Old Enough To Vote, Young Enough to Be Trouble

Mary-Pat Hector has been drawing attention as an activist for about a decade. She has commendations from Congress for her work in urban anti-violence initiatives, a community service award from President Barack Obama and a position with the National Action Network as its national youth director.

She’s also one of the key local organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement. Remember the flash mob die-in demonstration at Lenox Square a few years ago? Hector.

So it would not be a leap to consider her a viable candidate for one of the five city council seats in the newly-constituted city of Stonecrest in South DeKalb.

She is also a 19-year-old freshman at Spelman College. And that might be a problem.

Her candidacy is being challenged legally by another candidate, George Turner, over her age. 

Title 45 of the Georgia Code says candidates for municipal office cannot be “(p)ersons who are not citizens of this state and persons under the age of 21 years; provided, however, that upon passage of appropriate local ordinances, citizens of this state who are otherwise qualified and who have attained 18 years of age shall be eligible to hold any county or municipal office, except such offices of a judicial nature.”

There’s nothing in Stonecrest’s charter about allowing 19-year-olds to run. Because, who thought that would come up?

“It’s an odd one,” said Rusi Patel, Associate General Counsel at the Georgia Municipal Association. “I had never heard of another instance.”

I note in passing that I consider both Hector and Turner friends. I would rather not see this descend into something ugly.

Turner is a well-respected former MARTA executive, a board member of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, and a past president of the South Lithonia Neighborhood Coalition. He worked at the legislature for seven years as a senate aide. He was also former CEO Lee May’s pick to fill the over-long District 5 vacancy on the county commission, and took DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson to a runoff for that seat in 2015.

He has a well-earned reputation for probity and honesty. Normally, he would be the heavy favorite to win this race.

But the race for the 4th district in Stonecrest is a hot mess.

Five candidates are contesting the seat. Hector and Turner will face Geraldine Champion, a former Atlanta police investigator and perennial candidate who has a lot of name recognition and a folksy approach that might win her enough votes off-year in a small district; Jonathan “J.P.” Phillips, a Morehouse grad and homeowners’ association chief …  and Jay Cunningham, a former DeKalb County school board member who was thrown out of office by Governor Nathan Deal, but has won three school board elections in this district.

All the names to watch are in the same race. It’s nuts.

Cunningham’s candidacy revives old questions about his business practices. He owned a pizza place that suddenly managed to sell a lot of pizza and wings to school functions while he was in office, for example.

The threat of moving DeKalb’s once-entrenched political weird from the county level to the local level has galvanized activists to some degree. Heavy hitters in the state Democratic Party have been lining up behind Hector as a way to stock the bench. For example, Fulton county commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. will be defending her candidacy at the election board hearing Feb. 9, Hector said.

For the moment, Hector is scheming with a phalanx of Spelman women in her dorm room, trying to figure out how to move forward.

“As I sit here with the campaign team and read all the encouraging emails, tweets and FB posts we have a new vigour,” Hector wrote yesterday. “We have a new and larger purpose. Not just to the residence in Stonecrest of Post 4 but for the hundreds of brown and black girls that have been told wait, not now, and not ever. We say YES! Right now and always! Women have been locked out for way too long and we will not stop fighting.”

My non-lawyer view of Turner’s legal challenge is that it’s probably going to be sustained by the election board. The statute is quite clear and Stonecrest’s charter is silent. However, I think a reasonable argument can be made that the state law itself could be invalidated in federal court on equal protection grounds — that there’s no clear and compelling policy rationale for denying an eligible voter the right to run for office on the basis of age.

If a court throws out the law, Hector will have secured a major victory for young citizens, regardless of whether she wins or loses the actual election.



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