Democrats ask court to settle intraparty fight to face GOP’s PSC nominee in fall

photo of Cobb Superior Court building from the front with a blue sky with clouds in the backgroundCobb County Superior Court (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
July 13, 2022

MARIETTA – Democrat Shelia Edwards won the May primary outright to run for an Atlanta-based district on the state Public Service Commission, but her former primary opponents are arguing Edwards should not appear on the ballot this fall.

Chandra Farley, who came in second place with 31% of the vote, and third-place finisher Missy Moore are contesting Edwards’ eligibility because she does not live in the district, which includes DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties.

But Edwards, who won the Democratic nod with 55% of the vote, argues the one-year residency requirement – which has imperiled another Democrat’s candidacy in a different PSC district in the wake of redistricting – should not apply to her because the election decides who will finish serving the last two years of former Commissioner Chuck Eaton’s unexpired term.

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Republican Fitz Johnson was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp last summer after the governor tapped Eaton to serve as a judge in the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Johnson, who ran unopposed in the GOP primary, lived in Cobb County when first appointed but now lists a northwest Atlanta apartment as his residence on campaign documents.

Edwards lives in Mableton, located in Cobb County, and says she will move to the district if elected. She accused the losing candidates of trying to disenfranchise the nearly 360,000 voters who supported her.

“In looking at the situation and deciding to run, I looked at (Johnson) and the path that he went down, and it didn’t have these requirements on it,” Edwards said Tuesday of the one-year residency requirement. “And so when I qualified, I qualified with that understanding that they were not applicable to the situation.”

Her attorney, Ann Brumbaugh, argues the challenge should be dismissed, pointing to a change lawmakers made in March when creating the new PSC map that she says essentially waives the residency requirement for the unexpired term.

“There is no way to live in a district for 12 months if you change the districts eight months out,” Brumbaugh told reporters. “In this case, Cobb was never part of District Three. Edwards lives in Cobb. We have been very upfront about that the entire time. But to require a 12-month residency when you change the residency rules eight months out – that’s a little complicated.”

A state administrative law judge, Judge Shakara M. Barnes, sided with Edwards in May, finding that the one-year residency requirement should not apply since the election will fill Eaton’s unfinished term.

Barnes ruled that the residency requirement should not apply to District 3 until 2024, when voters are set to pick a commissioner for a full term. Normally, commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

Farley and Moore are now challenging Edwards’ eligibility in Cobb County Superior Court. A special roving judge, Judge David T. Emerson, who is a former Douglas County superior court judge, is presiding over the case. The judge did not issue an opinion Tuesday on whether the residency challenge would move forward.

“You have to squint really, really hard to see the loophole that (Edwards) is trying to create here,” said attorney Bryan Sells, who is representing Farley. “It just doesn’t fit in the election framework that we’ve got.”

Sells argued there is no vacancy to fill “unless someone resigns or dies or is otherwise disqualified,” since Johnson currently holds the seat. Brumbaugh countered that it is not a loophole but simply what lawmakers wrote into law.

For now, Edwards is set to face Johnson in the Nov. 8 general election. Sells said if the judge disqualifies Edwards, a second primary election would be held to replace her on the ballot.

‘A completely different kettle of fish’

Sells is also representing Patty Durand, the Democratic nominee in PSC District 2 who is challenging Republican Commissioner Tim Echols. Edwards accused Sells of “speaking out of both sides of his mouth” by arguing the residency requirement should apply to Edwards but not Durand.

But Sells pushed back on that.

“They’re different districts, different arguments,” said Sells, who called Durand’s case “a completely different kettle of fish.”

In Durand’s case, she launched her campaign last summer and moved to Gwinnett County in time to meet the one-year residency requirement.

State lawmakers then redrew the commission’s five-district map in March just before candidate qualifying started, removing Gwinnett County – and therefore Durand – from Echols’ district. Durand then moved to Rockdale County so she could pursue the matter in court.

Messages among commissioners surfaced through Durand’s court challenge that showed Echols providing the commission chairman with Durand’s Gwinnett County home address before the new commission map was approved.

Durand is arguing that the application of the residency requirement in her case “unconstitutionally burdens her rights” under the Equal Protection Clause and the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution, according to her court petition.

Missy Moore, the other Democrat challenging Edwards’ candidacy, questioned why Edwards was ever allowed to qualify in the first place.

“She’s trying to justify it, saying that Brian Kemp appointed somebody from Cobb who moved to Fulton into the district. That’s Brian Kemp. He’s the governor. He follows his rules,” Moore said. “We are not the governor, and we’re following our rules. Period. That’s the story. Governor. Not governor.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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