Last minute election snafu in Georgia's public service commissioner race
Mary Landers, The Current
At 4 p.m. on the eve of Tuesday’s primary, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger disqualified a Democratic consumer advocate running for the statewide Public Service Commission, saying she did not meet the residency requirement.
While a Fulton County Superior Judge signed an emergency stay Tuesday to allow Patty Durand to stay on the primary ballot, it’s unclear how many of Georgia’s 159 county board of elections received that order or whether they were following Raffensperger’s directive that votes cast for Durand would not be counted.
The eleventh hour decisions were the culmination of a monthlong battle between Durand, who is running as a vocal critic of the billions-over-budget nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle, and the Republican incumbent Tim Echols. Durand was quick to ascribe partisan politics for the secretary of state’s ruling, while Raffensperger’s office says the decision was based on Durand failing the residency requirements for the candidacy.
The Public Service Commission is a five-member board that is voted on statewide for six- year terms on a rotating basis. It regulates monopoly utilities, including Georgia Power, and thus has a huge influence on Georgians’ pocketbooks. The residency requirement applies to candidates, who must reside for at least a year in the district of the seat for which they’re running.
In court documents Durand said she has lived in Gwinnett County since July 2021. She announced her candidacy for the PSC District 2 position from there and by December raised $110,000 for her campaign. This spring the Georgia General Assembly, with input from PSC Chairman Tricia Pridemore, redrew the district lines to exclude Gwinnett and add Rockdale County to District 2. Lawmakers signed the new districts into law March 4. Durand then moved to Rockdale County that same weekend to keep her campaign alive.
Durand, an energy professional who spent 10 years as president of the nonprofit Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative, contends the Republican incumbent Commissioner Tim Echols and Pridemore colluded to draw redistricting lines that targeted her for disqualification.
“I was targeted for removal because my opponent Tim Echols does not want to be held accountable for the scandalous costs of Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, the most expensive power plant ever built on earth, now at $34B and still not delivered,” she said in a prepared statement Monday night.
Georgia Power did not respond to a request for comment.
Documents submitted during Durand’s disqualification hearing on May 12 revealed that Pridemore, long active in the Republican Party and appointed to the PSC by Gov. Nathan Deal after she co-chaired both of his inaugural committees, texted Echols as she was drawing the district lines to present to the legislature.
“Don’t forget to get her home address,” Pridemore wrote.
Echols lives in Jackson County. After Echols provided Durand’s home address, Pridemore revised the PSC map to exclude Durand’s county of residence, Gwinnett, from District 2. This action also removed over 950,000 Gwinnett County residents and two-thirds of District 2 residents and disenfranchises them from running for a seat on the commission until 2026. Voting along party lines, lawmakers rejected a map drawn up by Democrats that kept Gwinnett in the district and disenfranchised fewer voters.
After receiving a redistricting map by text and commenting on it, Echols wrote “Can you circle back to Senator Kennedy and let him know that I did not know about the composition of the map? I expressly did not want to know.”
State Sen. John Kennedy chaired the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee and sponsored Senate bill 472 to redraw the district lines.
Echols and Pridemore did not respond to requests for comment.
The Monday decision by the secretary of state would have left no active Democrat on the ballot for the PSC District 2 seat. In late April, the other Democratic District 2 candidate, Russell Edwards, suspended his campaign.
The legal process against Durand started on April 27, when former Lilburn Mayor Johnny Crist wrote to Raffensperger challenging her candidacy. Crist is a supporter of Echols, who has featured the evangelical pastor’s endorsement on his campaign web site.
The residency rule cited by Durand’s detractors was not brought up last summer, when Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Fitz Johnson to the 3rd District PSC seat in July. Johnson, a Republican businessman and only the second Black commissioner, filled the vacancy created when Kemp appointed Commissioner Chuck Eaton to a superior court judgeship. Johnson ran unsuccessfully for Cobb County Commission in 2020 and moved to Fulton County in 2021 after learning his appointment was imminent.
Durand asked a state administrative law judge on May 12 to prohibit the Secretary of State from disqualifying her from the race due to the targeting of her candidacy, but was denied relief. The judge indicated she was not authorized to rule on violations of the U.S. Constitution.
Appeals to the residency case are expected to be heard in June. In the meantime, Durand said she’s more worried about voters than about herself.
“This is not about me, I’ll be fine,” she said. “This is about the 2.7 million Georgia Power customers who are not going to have representation on the commission that they should have. So I live to fight another day, and I’m going to keep fighting. But this is really about money and power. And they don’t want to lose it, the commissioners delivering for Georgia Power. That’s what this is about.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current, providing in-depth journalism for Coastal Georgia.