State Rep. Joe Wilkinson is dropping his re-election bid and endorsing challenger Deborah Silcox in the May 24 Republican primary. In his unexpected March 23 retirement announcement after 16 years in office, Wilkinson also blasted the race’s other candidate, Graham McDonald, as part of a “plot” by Sandy Springs leaders to replace him.
Wilkinson said in an interview that his decision was based on his doctor’s advice and two new opportunities: his appointment by Gov. Nathan Deal to the Technical College System of Georgia board, and consulting work with a company in Ireland making a movie called “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” about a real-life World War I military dog.
“My oncologist said, ‘You’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to pick and choose,’” said Wilkinson, who successfully battled prostate cancer in recent years.
“I think it’s the right decision for me personally, for my family, for my business, and I think also for the district,” Wilkinson said. “Knowing that we had the perfect candidate in Deborah Silcox, and one who is ready to go and so well-qualified…If we didn’t have Deborah in the race, I would have felt obligated to stay.”
Silcox, a Sandy Springs attorney, previously said she is a friend of Wilkinson and entered the House District 52 race only because McDonald did first and opened up the campaign field. McDonald, an attorney, resigned from the Sandy Springs City Council to run for the House seat and was endorsed by Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.
“I did not have a heads-up” on Wilkinson’s decision, Silcox said in an interview. “I have to say that Sandy Springs and Buckhead owe a huge debt to Joe Wilkinson for his service,” she added, noting his Buckhead roots and his lead sponsorship of a bill that allowed the city of Sandy Springs to incorporate. “I’m so, of course, honored and flattered that he would endorse me.”
“I have a high opinion of Rep. Wilkinson as both a person and a representative of our district,” McDonald said in an interview. “I can also appreciate how difficult retiring from such a long-held position must be.”
“I look forward to the race,” McDonald added. “I look forward to speaking to constituents and voters and allowing them to learn about us.”
Wilkinson previously claimed that he had been grooming McDonald as a potential successor in two years and was “blindsided” by his campaign. McDonald and Paul have denied any surprises. But in his written announcement, Wilkinson stepped up his criticism and allegations of a “plot.”
“I have been honored to represent the people of Sandy Springs for the past 16 years,” the statement says. “Among my many accomplishments, I have been most proud in helping create the city of Sandy Springs and nurture its growth. That is why recent ugly political developments in our community have been so painful.”
The statement criticizes “those who would view our political offices not as belonging to the people who elect us, but as private perks to be doled out to the privileged few.” In an interview, Wilkinson said he was referring to Paul and Sandy Springs state Rep. Wendell Willard. The statement goes on to claim that those officials tried to get him to help McDonald take the office.
“They saw this as an opportunity to circumvent the electoral process by urging me to qualify to run again and then withdraw at the last minute and allow their candidate of choice to step into office unopposed,” Wilkinson’s statement says. “I flatly rejected this proposal. Yet they went ahead with their plot and, at the last minute, qualified their chosen candidate McDonald. Their intention was to then pressure me to step aside with false claims that I have not been focusing on the needs of Sandy Springs.”
“The truth is coming out, and it’s something,” Wilkinson added in an interview. “The accusations against me have been just absurd.”
McDonald said of the “plot” allegation, “I certainly never engaged in a plan of that type.”
Silcox said that as a first-time candidate, she does not know what to make of the campaign “plot” dispute. “I have no idea. I just don’t,” she said.
“I’m not surprised he’s stepping down…I wish him well,” said Willard of Wilkinson. As for Wilkinson’s allegation of a “plot,” Willard joked about the talk of “the grand conspiracy” and declined to comment at length, simply saying, “That’s just B.S.”
Mayor Paul issued a statement of his own, saying there was “no grand plot” and that he is “sad on a personal level” about the campaign dispute.
“I have had several conversations with him over the past two years about the importance of being in and involved with Sandy Springs if he planned to continue represent this area,” Paul said in the emailed statement. “When he ignored that request, I urged him to retire so he could go out on his own terms. I have supported him in every election for 16 years and there was no grand plot, as he alleges. He knew well in advance that I planned to support Councilman McDonald if he chose to run. So, there was no blindsiding as he also alleged.”
“I am sad on a personal level that it has reached this point,” Paul added in the statement. “It was as a friend I tried to be frank and candid about my concerns in hopes he out go out to the appreciation and universal thanks from the community that he deserves.”
As for Silcox, Wilkinson’s statement says she is “smart, tough, knowledgeable of the needs of our community and a person of integrity” and will “represent the values we sought to promote when we created Sandy Springs.”
Congressman Tom Price issued a statement praising Wilkinson’s service. “Few individuals have given more commitment to our party and state than Joe Wilkinson,” Price said in the statement. “Joe is a dear friend who has always led with principle and vision. Throughout his life–whether in public service or the private sector–Joe has chosen to give so much back to his city, state, and nation.”
“Having served twenty-two years in elected offices myself, I can attest to the sacrifices public servants make, which are far beyond any monetary benefits,” former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, the president of the Buckhead Coalition, said in an email. “For such commitments we salute Joe with our appreciation and best wishes for his future.”
House District 52 includes parts of Buckhead, Sandy Springs and northwest Atlanta. There are no challengers from other parties, so the Republican primary winner will take the seat.
Wilkinson’s full statement appears below.
Rep. Wilkinson’s full statement
State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, today announced he is retiring at the end of his term, withdrawing as a candidate in the May 24 Republican primary for House District 52 and endorsing candidate Deborah Silcox over candidate Graham McDonald.
“I have been honored to represent the people of Sandy Springs for the past 16 years. Among my many accomplishments, I have been most proud in helping create the city of Sandy Springs and nurture its growth. That is why recent ugly political developments in our community have been so painful,” Wilkinson said. “Sandy Springs was created to bring open, responsive and ethical government closer to the people. Nevertheless, we must always be on the lookout for those who would view our political offices not as belonging to the people who elect us, but as private perks to be doled out to the privileged few. Regrettably, we have seen this attitude begin to play out in recent days.”
“Two years ago I let it be known that I was suffering from prostate cancer and would have to undergo aggressive treatment. Despite this, I have taken great pride that I never missed a day at the General Assembly. Upon completion of my treatment, my doctor advised me to take it easy and I began to discuss with local citizens how to best smoothly transition out of public office. In the end, I decided to serve one last term and work on a two-year transition. Unfortunately, this was not good enough for some in our city,” Wilkinson continued.
“They saw this as an opportunity to circumvent the electoral process by urging me to qualify to run again and then withdraw at the last minute and allow their candidate of choice to step into office unopposed. I flatly rejected this proposal. Yet they went ahead with their plot and, at the last minute, qualified their chosen candidate McDonald. Their intention was to then pressure me to step aside with false claims that I have not been focusing on the needs of Sandy Springs,” Wilkinson said.
“A civic leader whom I have grown to respect, attorney Deborah Silcox, became aware of all this. She is smart, tough, knowledgeable of the needs of our community and a person of integrity. She also qualified but, in doing so, pledged again to step aside if I decided to run. I have been humbled by the support I have received and pleased by a recent Opinion Savvy poll showing I would have a commanding lead in a three-way primary. However, after talking with family and friends, I have decided not to run again. There are other ways to perform public service,” Wilkinson said. “In fact, I’m honored and gratified that Gov. Nathan Deal has asked me to serve on the Technical College System of Georgia board when my term ends.”
“So now, fortunately thanks to Deborah’s actions, I can withdraw from the race and actively support someone to represent the values we sought to promote when we created Sandy Springs. I wholeheartedly endorse Deborah Silcox to replace me in the Georgia House of Representatives and ask my friends in House District 52 to vote for her on May 24.”