Weekend Read: Mesha Mainor expected to face uphill battle to retain seat — even against little-known competitors

Mesha Mainor

Rep. Mesha Mainor speaks to her colleagues from the well of the House. (Credit: Georgia House)

Three of the four candidates for Georgia House District 56 in southwest Atlanta are scheduled to appear at a forum in Fulton County next week, just a few days ahead of the May 21 primary election.

Rep. Mesha Mainor won’t be among them. The incumbent, an Atlanta native running for her third term, said she won’t go because her alleged former stalker — one of her Democratic challengers — will be there.

But in any group of Democrats gathered in Atlanta lately, Mainor is the odd woman out. Since switching to the Republican Party last July, she has earned the enmity of many of her former Democratic colleagues, as well as the voters who elected her. 

Mainor’s strong support for bills creating private school vouchers and disciplining prosecutors last year made her a pariah among some in her party. After Mainor cast the lone Democratic vote for Senate Bill 233, the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, which narrowly failed, Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said that “a Democrat who votes to defund public education should be primaried,” and posted online a photo of a $1,000 check awaiting Mainor’s primary challenger. 

More condemnation and criticism from other Democrats followed, leading Mainor to announce last July that she was leaving the Democratic Party due to their “harassment” and intolerance. In doing so, she became the only Black member of the GOP among Georgia’s 236 lawmakers and the first Black Republican woman to ever serve in the Georgia General Assembly. 

This year Mainor voted as a member of the Republican majority to pass the school voucher bill, as well as Senate Bill 332, which empowers the oversight commission aimed at disciplining “rogue” and errant prosecutors. 

House speaker Jon Burns explains his support of a bill to empower a prosecutorial oversight commission, flanked by Reps. Matt Reeves (left), Mesha Mainor, and other House members.(Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

‘Dead woman walking’

Mainor’s Republican colleagues have praised her for taking a stand on the two bills, despite the political cost.

“She was a leader on that education reform bill from start to finish,” said Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, adding that “here in Georgia, I think that people want to see problem solving and effectiveness and delivering results. And that’s what she has done.” 

House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, told State Affairs that “[Mainor’s] support of school choice legislation played a vital role” in the bill’s passing. He added, “Representative Mainor’s dedication to common-sense policies that support Georgia’s children, families and communities has been evident since day one.” 

 Still, Mainor, who has no Republican primary opposition, faces long odds for reelection in November in her strongly Democratic district, where 90% of voters chose Joe Biden for president in 2020. 

House District 56 is 47% Black, 32% White, 10% Asian and 6% Hispanic or Latino, and 26% of residents live below the poverty line, according to 2022 data from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“She has incumbency in her favor, and she’ll do better than most Republicans in a heavily Democratic district where African Americans are a key constituency, but she will get nowhere close to 50% plus one vote,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. 

“She alienated everyone in the Democratic caucus and engendered animosity among her colleagues” through her unpopular votes, he said. And once Mainor switched parties, “she was a dead woman walking from that point on,” Bullock said. “I would imagine most Republican strategists have written that district off.”

“Party matters,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science associate professor at Emory University. Although “there is a diversity of thought within Black communities on issues related to school choice, this is likely not the top issue for voters in her district in this cycle,” Gillespie said. “And Democratic voters as a whole tend to penalize more conservative candidates. Party switching kind of goes beyond the pale. … While she may have some residual level of support as an incumbent, most people are not going to defect and go vote for her because they’ve known her before. Partisanship is going to hold that back.”

Mainor’s Democratic challengers 

Mainor’s first Democratic challenger to emerge was Bryce Berry, a 22-year-old seventh-grade math teacher and president of the Young Democrats of Georgia

Originally from St. Louis, Berry said he got involved in community organizing as a teen after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police in nearby Ferguson in 2014. At Morehouse College, Berry started a state-level student group to help elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020 and then led college voter mobilization efforts for the Georgia Democratic Party in 2022. 

Berry has since won the endorsement of dozens of Democratic state legislators, including most of the House leadership. He also has the backing of several Atlanta school board members, Fulton County commissioners and Democratic student organizations at Spelman and Morehouse colleges.

Berry, a teacher at Young Middle School, in southwest Atlanta has raised $36,350 in campaign contributions since last July, and his campaign war chest held $19,150 as of April 30. Mainor, meanwhile, reported raising $62,863 over the last three quarters and had $12,420 in her campaign account through April.

Berry’s platform includes measures around education reform, expanding Medicaid coverage, raising the minimum wage and working with local and federal governments to create more affordable, mixed-use housing developments in Georgia. 

“Fundamentally, Rep. Mainor has left our community behind,” Berry said. “It’s not just about her switching parties; it’s about her actions. …Voters in my district feel like they are not being heard by the state, their needs are not being met and they’re ready for a return back to a visionary, progressive Democrat who will work tirelessly to improve their lives.”

Emory’s Gillespie said Berry appears to be the front-runner in the District 56 Democratic primary. 

The Democratic candidate with the next-best level of name recognition in House District 56 is likely Corwin “CP” Monson

Monson, 50, an audio engineer, was a volunteer in Mainor’s unsuccessful campaign for Atlanta City Council in 2019 before she fired him for being disruptive, she said. Soon after, she accused him of stalking her. A Fulton judge granted a temporary protective order against Monson, who was later arrested for violating it. 

In September 2021, in a plea deal offered by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, Monson pleaded no contest to aggravated stalking charges and accepted a three-year sentence — one in prison and the rest on probation. Having already served 10-and a-half months in jail, he was released in November 2021. 

Monson has denied stalking Mainor, who he said has “lied and committed character assassination” against him. He told State Affairs he took the plea deal to get out of jail after his lawyer told him a court backlog in Fulton County meant his case might not be heard for another two years.

Monson, who has been endorsed by former state representative for District 56 “Able” Mable Thomas, is campaigning on economic development and education reform, including making the school funding formula “more equitable” for low-performing and rural schools.

Monson also seeks to expand Medicaid and other affordable health care options, as well as pursue criminal justice reform. 

He reported $1,005 in campaign donations as of January, but has not yet filed a campaign finance report for the first quarter of 2024, which was due on May 7.

Last week, Mainor announced she is suing Fulton County, Willis and Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington (who initially represented Monson) in civil court for their mishandling of the stalking case against Monson, which she said was not properly investigated, was sidetracked due to interference from Arrington and resulted in a too-lenient sentence. 

Also challenging Mainor is Adalina “Ada” Merello, a 42-year-old waitress who has lived in Vine City in House District 56 for two years. 

Originally from Eugene, Oregon, she has an extensive background in government and campaign-related work, including working for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on neighborhood improvement and service-based initiatives and volunteering for the campaigns of former President Barack Obama in 2012, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018 and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in 2020 and 2021. 

“I’m running because the neighborhood has been misrepresented for too long,” Merello told State Affairs. “Recently, we’ve had backstabbing with misrepresentation,” she said of Mainor’s party switch. “But I believe prior to that, we just don’t have a loud enough voice at the Gold Dome. So I’m newer in the neighborhood, but what I’ve seen is just people living their day-to-day lives, wanting life to be a little easier. And I don’t mean that in a handout way but a hand-up way, of people helping each other.”

Her campaign platform includes mental health reform, with a focus on further implementing some of the parity goals established in the major mental health legislation passed in 2022. 

Merello, who has openly discussed her bipolar disorder diagnosis, said she “wants to normalize mental health issues and treatment to make life easier for people who’ve had lives like mine.”

She also wants to improve public schools, create more food security for low-income residents, enact more tenant protections and expand LGBTQ+ rights.

Merello reported $13,219 in campaign contributions as of April 30.

Running on her record

Shrugging off Democrats’ criticism , Mainor, 49, maintains she is “extremely proud” of her advocacy for “the school choice bill,” which she said will deliver sorely needed education options to families in her district, where only 2% or 3% of students at some schools meet reading and math proficiency levels, she said.

Mainor grew up in the Hunter Hills neighborhood of District 56, where she said property and violent crimes, prostitution and the drug trade were rampant and students like her were stuck attending low-performing, poorly equipped schools. She said her mother “worked the system” to enable her to attend Mays High School across town, a better public school that put her on a path to attend Howard University.

“Currently, my district has the most charter schools than any other district in the entire state,” she said. “And what does that mean? That means parents want options and choices. And I do believe school choice is going to create a competitive environment; it’s going to change the dynamics of the education system, which needs to happen. I mean, we really do need to look at how education is done. The school board essentially controls the curriculum, and it’s not serving all students well enough. … And so I think SB 233 will allow families to kind of pick what they want.”

Besides improving educational opportunities for children, Mainor said she’ll continue to focus on public safety and criminal justice reform. She pointed to a bill she sponsored last session, House Bill 1165, that will bring in $7.5 million in federal funds for gun violence prevention programs in Georgia, which Kemp signed in April. She also worked this year with Rep. Reeves on House Bill 926, also known as the Second Chance Workforce Act, which allows people to keep their driver’s licenses and “to still be able to get to work” while they’re awaiting court appearances. Kemp signed it last week.

In 2023, as a Democrat she authored House Bill 142, the Unified Campus Public Safety Act, which allows police on the multiple Atlanta University Center campuses in southwest Atlanta to cross boundaries and collaborate, which she said was in response to campus shootings and bomb scares.

Mainor pointed to other accomplishments during her two terms, including her bill in 2021 to create the Fulton Technology & Energy Authority, an agency that fosters the development of energy-saving technologies that she said will lower the energy burden and create good-paying, green jobs for her constituents.

If reelected, her “key priorities are going to be continuing in the education space,” she said. “But in addition to schoolwide things, I really want to focus on the criminal justice system. I want to see what kind of resources you have while you’re in jail that are getting you ready for when you go out of jail and then when you’re on probation, because we really need to be more comprehensive with the resources we’re giving ‘second chance’ citizens once they come out.”

Rep. Matt Reeves (Credit: Georgia House)

Reeves, who serves on two House judiciary committees, said Mainor “has a passion for workforce issues and upward mobility of young people. … I think her mindset is rather than having people unnecessarily go to jail or go to prison, to figure out a way to not have their work and education disrupted. And that invariably touches on legal and criminal and public safety issues, so we’ve had multiple chances to work together. And what I’ve seen is she’s very educated, intelligent, a deep thinker in terms of legislative matters. She gets the big picture and the philosophical issues, but she’s always working on the practical part of it to help out her constituents.” 

Mainor said she has enjoyed accomplishing more as a legislator in the Republican majority.

“Mentally, I’m in a better place because I don’t have the hostility on one side, because of my vote on school choice or whatever vote I did. And so I feel like I’m in a space where I am encouraged,” she said. “And I got a lot more done this year than I did last year.” 

Mesha Mainor and Vance Smith
GOP Reps. Mesha Mainor, left, and Vance Smith sit at their desks in the House chamber. (Credit: Georgia House)

She said she is relying on voters in her district to “look at my record and reflect on what I’ve been able to deliver and see how that compares to what you’ve gotten from Democratic representation in recent years. I tell people, ‘Now you have someone at the other side of the table, sharing what your needs are, because right now [the Republicans] don’t know. I’m able to go and say this type of community needs this. Right now they have no idea.’”

Mainor said, “People in the community have told me, ‘You have helped us and we don’t care what letter is next to your name,’ and sent texts saying, ‘I guess I’m gonna vote across the ballot.’ Many people are coming to me secretly. You know, being Black and a Republican is taboo. You’re not allowed to be a Republican if you’re Black. You’re bound to face bullying and ridicule. Nobody, no one feels like they can just come out and say it, and that’s fine. I just need them to vote for me at the ballot box.” 

Gillespie of Emory said Mainor might be expecting too much from voters. 

“As a third-term incumbent, you have an incumbency advantage, but you haven’t built up a long-term reservoir of goodwill yet, compared to someone who’s held on to the seat for, say, 20 years,” she said. “It’s a risky thing to get ahead of your constituents on policy, when your constituents aren’t animated by the same issues that you are. And now we’re going to see what the impact of that is.” 

Early voting is underway through May 17, and primary election day is May 21. Primary runoff elections, if needed, will be held June 18. The general election will happen Nov. 5.

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Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected].