Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 5/9/2019, 9:37 a.m.
It’s been the year of the woman (with women taking political office at record numbers), so it’s an ironic twist that a woman would discriminate against people of color. But that’s clearly the case in a relatively small town in Georgia. According to multiple news sources, including the Washington Post, now there are calls for that female mayor’s resignation.
It’s being alleged 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 Racist remarks from one of her defenders further inflamed the controversy, revealing what some say are outdated racial attitudes long pervasive in a small, predominantly White city.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. 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.”
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."