Democratic candidates have announced runs for two local state House seats in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs next year in the party’s quest to turn Perimeter areas blue at the ballot.
Josh McLaurin will seek to replace retiring Republican state Rep. Wendell Willard in the Sandy Springs panhandle’s House District 51, and Matthew Wilson is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Meagan Hanson in House District 80, a Brookhaven-centered district that includes Sandy Springs’ High Point area.
In the District 51 race, McLaurin joins another previously announced candidate, Republican Alex Kaufman.
McLaurin, a Sandy Springs attorney, earlier this year announced a run for Congress, but did not follow through. That race ended up being the epic battle between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff that drew national media attention.
“This year, a lot of people are engaged in politics in a way they haven’t been before,” said McLaurin, whose candidacy drew praise from a founder of PaveItBlue, a progressive women’s group that formed this year in Cobb County and Roswell. Part of his motivation for running, he said, is hearing from friends “who feel that every race deserves competition.”
He added, “I’m not especially rabid about trying to get Republicans out of office.” McLaurin said he has never met the representative he is seeking to follow in the District 51 office. “My understanding is he has served honorably as chair of the Judiciary Committee,” he said of Willard.
McLaurin was in the news in 2014 for a successful legal battle expanding the right to film court proceedings, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and others reported. Earlier this year, he was living in Roswell, but he recently moved into a Sandy Springs apartment complex.
He said he did not run for Congress because Ossoff emerged as a leading candidate. “I needed to get out of his way,” McLaurin said.
Kaufman announced his run almost a year-and-a-half ago, shortly after Willard — a Sandy Springs Republican — gave unusually long notice that he would not run for re-election in 2018. A Roswell resident, he is a business lawyer who works at Kaufman & Forman in Sandy Springs and was born and raised in the city.
Sandy Springs City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling previously announced a run for the seat as well, but later decided to pursue the Fulton County chair seat in an unsuccessful campaign. Sterling said he will not rejoin the state House race.
Kaufman attended Sterling’s Election Night party Nov. 7 in Sandy Springs and said he has been speaking with Willard as preparation for the campaign.
House District 51 includes Sandy Springs’ panhandle area and parts of Johns Creek and Roswell.
In District 80, Wilson enters the race as a first-time candidate, but with a background in volunteering in recent races where the district has switched back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.
Wilson, who lives in Brookhaven, is a personal injury attorney at the Akin & Take law firm. He said he’s running because he believes “it’s the right time and I’m the right person. I want to be the progressive champion our moderate district deserves.”
Hanson, a Brookhaven resident, said she is standing by her record. She is a member of the House Transportation Committee and the committee that oversees MARTA. She also co-sponsored the DeKalb County special local option sales tax, featuring a referendum to freeze property taxes, that was overwhelmingly approved by DeKalb voters Nov. 7.
“I am proud of my record, and I look forward to continuing to work hard for House District 80,” she said.
Wilson graduated from the University of Georgia and taught sixth-graders at a low-income school in Texas as part of the Teach for America program before moving back to Georgia and getting his law degree at UGA.
Wilson said he volunteered for former state Rep. Taylor Bennett in 2015 when he defeated former Brookhaven mayor J. Max Davis in a special election for the House District 80 seat. He volunteered again for Bennett last year when Hanson pulled out a slim victory.
Wilson said he tried to recruit Bennett and two other friends to run for HD 80, but the timing was not right for them.
“Then Taylor and some friends approached me and said, ‘You should be the one to run.’ I thought about it for several weeks … and talked to people who knew me and knew the district,” he said.
Wilson, who is openly gay, said he is still listening to residents in the district before he plans to unveil a platform at the beginning of 2018. What he is hearing, however, is that residents are disturbed with the tone of legislators at the General Assembly who he said are not doing the work people want, specifically on education and economic policies.
People want to see someone represent their concerns “rather than push divisive issues.”
House District 80 is considered by some to be a swing district. Mike Jacobs was elected to the seat in 2004 as a Democrat, narrowly defeating J. Max Davis, but switched to the Republican Party in 2007 and was easily re-elected in 2008 and 2010. Bennett won the seat in a special election after Jacobs left to take a judgeship, and Hanson ousted him in the following 2016 election.
“There’s no denying the district was drawn to be a Republican district,” Wilson acknowledged. But he said Hillary Clinton won the district by 12 points and Hanson only narrowly defeated Bennett by fewer than 250 votes.
“Even though there are more Republicans than Independents or Democrats in the district, those Republicans will vote for the best candidate regardless of party affiliation,” Wilson said.
–John Ruch and Dyana Bagby