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Aaron Gould Sheinin

Democrats targeting Henry County from within and from afar

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March 28, 2013 - Atlanta, Ga: Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, begins to rip paper in pieces in preparation for, "Sine Die," before the closing of Legislative Day 40 in the House Chambers at the Capitol Thursday night in Atlanta, Ga., March 28, 2013. Thursday is the last day of the 2013 Legislative Session, Legislative Day 40. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, begins to rip paper in pieces in preparation for, “Sine Die,” before the closing of Legislative Day 40 in the House Chambers at the Capitol Thursday night in Atlanta, Ga., March 28, 2013. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

No, the look on Brian Strickland’s face in the above photo is not because of the cadre of top state Democrats coming to his district on Saturday, but it would be understandable.

Rep. Strickland, R-McDonough, and other Republicans in the exurban Atlanta county are grappling with rapidly changing demographics that have seen the white population fall from 55 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2015, according to Census figures. The county’s African-American population, meanwhile, has grown from 37 percent to 42 percent.

Those figures help explain two separate but related pieces of news out of Henry County. The first involves Strickland and his campaign against Democrat Darryl Payton for House District 111. The second involves billionaire George Soros, a major funder of Democratic campaigns across the country, pouring money into the Henry County district attorney’s race.

District 111 was created out of thin air after the 2010 Census when lawmakers drew new legislative maps based on shifts in population. As drawn, the district had a black voting-age population of 35 percent, much greater than the other two Henry-centered Republican districts. District 109, held by Republican Dale Rutledge had a BVAP of 29 percent, while Republican Andy Welch’s District 110 was 30 percent.

What that says is Strickland’s district was designed to be more competitive, even possibly a Democratic-leaning seat. But Strickland won with 52 percent of the vote in 2012 and 53 percent in 2014.

Yet, Democrat Jason Carter won Strickland’s district over incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Michelle Nunn bested now-Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue there in 2014. Both Democrats carried Henry County that year.

Now, Payton is getting some help. Carter, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and Reps. Taylor Bennett, D-Brookhaven, and Sandra Scott, D-Rex, will help Payton kick off his campaign on Saturday.

“Henry County is following other metro-Atlanta counties in its changing political identity,” Abrams said. “Small business owner Darryl Payton will be a welcome addition to the Capitol, joining our fight against those who would deny rights to others through the bigotry of ‘religious freedom’ and harm Georgia’s business climate. We are excited by his campaign and our opportunity to win this vulnerable seat.”

Now, the bit about Soros.

During a routine review of campaign finance reports, one of our colleagues stumbled across a new political action committee called Georgia Safety & Justice. The PAC’s reports show that it’s sole cash contribution came from Soros in the amount of $100,000 and that is has spent $91,000 as of Aug. 31 on polling, research and consulting all to benefit Darius Patillo.

Who is Patillo? He is the Democratic candidate for district attorney in Henry County.

Patillo is currently a deputy chief assistant DA in DeKalb and ran for the Henry County post in 2012. He faces Republican Matthew McCord, a municipal judge and county attorney. According to the Henry Herald, Patillo is running on a platform that includes criminal justice reform in the way of pre-trial diversion programs and community outreach.

Enter Soros. Politico reported in August that the financier has invested $3 million into seven local district attorney races, not including the Henry County campaign.

From Politico:

Soros has spent on district attorney campaigns in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas through a network of state-level super PACs and a national “527” unlimited-money group, each named a variation on “Safety and Justice.” (Soros has also funded a federal super PAC with the same name.) ]

The news site goes on to say that Soros’ money is aimed at supporting African-American and Hispanic candidates (Patillo is African-American) who support reducing racial disparities in sentencing and diversionary programs to reduce prison sentences.

Sounds like Soros and Governor Deal have at least one thing in common: Criminal justice reform.

McCord is not amused to have Soros inserting himself in the race.

“Our district attorney’s office can’t be bought by people who don’t even live here,” McCord said. “My opponent, whose entire career has been in Dekalb County, has accepted a massive amount of money from a Washington D.C. billionaire.”

McCord said Soros’ contributions to Patillo’s campaign are “nearly twice the median income of the people in this county. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, it should be appalling that Mr. Soros and my opponent believe that the Office of the Henry County District Attorney is for sale.”