A Georgia mayor is facing bipartisan calls to resign following a report that she dismissed a candidate for a top city position based on his race. Racist remarks from one of her defenders further inflamed the controversy, revealing what some say are outdated racial attitudes long pervasive in a small, predominantly white city.
The drama came to a head Monday in the Jackson County community of Hoschton, after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Mayor Theresa Kenerly withdrew the application of Keith Henry, a finalist for city administrator, “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.”
She allegedly whispered the remark to a city council member on March 4 during a closed-door session, the newspaper reported, citing interviews with city officials and documents it obtained through records requests. One of the documents, written that day by Councilwoman Hope Weeks, claimed the mayor doubled down on her comments in the parking lot after the meeting.
“She proceeded to tell me that the candidate was real good, but he was black and we don’t have a big black population and she just didn’t think Hoschton was ready,” Weeks wrote.
The mayor disputed the allegations in a statement to the AJC, denying she made any comments that “suggest prejudice.” But the story has reverberated rapidly among Hoschton’s nearly 2,000 residents and cast a negative light on the city’s leadership — a tenuous situation exacerbated by longtime city councilman Jim Cleveland, who defended the mayor.
“I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we’re not Atlanta. Things are different here than they are 50 miles down the road,” he told the AJC. “I don’t know how they would take it if we selected a black administrator. She might have been right.”
Then, he delivered an unprompted opinion on interracial marriage, which he said makes his “blood boil.”
“I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe,” he said. “I have black friends, I hired black people. But when it comes to all this stuff you see on TV, when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.”
Numerous calls to Hoschton City Hall were not returned Tuesday. A voice mail and email to the city’s public relations coordinator also were not returned, and emails to the mayor and council members involved in the situation were not returned Tuesday afternoon.
Pete Fuller, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, told The Washington Post that Hoschton is about 80 percent white, but its demographics are rapidly changing, creating a growing rift between the city’s older residents and younger people moving into the area. Cleveland’s comments, in tandem with the allegations against Kenerly, could stymie efforts to diversify the city, he said.
“I can’t imagine anyone is going to be applying for anything in that city anytime soon,” Fuller said. “I can’t imagine businesses are going to want to move in there with the current leaders in City Hall.”
Jackson County Republican Party Chairwoman Katie Griffin said in a statement that she was“infuriated” by what she read in the AJC report, writing that the comments published within “do not reflect our county or our party.”
She commended Weeks and Councilwoman Susan Powers, both members of the county GOP, for reportedly disapproving of the mayor’s alleged comments and “fighting against racism.”
While the mayor denies she discriminated against Henry, Powers and Cleveland told the newspaper she issued a tearful apology for her comments during a March 12 executive session. Council members said the mayor claimed she was “looking out” for Henry because the city has a small minority population. Henry, who withdrew his application for unrelated reasons, told the newspaper he didn’t sense any bias while interviewing with Kenerly over the phone. As a minority, he said, discrimination “comes with the territory.”
The AJC reported that Hoschton’s city code states that “all personnel actions shall be based solely on individual merit and fitness."
Former Hoschton mayor Erma Denny and conservative commentator Erick Erickson and others have spoken out against the two officials.
Denny, who served between 2009 and 2012, said in a statement Wednesday she felt compelled to apologize to Henry for the “appalling” line of thinking espoused by two of the city’s legislators.
“During my tenure both Ms. Kenerly and Mr. Cleveland were members of the council. At no point did I experience the abhorrent behavior and comments recently made by these elected officials, nor would it have been tolerated while I was responsible for our city,” Denny wrote. “These two individuals are outliers and their behavior is not indicative of our community — nor will this be allowed to continue. Their ‘belief system’ is inherently flawed and has no place in our society. Our community, and our country, must condemn this in the strongest terms to move past this dark place that was allowed to cultivate under current leadership.”
With this recent revelation I felt compelled to step forward to apologize to Mr. Henry for the actions of both Theresa and Jim. Please know that this appalling line of thinking is not a reflection on the good and welcoming people of our community."
People packed a scheduled city council meeting Monday, according to Fuller, in an “icy” standoff with Kenerly and Cleveland.
Photos show protesters holding signs denouncing the two lawmakers at the center of the controversy, among them: “Hoschton will not tolerate racism.”
Kenerly abruptly ended the meeting, Fuller said, when Powers brought up the AJC article and demanded that the mayor and Cleveland resign.
“The mayor immediately called her out of order and called the meeting closed,” he said. “They decided not to address it and walk out as soon as they could.”
In a video reviewed by The Post, angry protesters are heard shouting, “you’re a disgrace,” as Cleveland walked to his car. Another yelled, “put your hood on so we can recognize you!"
One woman showed Cleveland a photo of her daughter and son-in-law, who Fuller said are an interracial couple.
“They’re a beautiful couple,” the woman told Cleveland.
“I don’t believe in that,” Cleveland responded. “I don’t disrespect it — I promise you I don’t, I’m not racist, but I don’t believe in interracial marriage, and that’s the end of that story.”