It’s no secret that women took a “shellacking” in 2010 November elections in Georgia.
No woman won a statewide elected office although several women were in the running. And that followed the 2009 local elections when we witnessed a transition in the City of Atlanta from a woman Mayor and a woman City Council President to men holding both those positions.
So the special election in Gwinnett County on Tuesday, March 15 was a welcome development when Charlotte Nash won decisively in a race against three male opponents.
What’s even more interesting is that Gwinnett now has a majority of female commissioners — three out of the five. In addition to Nash, the District 1 commissioner is Shirley Lasseter and District 2 commissioner is Lynette Howard.
Nash acknowledges that being a woman was one feature that distinguished her from her opponents. The other difference was her 27-year experience that Nash had in the Gwinnett County administration until she retired in 2004.
“In lots of ways, being a woman doesn’t make any difference,” Nash said in an interview after she won.
But in other ways, being a woman could give Nash an advantage in the Gwinnett of today.
“As I’ve watched women in public office, there seems to be more willingness to compromise and work as a whole,” Nash said. “There seems to be more of a willingness for consensus building. We tend to be more inclusive.”
And those traits could come in handy right now after some Gwinnett politicians have been through a series of scandals .
“I certainly tried to make that part of how I campaigned,” Nash said. “In Gwinnett County, we have been so splintered, and there have been so many bad and damaged feelings.”
As Gwinnett’s chair, Nash will run the second most populous in the state (after Fulton County). Only one other woman currently chairs one of the 10 counties in the Atlanta Regional Commission — B.J. Mathis, chair of the Henry County Commission.
Ross King, executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said there are 802 county commissioners in Georgia and “the overwhelming majority of them are males.”
According to ACCG’s records, 104 of those 802 county elected officials are females. Twelve of them serve as either the commission chair or mayor of a consolidated city/county government.
Over the years, King said there really hasn’t been a significant shift in the number or percentage of women serving as county commissioners in the state. But King added that he is seeing “more females expressing interest in governance.”
One woman who is making a mark in county circles is Bebe Heiskell, the sole commissioner of Walker County, which is located in the northwest are of the state. Before being elected sole commissioner in 2000, Heiskell had served 24 years as the county’s administrator.
“She’s a very strong politician, and she has run that county very well,” said King, adding that he can see parallels between Heiskell and Nash. “The beauty of someone like Charlotte stepping in is that she brings in very strong experience in Gwinnett, the region and the state. She comes in with staff experience.”
In addition to Gwinnett, two other counties with more than one commissioner have a majority of women commissioners — Baldwin and Heard. The chair of the Baldwin County Commission is Bubba Williams; and the chair of the Heard County Commission is June Jackson.
Of the 152 newly-elected county commissioners in 2010 in Georgia, 14 percent (22) were women, according to ACCG.
Nash does know what she’s getting in to, and she understands the workload that comes with the job. Now that her victory “is beginning to sink in,” Nash said she is has been reflecting on what she needs to do in her new role.
“I’ve been focused so much on Gwinnett County and what needs to be done,” she said. “Now I need to consider what kind of broader role I’m going to have as chair of the county commission. I certainly understand that Gwinnett needs to be playing a big role in the region and the state.”
Interestingly enough , Gwinnett was one of the first major counties to first elect a woman chair. Lillian Webb won her first term as chair in 1985. She later served as Mayor of the City of Norcross. Another powerful woman in regional county politics was Liane Levetan, who served as CEO of the DeKalb County Commission from 1993 to 2000.
And now there’s another woman who is taking on a major challenge as chair of Gwinnett and as an important regional leader.
“I’m excited about the roles I’ll be stepping into,” Nash said. “I know it’s going to be a lot of hard work.”