Map of Cobb County Commission districts -- 2020

As the results of the June 9 primary trickled in, Fitz Johnson and Andy Smith kept hitting the “refresh” button on their web browsers.

“It was like, refresh, refresh, refresh,” Johnson recalled, laughing.

“It was horrible,” Smith said. After the election, he and his wife took a planned trip to the beach, where they were to unwind after the rigors of his first campaign for public office. “It was the least relaxing vacation I ever had.”

Johnson, Smith and Kevin Nicholas each ran to succeed retiring Bob Ott, one of five people on the county’s governing board.

Each finished within 1,000 votes of each other: Johnson earned 6,656 votes to Smith’s 5,945 votes and Nicholas’ 5,770.

As the top two vote-getters in that Republican primary race, Johnson and Smith will head to the Aug. 11 runoff since no single candidate earned more than 50% of the vote.

The winner will face Democrat Jerica Richardson in November. Richardson did not face a primary opponent, but managed to garner almost 6,000 more votes — 24,146 — than the three Republican candidates combined.

Richardson told the MDJ she continues “to be incredibly proud of how committed we are in showing up to make our voices heard.

“The election results also show how much we desire to have a community bonded with genuine connections. Am I pleased with the results? Of course! However, I know we still have more hard work to do to claim victory this coming November. There are more people to empower, and every day has presented new challenges for everyone to consider. It is in this climate that we have the unique opportunity to envision the Cobb we desire to create with real empathy. As the front-runner, I am happy and honored to be a part of Cobb’s story.”

When asked whether he was concerned with the number of votes Richardson earned, Johnson said he was focused on the runoff.

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Nicholas thanked his supporters.

“While we fell short by less than 1% of votes cast, I am proud of the grass roots campaign we ran — representing ourselves and our neighbors, no special interests,” wrote Nicholas. “In these unprecedented times, I am not fully confident in the accuracy of the results but I will continue to put our community first both in my actions and in my prayers.”

District 2 encompasses parts of east Cobb, Cumberland, Vinings and Smyrna. It has been under Ott’s representation since he was first elected to the role in 2008.

Those who’ve kept an eye on the race said they were not surprised by how close the votes were between candidates.

Ott, who did not make an endorsement in the primary, said the result is not uncommon when there are several “relatively unknown” candidates running for an open seat.

Cobb GOP Chairman Jason Shepherd agreed.

“We had three just really amazing candidates,” Shepherd said. “It’s rare when you hear from people that they like all the candidates and don’t know which one to go for.”

Johnson and Smith’s challenge now, he said, is to do more to distinguish themselves from each other and reach outside their communities in which they did well.

“Fitz is more from the south side of the district, living in the Smyrna/Vinings area, while Andy is from the more northern, east Cobb portion,” he said. “Both need to do outreach into each other’s territories.”

Smith agrees.

“I knew from early that … I hadn’t done well in some of the Smyrna precincts and Vinings,” he said. ”I think there are a lot of people there that would be receptive to my message, so I just got to get out to them.”

The coronavirus probably didn’t help, Ott said.

Qualifying for the race ended in the first week of March; by the end of the month, the state had effectively gone into a lockdown to limit the virus’s spread.

Limiting in-person interaction meant mailers, yard signs and websites did most of the campaigns’ heavy lifting, Ott added.

Smith credits his advancement to the runoff in part because of his experience serving on the Planning and Neighborhood Safety commissions and the Transit Advisory Board. Although Nicholas currently serves on the Development Authority of Cobb County, Smith added, the Planning Commission is “much closer to what a commissioner is spending the majority of his time on.”

Asked what contributed to his victory, Johnson said, “It’s really just a lot of hard work.”

The retired businessman was out of commission for a month after catching the coronavirus, which meant a lot of phone calls and emails, he said.

Smith will prove a formidable challenger in the runoff, Johnson added.

“He’s a good guy, there’s no doubt about it,” Johnson said. “He wouldn’t be where he is today without being a good guy and a hard worker.”

Johnson has proved a prolific fundraiser, having received a total of $73,125 in campaign contributions as of his most recent campaign finance disclosures.

Smith and Nicholas raised far less, at $43,845 and $24,750 apiece.

Johnson’s fundraising prowess is even more impressive after accounting for candidate’s contributions to their own campaigns.

Johnson contributed just over $10,000 to his own money to his campaign. Nicholas loaned himself twice that; Smith, three times that.

Johnson’s contributors include a number of senior executives at Wellstar Health System, including executive vice president Leo Reichert, chief financial officer James Budzinski and Kennestone head Mary Chatman. He has also received donations from people in the upper echelons of the county’s business community, such as Jim Rhoden, chairman of Futren Hospitality, and Eric Widner, operations manager at Loud Security.

Cobb GOP chairman Jason Shepherd said there is a perception among some of Johnson as a candidate favored by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, which could prove a double-edged sword.

Among the most conservative in the Republican Party, chambers of commerce are seen as occasionally pushing big-government solutions to problems. Shepherd cited the state chamber’s support for mass transit and opposition to “religious freedom” bills as stances that have alienated die-hard conservatives.

On the other hand, it could give Johnson an edge among those who value business acumen and job creation above all else.

“That’s not to say that Andy, having served on a number of boards, that he’s any less friendly to business,” Shepherd said.

Such “whisper campaigns” among party activists can become more consequential in a primary runoff when only the most engaged voters care enough to turn out, Shepherd added.

Ott, for his part, said he would not get involved in the primary. He has known both men a long time. He and Smith graduated from the same high school, and he appointed Smith to the Cobb Planning Commission. Johnson, meanwhile, was Ott’s class leader when the latter was at Leadership Cobb.

Ott did say, however, that he wanted the next District 2 commissioner to continue the legacy left by himself and his predecessor, the late Joe Lee Thompson. By the time Ott retires at the end of this year, the two will have served a combined 28 consecutive years as the district’s representative.

That legacy includes the explosion of business in the Cumberland area.

“What’s most important to me is that what he started and I continued, that all of that continues,” he said. “I think the district’s doing well, we got a lot of great things that are happening in the list, it’s the economic engine of the county.”

Whoever comes out on top in the Aug. 11 runoff, Ott and Shepherd said the people of District 2 will win.

“I’m glad I don’t live in that district and don’t have to make a decision, because I think the world of both of them,” Shepherd said.

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