Ga. Senate race pits longtime ally against gay-friendly newcomer

An outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, Fort was first elected to the General Assembly in 1996, and is facing a challenger for the first time since 1998.

“I came into the legislature with a community-based agenda, and I still have more things that I want to do,” Fort said. “I want to continue to try to get good things accomplished and stop bad things from happening.”

The entire state legislature is up for election this year. Fort and Grady High School teacher Graham Balch will face off in the July 20 Democratic primary. With no Republican running and if no independent candidate petitions to be on the ballot, the primary will likely decide the race.

“I decided to run for state Senate because I am concerned about the state of public education in Georgia,” Balch said.

“I think there is a lot more we can do to provide our children with a great public education, and it affects everything else we are trying to solve — including helping our economy, solving crime in our communities, and achieving equality,” he continued, noting that states with higher levels of education also tend to have more progressive laws on LGBT rights.

Georgia Voice surveyed both candidates on a wide variety of LGBT issues, from hate crimes to gay marriage, and they gave similar answers on most.

Both Fort and Balch said they would sponsor a hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, a non-discrimination policy and domestic partner benefits for state employees, a non-discrimination law banning bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity for private businesses, and a law to clarify that sexual orientation should not be a factor in adoption decisions.

Both said they support full marriage rights for same-sex couples and they would sponsor legislation to repeal the 2004 state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

“I spoke against the amendment during debate, organized opposition on both the House and Senate side, as well as voting against it,” Fort said.

Balch said he thinks the first priority for LGBT rights should be securing rights for same-sex couples like hospital visitation and making end-of-life decisions, which would be a stepping stone to other rights for gay couples. Fort said that depending on the political make-up of the legislature, the first priority should be either defending against anti-gay legislation or passing an inclusive hate crimes bill.

Fort’s campaign includes an LGBT Initiative chaired by state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), who was Georgia’s first openly gay state lawmaker and is running unopposed for her sixth term, and longtime community activist Craig Washington.

Washington described Fort’s record as “one of the most progressive in the country not only in terms of gay rights.”

“Whether the issue is a hateful anti-same sex marriage amendment, a transgender vigil or a Black Gay Pride celebration, Fort has been there for us time and time again. … We don’t have to look hard or far to see where Senator Fort stands because it is right beside us,” Washington said.

Balch said his campaign is reaching out to all of the diverse citizens of the district, but not creating specific efforts for various communities. His prominent LGBT supporters include two gay politicos in East Point, former East Point City Council member Kevin Hudson and former City Council candidate Ken deLeon, as well as Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan, who donated to Balch’s campaign.

Hudson said he was concerned that some of Fort’s “tactics and public statements have left him with little precious little ability to work with the other senators, both within the Fulton County Delegation and the Senate as a whole” and he believes Balch “will be a much more effective voice for the GLBT+ community and all residents of the 39th district.”

Fort and his supporters say the race comes down to experience, while Balch and his backers believe the deciding factor should be the candidate’s style and effectiveness in working across the aisle with Republicans.

“I have a record that’s not only theoretical, but based on actions — things I have actually done,” Fort said. “I am very proud of my record and want to continue on that path.”

For accomplishments specifically related to LGBT rights, Fort notes that he sponsored Georgia’s first hate crimes law, which passed in 2000 but was eventually struck down by the state Supreme Court on the grounds that its description of hate crimes as based on “bias or prejudice” was unconstitutionally vague. Fort also noted that as a member of the Senate Rules Committee, he had worked to prevent legislation to ban gay adoptions.

Balch argued that his opponent has not been effective in passing legislation, especially since Republicans became the majority in the General Assembly, and the district needs “less talk and more action.”

“There is a difference between standing up for an issue and solving an issue,” Balch said. “I believe Senator Fort is great at standing up for issues, but I think we need someone who is good at solving issues.”


Top photo: Graham Balch, a teacher, is challenging Sen. Vincent Fort (right) in District 39. (Courtesy photos)