Meet the gay civic activist running for South Fulton mayor

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Rafer Johnson campaigned for the creation of the new City of South Fulton. Now, the gay civic activist and Delta flight attendant wants to be its first mayor.

On Monday, Johnson formally launched his campaign to lead the new city of nearly 100,000 people. Voters in South Fulton approved the city on Nov. 8, creating what will become Georgia's fifth-largest municipality.

The campaign comes six months after Johnson lost a crowded race for the Georgia House. But he said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to help lead South Fulton and “the possibilities for our city and where we could go.”

“It will be one of the largest cities in Georgia,” Johnson said. “We have lots of undeveloped land. We have lots of opportunity to go forward.”

Focusing on development opportunities has been a consistent mantra for him, both as a candidate and as chair of South Fulton Now, the coalition that worked to bring cityhood for South Fulton to life.

The state house race was competitive one — with six candidates vying to replace outgoing Rep. LaDawn Blackett Jones. William Boddie, Jr. won the District 62 seat after a run-off election with lesbian attorney Valerie Vie. Johnson placed fourth with 838 votes. 

For Johnson, he learned that it’s important to focus on being himself more, and trying to be the perfect candidate less.

“Keep it simple, is probably the biggest lesson. I think we tried so hard the last time to make sure everything was perfect and right,” Johnson said. “We didn’t just talk to the people and just really get out there as myself.”

Johnson’s husband, Kelly, who is getting his Ph.D. in public policy, was involved in the state House race and plans to be involved in this one.

“He’s been the one chomping at the bit. The last one was his first campaign, he’d never been involved in politics before, and so he is loving it,” Johnson said.

Johnson was told by several people that being an openly gay candidate is a factor in why he did not win, although one of the candidates that did make it to the runoff was also an out LGBT person. Johnson was endorsed by LGBT groups Georgia Equality and the Victory Fund during his state House campaign.

“That’s a factor that we have to deal with. I will certainly remain authentic to who I am,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said he's received mixed advice around being “loud and bold” about being a gay man versus the “just don’t mention it” approach, and is still uncertain about what to do.

“I am certainly not hiding it, that’s for sure,” Johnson said.

The cityhood measure passed with 59 percent of voters in favor. Johnson said reaching out to those that opposed the measure – and addressing their concerns – is critical to making the City of South Fulton a success. 

“We did have 40 percent who voted no, so we have to take that into consideration,” Johnson said. 

There is a fear that taxes will be raised, Johnson said, highlighting that he will take a “fiscally cautious” approach, as the city figures out the best way to build police and fire departments, and take on other tasks Fulton County currently administers over a two-year transition period.

On Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal announced that he will form a five-member commission to help establish the city until a mayor and city council take office.

The City of South Fulton – which loosely covers the southwest metro Atlanta area with borders that touch Cobb, Douglas, Fayette and Clayton counties – will hold elections on March 21. The new government takes office May 1.

In a press release announcing his mayoral campaign, Johnson cited his experience managing “global teams and multi-million budgets” as an ideal fit for the city's top elected leader.

“It is time for fresh vision and energy to match this new city being born,” he said in the press release. 

“Our first mayor needs to be a visionary, ethical, energetic, seek guidance from and lead the people. All of this is to ensure this new city has its best chance to thrive, and I believe my background in government, community advocacy, and business leadership is what this new city needs,” Johnson added.


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