so what you do in these multi-candidate races, there are two positions that are wins, you hope to finish first or second, assuming the number one person doesn’t get 50 percent,” Bullock says.
'I will stand in my truth'
Johnson – who served as the first chair of South Fulton NOW, a key group behind the push for cityhood for the area – has made economic development in South Fulton a big push for his campaign. District 62 includes portions of East Point, College Park, Douglasville and Union City, and Fulton and Douglas counties.
“We have the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the metro Atlanta area, and we’re right next to the world’s busiest airport. So we have great, great, great economic development opportunity,” Johnson says.
“We have the opportunity to step up and become a vibrant, developing, desirable area," he adds.
Creating the city of South Fulton moved closer during the legislative session this year when the key Senate sponsor of the cityhood measure, Atlanta Democrat Sen. Donzella James, traded a vote to have the legislation move to the Senate floor during the closing days of the session. The legislation, which allows residents in the area to vote on becoming a city, gained final approval from the House.
In turn, she voted for a controversial measure eliminating the independence of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), the agency that oversees ethics complaints for judges. Both pieces of legislation – the cityhood measure and the JQC bill – are awaiting action by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Johnson was careful to say he was not “defending Sen. James per se” on trading her vote, but spoke about the need to be strategic, as well as his disappointment that Democrats did not more strongly support the right of a mostly Democratic area to vote on its future.
“[Sen. James] made decisions to get things passed in the process and sometimes you have to do that," Johnson says. "More importantly for me, and what’s particularly sad, is the Democrats, that we had very little support from the Democrats to give a predominantly democratic area the right to vote."
“It’s all about being strategic,” Johnson adds, pointing to Sen. Josh McKoon's push for "religious freedom" legislation as an example of being too ideologically driven.
“I think that too often we get locked into ideological battles. Just like how Sen. McKoon is locked in his ideological battle around [House Bill] 757. And wanting to push for that. You have to be able to negotiate," he says.
Talking business and making deals is how Johnson likes to get things done, whether it’s about "religious freedom" or any other issue.
“In terms of being gay and being at the Capitol, I will stand in my truth. But, again, I can also talk business, I can talk economic development, I can talk about all the other things and I can stand to support equality and fairness,” Johnson says.
Johnson, a 2009 Leadership Atlanta graduate, has been endorsed by LGBT groups Georgia Equality and Victory Fund, which honored its endorsed candidates during a reception in March. He is among several LGBT candidates running for the state House, including gay pastor and family therapist Josh Noblitt.