Last week, candidates filed campaign finance disclosure forms, which makes it sort of the unofficial kickoff of election season, even though it’s been going on quietly for months and qualifying—the official start—isn’t for three more weeks.
These forms, which disclose how much money candidates raised and from whom, always get political junkies chattering, but this round brought a real stunner: A virtually unknown 21-year-old candidate for mayor, Keyantwon “Antwon” Stephens, reported raising over $100,000. To put it in perspective, that’s about how much Mayor Nancy Denson—as well-connected a politician as Athens has ever seen—had raised at this point in her re-election campaign four years ago.
Stephens’ disclosure lists 10 pages of three- and four-figure contributions, some from people on Leann Drive, where he grew up, and other parts of Athens, but many from out-of-towners as far away as Iowa and Virginia. He also reported $55,000 in donations of under $100, which don’t have to be itemized, and three loans totaling $7,100, including $2,000 from himself and two others from a man in Raleigh, NC, and another in Mount Pleasant, SC. While candidates typically tap friends and relatives from out of state for money, it’s unusual for this many non-Athens residents to be supporting a candidate for local office. And none of these numbers are verified—Cora Wright at the ACC Board of Elections told me that as long as all the blanks are filled in, their job is simply to send the forms on to the (woefully understaffed) Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.
Stephens chalked up his fundraising success to connections he’s made working in politics since he was 11 years old. “It helps to have a political background,” he said, adding that he needs to raise big bucks to overcome his underdog status. “My main concern is making sure we have a strong ground game and fundraising game,” he said. The ground game is not readily apparent to me—as far as I know, I’ve never met Stephens in person or seen one of the $10,000 worth of postcards and yard signs he ordered, and his canvassing events on Facebook draw little to no engagement.
In 2013, Stephens was the 17-year-old founder of the Athens-Clarke County Tea Party Patriots. He organized a conference—booking speakers like Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson—that was booted out of the Classic Center after a check bounced, attended by only a about 100 people and wound up $65,000 in debt. He also worked for Lloyd Kelso, a fringe 2016 presidential candidate, and “hundreds” of others. Currently, he said he is heading up Ready for Kamala PAC, a group that is urging Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) to run for president. “I look at each election individually and make my decision,” he said.
The $102,396 Stephens reported raising was four times as much as what Girtz was able to bring in. Unlike Stephens, nobody maxed out for Girtz, but he raised a respectable $25,184 in smaller contributions from all the usual people in Athens who give to progressive candidates. As of Jan. 31, he had $12,956 cash on hand, compared to Stephens’ $88,695. But Girtz should bring in a good haul from an upcoming $35-a-head fundraiser featuring the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood.
Marketing firm owner Richie Knight reported raising a respectable $20,498 for the mayoral race, including an $8,000 loan from himself. According to Sims’ nearly illegible disclosure, he somehow raised just $820 while having $2,645 on hand. Lawyer Samuel Thomas did not raise any money, so we can probably count him out.
Interestingly, District 5 incumbent Jared Bailey, who has said he plans to run for a third term, did not raise any money. He has two challengers: spa owner Danielle Benson, who raised $8,585, and Athens for Everyone founder Tim Denson, who raised $7,574.
In District 7, business owner Russell Edwards raked in $25,709—including checks from Democratic state legislators Bob Trammell, Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace—and lawyer Bill Overend, who just jumped into the race, raised $1,193. Incumbent Diane Bell did not file a disclosure, indicating she is probably not running again.
In the race to replace Girtz in District 9, school board member Ovita Thornton raised $2,430, and Tommy Valentine, a UGA PhD candidate in public policy, has raised $22,838, although Valentine has been burning through cash quickly with only $4,307 left on hand.
In Sims’ District 2, Taylor Pass raised $585. Announced candidate Mark Martin had not filed a disclosure as of Friday, Feb. 9, the day after the grace period ended.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Thornton had received a donation from the NAACP; her campaign actually wrote a check to the NAACP.