The week of April 26-30 proved intense at the Georgia General Assembly, as the end of the annual 40-day legislative session coincided with the official five-day qualifying period for major party candidates for this year’s elections, in which every seat in the Gold Dome will be up for grabs.
At Georgia Voice press time April 27, at least five openly gay candidates had announced plans to run for the state House and Senate. Party primaries are slated for July 20 and the general election is Nov. 2.
State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Georgia’s first openly gay state lawmaker, qualified April 26 to run for her sixth term.
State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the first openly lesbian African-American state legislator in the nation, qualified April 27 to run for her first full term after winning a special election last fall to finish the term of Robin Shipp, who resigned the seat when it conflicted with her employment.
Neither Bell nor Drenner, who was unopposed in her last election in 2008, had drawn a challenger by press time. Visit www.thegavoice.com for updates after qualifying ends April 30.
Meanwhile, at least three gay candidates hope to join Drenner and Bell under the Gold Dome, where they would be the first openly gay men to serve in the General Assembly.
Two — House District 80 candidate Keith Gross and Senate District 47 hopeful Tim Riley – are seeking rematches after unsuccessful bids in 2008, while the third, House District 59 candidate Brad Ploeger, is running as a Libertarian and therefore must qualify for the ballot via petition rather than the party primary system.
Riley, a gay mental health counselor who lives in Athens, had not filed qualifying papers by Tuesday afternoon, but announced his candidacy via a press release on April 21.
Riley, a Democrat, ran for the same seat in 2008, losing to Republican Ralph Hudgens in the general election. Riley received 25,172 votes, or 35.2 percent of votes cast, compared to 46,257 votes, or 64.8 percent, for Hudgens.
Hudgens is running for state insurance commissioner. At press time two Republicans had qualified to face off in the GOP primary: Shane Coley, a software consultant from Statham, and Kelley Gary, a business owner from Hoschton.
In a press release about his new bid, Riley said that he first ran for state Senate in 1988, and noted the dramatic changes for an openly gay candidate in the span of 20 years.
“It was a different time when I won the nomination in 1988, I had death threats and many vile remarks back then,” he said. “In 2008 some 20 years later it was more low-key and issue oriented. Georgia is growing up and we are all taking seats at the table now, even in rural Georgia.”
State Senate District 47 includes parts of Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Jackson, Madison and Oglethorpe counties.
Ploeger was nominated to run for Atlanta-based House District 59 at the Libertarian Party state convention on April 24. He is challenging gay-friendly Rep. Margaret Kaiser (D-Atlanta) for House District 59. Ploeger, who is gay, is an attorney and lives in Grant Park with his partner.
According to the Libertarian Party, Ploeger must collect 1,600 signatures to qualify.
“This state needs leadership and a clear purpose of vision. We the people have only been given bread, circuses and scandals,” Ploeger said in a press release.
GOP allies draw opponents
Two of the most publicly gay-friendly Republicans in the Georgia House are facing challenges from Democrats offering to be even stronger allies on gay and transgender issues.
Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta) will face a Democratic challenger for the first time since leaving that party in 2007. Gay business owner Keith Gross hopes to be the name on the ballot with Jacobs in November, but will first face computer consultant Sandy Murray and any other Democrats who qualify in the July 20 primary.
Gross attempted to run against Jacobs in 2008, but was pulled off the ballot after a court challenge determined that Gross did not meet the residency requirements. The Democrats were unable to get a candidate on the ballot and Jacobs easily beat an independent candidate.
Gross did not return calls from Georgia Voice, but wrote on his website that he had received bad legal advice. “I ran for this seat in 2008 because of my disappointment that Mike lied to all of us and switched from Democrat to Republican (after lying long enough to get elected),” Gross said on the site. “Just like you, I was surprised when I was kicked off the ballot through a clever legal maneuver, which I inadequately defended.”
Jacobs said he welcomed a challenger and was confident the voters will approve of his records.
“I’m not worried about it. I’m going to run a strong campaign, and feel that I’m known quality within my district, but I feel that’s for the voters to decide,” said Jacobs, who has been endorsed by Georgia Equality and the gay Log Cabin Republicans in past races.
During this legislative session, Jacobs has been the lead sponsor of a bill to curb bullying in schools. While the language of the bill does not single out sexual orientation, it is strongly backed by Georgia Equality.
At press time, it was uncertain whether the bill would pass before the General Assembly adjourned.
Neighboring House District 81, also located in northeast of Atlanta, should prove interesting for gay voters as well, although no openly gay candidate is on the ballot. Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta), the only Republican to vote against the 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, will face her fourth Democratic challenger.
Elena Parent is already drawing gay support, with a March 31 “Celebrate Equality” fundraiser that featured lesbian Q100 radio personality Melissa Carter and featured several gay political activists on the host committee.
“(Chambers) has to tread carefully, and gay issues is not an area where she will, or has ever, proactively gone to bat for the issues that the gay community cares about,” Parent said. “She was able that one time six years ago to play defense, but I can play offense and be a voice for GLBT equality every day.”
Chambers said she is seeking re-election because she is now in the position to carry significant legislation such as the “Hustler Bill,” that would bar police from releasing nude pictures of murder victims.
Chambers said her track record shows her to be an ally to the gay voters in her district, and most of her work is fiscal, not social in nature.
“My voters, whether they’re gay or straight, don’t want me to run on gay issues, they want me to run on fiscally conservative issues,” she said.
House Districts 80 and 81 are both trending Democratic, creating an interesting question for gay voters who will choose between a proven ally or a new voice.
Jason Cecil is president of the Georgia Young Democrats and Georgia Stonewall Democrats.
“District 81 should have been in Democratic hands and it should have been for a long time. It’s not about strictly GLBT issues,” Cecil said.
“It’s going to be a hard road to how to get back into power alone, much less pass any gay-friendly legislation.”
Jamie Ensley, president of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans, said that gays are better served by having Republicans who can lobby for gay issues.
“Republicans are going to be in power for a while, and if we don’t have any allies in that party then we really don’t have a voice,” Ensley said. “And Mike and Jill are the strongest friends we have.”
Top photo: State Reps. Karla Drenner (left) and Simone Bell, the two openly gay lawmakers currently serving in the General Assembly, both qualified to run for re-election this week. (File photos)