The Special Election to fill the Johns Creek City Council Post vacated by Bob Gray is now complete, and the results have been finalized. Chris Coughlin handily won the support of 63.81% of voters in an election that saw strong voter turnout.
With over 10,000 votes in his favor, Coughlin won more votes in a single election than any other candidate in Johns Creek’s ten-year history. That is a remarkable achievement, particularly in light of the fact that this was a Special Election held in April.
So what drove the high level of voter participation and delivered a nearly 2-to-1 victory to Coughlin’s campaign? I would suggest that four factors contributed to this outcome.
- House District 6 Special Election Interest
- Coughlin’s Preparation
- Grassroots Support
- Dissatisfaction with Current Johns Creek Leadership
Let’s take them one at a time.
Special Election Interest
There is no denying the fact that there was a groundswell of interest in the Special Election to replace Tom Price’s District 6 seat in the House of Representatives. Democrat funds poured into the race in an attempt to wrest control of this seat that Republicans have held for decades, spurred by the strategy of uniting behind a Democrat candidate while Republicans conducted the equivalent of a Primary Election. Both sides pushed a Get Out The Vote effort in order to achieve their objectives (the Democrats seeking to exceed 50% in order to avoid a runoff election, and the Republicans seeking to deny that threshold to their opponent). The interest in that race certainly brought more people to the polls.
Chris Coughlin is not a newcomer to Johns Creek politics. He ran for and won an election to complete a stub term in 2015, and narrowly lost the election for the subsequent term while being outspent by the eventual victor who spent nearly 14 times as much money as Coughlin did for his campaign. In the interim between the completion of his stub term and his election win this past week, Coughlin has remained highly engaged in local issues and has continually advocated his brand of fiscally conservative solutions to the issues our city must address. This level of continued engagement resonated clearly with residents who met with and attended the various candidate forums as well as meet-and-greet opportunities leading up to the election.
There is a growing level of grassroots involvement in Johns Creek. Some recent developments have heightened the awareness of residents who have been disappointed or even angered by events such as the proposals to erect a 400-foot tall cell phone tower in close proximity to schools and residential neighborhoods. The arrival of invasive billboards, proposals to widen roads that have far-reaching impacts on residents and private property, the delegation of decision-making authority for eminent domain seizure of private property to unaccountable officials in Forsyth County. Failure to adequately address the ever-present and growing traffic congestion in Johns Creek. Advocacy for increased urbanization, the proposed development of “The District”, and the ongoing promotion of high-density housing development despite a majority of residents’ opposition. The result has been a growing groundswell of grassroots support for candidates who will put the interests of Johns Creek residents first, rather than those of special interests, or in pursuit of a future vision for the city that is anathema to the suburban residential character that most moved here to enjoy. Chris Coughlin’s platform aligned with that grassroots development.
Dissatisfaction with Johns Creek Leadership
The previous point highlights the growing perception of a disconnect between Johns Creek residents and some of our city elected officials. To be more specific, Mayor Mike Bodker made this Special Election a referendum on his leadership when he came out in strong support of John Flores, officially endorsing Coughlin’s opponent. He is quoted in The Johns Creek Herald as stating, “While the council is making perfectly fine short-term decisions, they lead to bad long-term consequences. Meanwhile, what has been lost is a vision for the future of the city.” The article makes that statement, “Bodker said he is tired of people talking about Johns Creek as if it were a city that was fundamentally broken.”
There is more
By jumping into the election and endorsing one candidate while talking down another, the Mayor put a stake in the ground. He was joined in his endorsement by three City Council Members: Mayor Pro-Tem Steve Broadbent, Councilman Jay Lin (Chris Coughlin’s opponent in 2015), and Councilwoman Cori Davenport. Those familiar with the workings of John Creek City Council will recognize that the Mayor and three Council Members vote in support of each other the vast majority of the time. What the Mayor was attempting to accomplish was to add another member to the Council who he thought would be more likely to align with his vision for the city of Johns Creek. There is a strong case to be made that in their block endorsement of Chris Coughlin’s opponent. The Mayor and three fellow Council Members actually hurt John Flores’ campaign because the voters recognized it for what it was: an attempt to stack the deck with a perceived ally, providing the Mayor ample support to pursue an agenda that is not aligned with the voters.
Despite what was a serious strategic error, Mayor Bodker is an excellent politician. He is in equal parts persuasive, knowledgeable, hard-working, and dedicated to his job. There is also an impression that he can overly authoritarian and vindictive. He certainly has a vision for Johns Creek. However, the development of grassroots opposition to several of his positions. The overwhelming success of Chris Coughlin’s election despite the Mayor’s and three City Council Member’s endorsement, there is clear evidence that we have significant dissatisfaction with the leadership in Johns Creek.
The Special Election is now behind us. The voting residents of Johns Creek made a bold statement in their overwhelming support for Chris Coughlin, and they sent a message of rebuke to the Mayor and fellow endorsers of Coughlin’s opponent. The Mayor’s seat and Councilwoman Davenport’s seat are both up for election in November. Will they learn a lesson from this week’s events, and will they adjust their positions to better align with the will and desires of Johns Creek residents? The tide is changing and time will tell.