Devon Spiva, a volunteer for Houston Gaines, gives his perspective on the Gaines’s campaign for State Representative in which Gaines was defeated on November 7th by Democrat Deborah Gonzalez.
Both as a candidate and as an individual, Houston Gaines was polished and poised; knowing what questions to answer directly and which ones required caution. He entered this race with arguably more political experience than his opponent, Deborah Gonzalez, having been the campaign manager for Mayor Nancy Denson’s reelection in 2014 and having served as SGA President at UGA, a position that allowed him to craft bills to submit to the GA Legislature. On the other hand, Mrs. Gonzalez had rarely worked in politics, instead being an active attorney in Athens for the past six years while touting her experience as superior to Houston’s.
Privately, Houston shed the confidence that he exuded at debates and events, worrying that he underperformed or had said something wrong that would allow the Democrats to spin his words negatively. Unfortunately, he was right to fear the Democrat’s power of persuasion in Clarke County. In his first debate with Mrs. Gonzalez at a town hall forum in Oconee County, he was asked who he would vote for were the 2016 presidential election held that day. In a room filled with liberals, Mrs. Gonzalez received approving nods when she said she “would have voted for Hillary Clinton” and that “the past nine months had justified that.” However, Mrs. Gonzalez’s answer seemed to indicate she did not vote with her use of “would have” rather than “I voted.” Houston realized that this particular question was intended to tie him to the vastly unpopular president and chose to point out the fact that the person who asked the question was a massive donor for Deborah Gonzalez. By the rules of the forum, the person was unable to ask a question due to his affiliation with a campaign. Houston then pivoted into a fiery rebuke of Clarke County Democrats by saying their disposal of Mayor Denson from their committee for supporting Houston in the race “showed the democratic party’s extremism.” While his supporters silently applauded him, the Democrats at the forum could only gape silently as Houston ripped into their party with a passion, bringing their partisanship to the forefront. However, Houston indirectly answered the question by stating “I would not vote for Hillary Clinton, I can tell you that. And I do support what the President is moving forward on in tax reform and other legislation.” The Democrats immediately pounced on his statement, butchering the quote and blasting it to their constituents to energize the anti-Trump movement. The attack ads, both online and in mailers, tied Houston to Trump by selectively quoting him as saying “I do support what President Trump is moving forward on” or simply stating “I do support [President Trump.]” Gonzalez’s mailers featured a full color picture of President Trump on the front, stating that “Houston won’t stand up to President Trump” and then comparing the “values of Deborah Gonzalez to the Party of Trump.” In Oconee, Jackson, and Barrow County, the mailers had the reverse effect and Gonzalez lost each county by more than 2/3, however, in liberal Clarke County, the largest county in the district, she won it by 66%, propelling her into the state house by a mere 445 votes.
Tying Houston to Trump wasn’t the only campaign tactic that Gonzalez utilized. In her opening statement in the first debate, Mrs. Gonzalez stated that she was “also not your typical candidate” and that “if you lined up all of the representatives who have been elected to this seat, you could sing that song, one if these things is not like the other” alluding to the fact that all the previous holders of the seat were white with very few even being women. In doing this, Mrs. Gonzalez brought race to the forefront of her campaign, championing herself as a voice for minorities by attempting to expose Houston Gaines as a racist. Following the second debate, a reporter from Flagpole began to pester Houston, repeatedly asking what made him a unique candidate. Houston, refusing to state that he was atypical because of his age as it would’ve been conflated by the Democrats, stated “I think you can tell what makes me unique” and attempt to answer the question indirectly every time it was asked. After about the sixth time of being pressed about it, Houston replied “I think you can tell just by looking at us what makes us different. We have different perspectives.” Houston then broke away to speak with other people who had attended the debate and the reporter left shortly afterward. I was at the debate with Houston, taking pictures for the campaign, a few of which were published on the campaign’s Facebook page and I didn’t think anything of his response. Later, when Houston was giving me a ride home, I brought up the reporter as we talked about the debate and Houston’s performance. I voiced my irritation with the reporter’s constant pressing and Houston replied,
“Yea, I know what he wanted me to say, that I was young and that’s what made me unique, but I didn’t want to say it. I think I handled it alright.”
“Yeah, you did.” I responded. Unfortunately, we would both be proven wrong in the days to come. The next day, a group of faculty at UGA known as UCW began placing notes across campus in the Red & Black newspaper boxes that read:“Making Gaines in White Supremacy” in bold followed by “I support what President Trump is moving forward on. -Houston Gaines” with a signature of “Your friends at UCW-UGA.” That following Tuesday, Flagpole published an article lambasting Houston as a white supremacist and accusing him of engaging in “dog whistle politics.” When questioned about this in an interview with WUOG 90.5, the campus radio station, Deborah Gonzalez stated that “when I look at Houston Gaines, I see white” again bringing race to the forefront and severely damaging Houston’s reputation. However, in the spirit of double-standards, Mrs. Gonzalez remained unscathed by her remarks.
As we made it into the final stretch of the race, the confidence of the campaign began to dwindle. The attacks on Houston became relentless and a state representative race suddenly became as controversial as the 2016 presidential election. Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link constantly weighed in on the race, reposting Flagpole’s article and stating, “we don’t need another silver spoon under the Golden Dome, vote Gonzalez on November 7th!” Mayor Denson also weighed in on the race, remaining unwavering in her support for Houston Gaines, despite their party difference. As early voting continued, we noticed that our counties (Oconee, Barrow, and Jackson) had incredibly low turnout while Clarke’s was relatively high (in comparison.) This was reason for concern, but many of us were still convinced that this would be Houston’s election.
Then came the morning of November 7th, which brought with it a fair amount of confidence, at least on my end. I called an Uber and made it to the campaign office around 9 am where I talked to Houston for a little while before going out with the volunteer coordinator, Noam, to wave signs that read “Vote Gaines Today” on the intersection of Timothy Road and Epps Bridge. The reaction to the signs was mostly positive with a fair number of approving honks and a few people who even rolled down their windows to tell us how much they hoped Houston was going to win. I did have one lady take both hands off the steering wheel as she passed and press her middle fingers against the glass at me. But, other than that exception, I received no negative reaction in that location.
Around 9:45 am, Noam and I returned to the office and began making phone calls urging people to vote for Houston. Unfortunately, we realized that the voicemail the machine was leaving was a day old and told everyone to go vote tomorrow for those who had not answered. In total, 51 people were told to vote on November 8th (the assumed “tomorrow”) rather than November 7th. Houston recorded a new voicemail with the correct day to vote (today) and the calls continued. Around 11:30 am, Houston, Noam, Houston’s mother and sister, another volunteer, and I all went to a fire truck parked outside of Athens Auto to take a campaign photo. Afterwards, the other volunteer and I waved signs until 1 pm.
At this intersection, I began to see a lot less enthusiasm for Houston and more negative reactions: middle fingers, boos, disapproving head nods, and thumbs down. The negative far outnumbered the positive and I began to feel that we were going to lose Clarke County by a much bigger margin than originally anticipated. I remained optimistic, but I felt a growing sense of unease. However, upon returning to the campaign headquarters, I remarked,“Houston, you better not get primaried in 2018.” We all laughed, still confident in a Houston win rather than a Deborah Gonzalez one.
For nearly seven hours I waved signs near voting precincts, even when it began raining. There were still far less positive reactions than I was hoping for and my unease grew. Around 6 pm, I returned to the campaign headquarters for what would be the last time. I went to the back room where a large group was making campaign calls, urging voters to get out and vote before the polls closed at 7 pm.
It was around this time that the campaign received the predicted turnout, which was far lower in the counties we needed than in Clarke. 300 houses had been excluded from the canvassing in Oconee County, a problem that wasn’t assessed until around 8:30 the previous night, making it an unfixable and unfortunate oversight. Noam and Houston became incredibly nervous at this point, but I still remained convinced that everything would turn out as expected and that Houston would be elected by the end of the night. After we received the numbers, Houston had Noam drive me to the restaurant where we would all gather to watch the election returns.
Noam dropped me off at the campaign headquarters around 7:30 pm, and I called Houston to determine who I was supposed to talk to and where to set up my computer. After a few minutes, a manager directed me to the back room where there was a table set up for appetizers and two large “Gaines for State Representative” signs. I found the TV and hooked my laptop up to it, displaying the website on the television monitor.
Before long, I was joined by two guests for the watch party and we began talking about the election as well as checking in on the Virginia gubernatorial race. Before long, the room was packed with eager spectators and members of the campaign as well as Houston’s family. The results came in slowly, with Barrow and Jackson reporting first, giving Houston a lead of nearly 40 points. However, Mrs. Gonzalez was surprisingly strong in the deep republican counties, taking nearly a third of the vote. Time went on and the crowd remained optimistic, but curious as to why the returns were taking so long. Then Clarke county began reporting. Mrs. Gonzalez, who had trailed in the polls the entire night, began to gain momentum and eventually pulled ahead of Houston. I became incredibly nervous, but still optimistic, along with other members in the room, that Houston would still win.
“It’s only 40% of the counties totals gesturing at the screen which corroborated my statement”, Noam shook her head, “There’s only two precincts left to count. He just went to make the concession call to Deborah.” She said, and I immediately felt my eyes begin to burn. I walked out of the room and outside, past Houston who was making the concession call, and off to the side of the building where I buried my face in my hands and felt a rush of disappointment and sadness. I had put in innumerable hours with the campaign and truly believed Houston would make a fantastic state representative. I walked back into the room as Houston was making his speech, thanking his volunteers and apologizing for the results. At this point, the reality of the loss set in. It wasn’t so much that a Democrat won, but rather who that Democrat was and who my candidate was. Houston demonstrated integrity and campaigned on issues, while his opponent attacked his character and campaigned on a platform that didn’t represent the district. This was someone who had allowed her campaign to slander a 22-year-old political upstart all in the name of victory. Gonzalez supporters screamed obscenities at Houston’s volunteers and called him unspeakable names. Houston had abstained from calling her out on it, and did not stoop to her level but, in the end, the “D” next to Deborah Gonzalez’s name mattered more than the campaign she ran.
I asked my friend and fellow volunteer, Erin, for a ride home before saying goodbye to Houston. I shook his hand and said, “You ran a campaign to be proud of. And even though we lost, I am so glad I got to campaign with you. If you ever run again, you have my phone number.” He smiled, and his voice was slightly strained as he replied, “Thanks for all your help. I’m sorry I couldn’t win this for y’all.” I said goodbye to the other volunteers, some of Houston’s supporters who I had come to know through the campaign, and his mother, who hugged me and thanked me. These were the types of people that Mrs. Gonzalez attacked relentlessly: a family who cared more about others than themselves, full of humility and grace even in defeat. A candidate I believed in lost at the hands of a candidate who should’ve been defeated soundly in as a result of her campaign of hatred and vitriol.
Houston Gaines was and is an incredible candidate. This man, who had been called racist, had broad-based support from African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups. This “inexperienced” candidate had worked as the SGA President to serve the student body of UGA, a large part of the district, as well as managed campaigns successfully. This “far-right extremist” had been endorsed by Democratic mayor Nancy Denson and other democrats who found common ground in his platform. I am proud of the Gaines campaign and I am thankful for the opportunities granted to me by being able to work with an amazing candidate such as Houston Gaines. He may have lost, but Houston ran a campaign to be proud of.
Devon Spiva is a freshman studying political science. He is a regular contributor to The Arch Conservative.