Rhett said it was this strength in numbers that helped him oust state Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Marietta), the dean of the Georgia Senate, in Tuesday’s primary.
Although the final vote was close with Rhett winning 2,871 votes, or 51 percent, to Thompson’s 2,717 votes, or 49 percent, Rhett said it was not close enough for a recount.
“When I heard, I took a knee and said a prayer,” Rhett said.
The candidate said he was at home resting and soaking his feet, because they were sore from standing at different precincts Tuesday, when he heard the news.
Rhett didn’t have a party planned in celebration of his victory. Between a busy Wednesday working at the Jefferson Place homeless shelter off of Marietta Boulevard Northwest in Atlanta and attending a Georgia Community Coalition meeting, Rhett planned a humble reward for his win.
“Today, I’m going to buy myself a new pair of shoes,” he said.
In a close race for the primary, Rhett ousted Thompson from a position he has held since 1990.
After congratulating Rhett on his victory, Thompson said he is grateful to have had 34 years in office as a member of the Georgia House and Senate.
“I want everyone to know how truly grateful I am for having 34 years to serve Georgia and watch the state change,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he is now looking forward to spending time with his wife and seven grandchildren, and he hopes he will be remembered for his accomplishments.
“I’ve tried to be the voice of reason, and I’ve tried to have a reputation for not backing up if I give my word,” Thompson said.
Rhett said Thompson has held his position for so long he didn’t focus on campaigning as much as Rhett did.
“It seems as if he got off to a slow start, because I get around and I didn’t see where he had started his campaign,” Rhett said. “People hadn’t heard of him.”
Being involved in numerous community groups and being vocal on local issues put Rhett ahead, he said, because residents already knew him.
“He didn’t have name recognition because he didn’t have to campaign, and I think that kind of hurt him in the beginning,” Rhett said.
As a senator, Rhett said his key focus will be job growth.
Rhett calls his campaign style a grassroots efforts that has been culminating for years, leading to a community that already knows him.
“They have either received phone calls from me over the years or they’re probably in one of the different organizations in the community for which I publish a newsletter — or just being involved in different organizations,” Rhett said.
Even though this is his first Senate race, Rhett said his background of 30 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserves has given him the experience he needs to be successful in a new environments.
“I’ve been used to working with different countries and with different governments and observe their structure,” he said. “So, it’s not too hard for me to go in and look at the design of the Senate and further their agenda and put forth the agenda we have of economic revitalization.”
A demographic change
Rhett’s win means he is ousting one of the three white Democratic men in the Georgia Senate.
“The simple fact is that the demographic did change, and the voters have spoken,” said Melissa Pike, chairwoman of the Cobb Democratic Party.
Despite her excitement about the outcome of the primary, Pike said she was disappointed in the overall voter turnout.
“It wasn’t isolated in that district, but when they did have the opportunity to vote for the first black representative in that district — I was disappointed,” she said.
Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said he has seen the trend and attributes it to black voters moving into certain south Cobb districts.
“What’s happening is fairly simple,” Swint said. “The county, especially the southern part, has become more diverse ethnically and has many more minority candidates and more minority voters.”
Rhett said he thought his base of supporters was not one-sided in any demographic.
“If you look at the results, they were very close,” Rhett said. “So my grassroots base was multidimensional. It wasn’t any type of demographics.”
With no Republican candidate in the general election, Rhett will be the seventh black elected official representing Cobb County’s 21-member legislative delegation next year.
Deane Bonner, president of the Cobb NAACP, said she was excited about his victory.
“It is progress because the challenge for Dr. Rhett seemed insurmountable,” Bonner said. “You’re talking about certainly ‘the Dean,’ and it’s hard to win a race against an incumbent. We’re excited about Dr. Rhett. We’re going to celebrate the fact that he’s there.”
Thompson’s legacy will always be there, and Rhett said he respects his accomplishments.
“I want to thank Steve for his service; I think he should be commended for that,” Rhett said. “He had a long tenure. He was successful at one time at getting a lot of legislation passed, so I want to thank him for that.”