Gay candidate Kyle Williams in heated race with Elena Parent for Ga. senate seat

The race to replace state Sen. Jason Carter for the District 42 seat has become a bit of a bumpy one in recent weeks. The two Democratic candidates, Kyle Williams, an attorney from Decatur who also chairs the Decatur Education Foundation, and Elena Parent, executive director of Georgia Watch and a former state representative (2010-2012), are in a battle to paint themselves as more progressive than the other.

The first openly gay person elected to the state legislature, state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), has endorsed Parent over Williams while Williams has picked up endorsements from gay groups Georgia Equality and the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.

A recent story in the conservative blog Peach Pundit outlined how the race has taken a somewhat nasty turn, with the Parent campaign in a push poll telling voters Williams accepted money from an organization that supports such U.S. Senators as Republican John McCain. In reality, in 2009 the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Williams in his non-partisan and unsuccessful bid for the Decatur City Commission. Williams also received the endorsement of the Stonewall Democrats.

On the other hand, Williams’ campaign accused Parent of attending a Tea Party conference while she was a state representative. Her explanation was that she was there to “spy” on the organization on behalf of the AFL-CIO and other Democrats, including state Sen. Nan Orrock.

District 42 covers Decatur, Avondale Estates and portions of DeKalb County including neighborhoods from Buford Highway to DeKalb Avenue such as North Druid Hills, Morningside, Druid Hills, East Lake, Kirkwood and Edgewood. The primary is May 20.

The GA Voice caught up with both candidates and asked them a series of questions.

Why did you enter this race at this time? Why do you want to win?

Kyle Williams: To understand why I am running you just need to know who I am, where I came from, and what I have done day-by-day in this district for more than a decade. This campaign is personal because the issues are personal.  The values and conscience of this district are my values and conscience. This district has a tradition and I believe a moral obligation to not just be a Democratic vote, but to be a progressive voice and advocate.  This district and our current and past State Senators have a history of not just sitting back, watching, or waiting for the pendulum to swing. We step up, roll up our sleeves, get to work and push.  That is what I have done here on the ground in this district for over a decade.  I am running to be an unwavering progressive voice and leader.  That is why I am the best candidate to be the next State Senator from this great district.

Elena Parent: I am passionate about using the platform provided by public service to improve the quality of life for all Georgians. I look forward to continuing the good work my friend Sen. Jason Carter has done on behalf of District 42. In the State Senate I will be an effective leader fighting for increased education funding, expanding access to health care, and equality for all Georgians.

If elected, what will you do to work toward a repeal of the ban on same-sex marriage in Georgia? Who would you work with to see if this could happen?

EP: I am committed to seeing marriage equality in every state, including Georgia, and will be a vocal sponsor of legislation to repeal the State’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. I will also work to legislate legal recognition of same sex marriages performed in other states, something we may be able to accomplish even before the repeal of the constitutional amendment, particularly given the federal government’s stance.  For those constituents who are legally married in another state, I will use the resources of my office to assist them in accessing the current federal benefits they are entitled to receive, while working towards the day when they will also enjoy equal state benefits as citizens of Georgia.

KW: When elected I will be the first openly gay male elected to the Georgia General Assembly and the only open LGBT member of the State Senate. I live the fight for equality. I struggled through my own coming out to family, friends, and employers. I know that my 13- year commitment to my partner is not recognized, valued, or protected by Georgia.  If elected to succeed Jason Carter as State Senator of Georgia’s 42nd District, I would unequivocally and with no hesitation introduce legislation to repeal Georgia’s Marriage Ban, Section IV of Georgia Constitution and Title Code 19-3-3.1 that excludes same-sex couples, like my family, from marriage and prohibits same-sex couples from any legal recognition.

To have marriage inequality written into state law for the purpose of discrimination and to make the LGBT community second-class citizens is unnecessary and a dangerous misuse of the legislative system with regards to civil rights. I will work to correct this wrong. There is no time like the present to begin the process of correcting this injustice so that same sex couples are afforded the same legal rights to protect, validate and celebrate our families and our love, no Georgian left behind. Georgia is my home and my future and I am committed to working for full marriage equality for my own family and all LGBT families. This work must be a collaboration of our LGBT elected local and state officials, our local, statewide, and national equality groups, LGBT families and allies, faith leaders, and our straight allies working together, openly, and telling our stories.

How would you work to further Rep. Drenner’s Fair Employment Practices Act?

KW: The Georgia Fair Employment Practices Act (HB 427) was first introduced in 2011 and would amend our state labor laws to safeguard against employment discrimination in public employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.   If passed, the legislation would protect more than 170,000 state employees from discriminatory hiring and firing practices.  Currently, there are no workplace protections for the LGBT employees. This legislation is crucial to the dignity and for the protection of LGBT state employees.  This legislation is also good business. I applaud the work of Rep. Drenner in her continuing work to introduce this legislation. Upon my election, I would proudly shepherd this legislation through the State Senate, work with Rep. Drenner on a companion piece to introduce in the Senate and to build the bipartisan sponsors and supporters.

I also know that this legislation does not go far enough as it does not address private employment in Georgia. I am founder of a four attorney law firm that adopted a written non-discrimination and no harassment policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in employment based on race; color; religion; national origin; sex, sexual orientation, transgender, sexual identity; pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; age; disability or handicap; citizenship status; service member status; genetic information or any other category protected by federal, state, or local law.  I am committed to continuing this work to ensure fundamental workplace fairness and protections for all LGBT Georgians.

EP: As a State Representative in 2011, I was proud to cosponsor Rep. Drenner’s Fair Employment Practices Act. This bipartisan, common sense bill is good for people and for businesses in Georgia and enjoys the support of a majority of Georgians. It should be enacted into law immediately. I will co-sponsor this bill again and work with my friends from both parties to grow bipartisan support for this important workplace protection and ensure passage next session.

Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) has promised to bring back his “religious freedom” bill. Why is this bill bad for LGBT people and others and what would you do to block the bill from becoming law?

EP: This bill attempts to allow businesses to refuse to serve any customers of backgrounds different from their own, including LGBT individuals, along with persons of different religious faiths, marital statuses, or other lifestyle situations. This is a bill that thousands of citizens and major corporations have expressed objection to, both in Georgia and across the country.

Discrimination disguised as religious freedom is not something that can be tolerated. As a State Senator I will continue to work with all of our allies, including those in the business community who were key to helping defeat this legislation, and endeavor to grow our coalition in order to ensure such discriminatory legislation will never be enacted into law in Georgia.

KW: HB 1023 [another “religious freedom” bill sponsored by state Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta)] and SB 377 were reckless and dangerous bills that are bad for all Georgians, but would have devastating effects and implications on the LGBT community because it would license discrimination and roll back existing anti-discrimination, public safety, and health protections afforded under Georgia and Federal law.

This legislation deeply troubles and concerns me as a lawyer, as a small business owner, and as a Georgian. As a gay man and advocate for equality, this discriminatory legislation would regulate my family and all LGBT Georgians to the inequality of a second-class citizenry. This discriminatory legislation is personal to me.  This legislation is not reflective of the Georgia that I know or the community that we have worked together to build in District 42.  Georgia is the birthplace of the civil rights movement and today welcomes the world. Georgia is home to multi-billion dollar a year corporations and fast-growing small businesses that value diversity and inclusivity. We can’t possibly hope that commerce will continue as usual should either of these bills pass. As the first and only openly gay State Senator, I would continue to live open and honest, speak up and speak out, and join the members of the LGBT caucus in the House of Representatives to work against, testify on, and counter these discriminatory efforts.

Elena Parent has a lot of big-name endorsements. What do you tell voters who see this list of endorsements and why they should vote for you instead?

KW: I am running based upon who I am and what I have done day-by-day in this district for more than a decade. I am working to earn each and every vote based upon my own merit. I will rise or fall based on my character, vision for our community, and the work that I have done for the past decade in this Senate district making sure our public schools have the resources they need, serving on boards in our community, fighting for equality as the Chair of Georgia Equality. I have a known and proven track record working on progressive and Democratic issues and causes for more than a decade.  I am proud and humbled to have the endorsement of Georgia Equality, the Victory Fund, and countless local and community leaders. However, the only endorsement that ultimately matters is the endorsement of the voters of this district and that is who I will be responsible to and accountable to upon my election.

Why do you think you are more qualified to be elected than Kyle Williams? Why are you qualified to represent LGBT voters in the General Assembly even though you are not gay?

 EP: I am a proud LGBT ally with many friends and family members who are members of the LGBT community, both here in Georgia and around the country. Most personally, I have an uncle who lives in San Diego with his husband and their adopted son. I was so excited when they were able to legally wed in California and look forward to the day when my friends in Georgia are able to do the same. I am a godmother to the son of dear friends who are a same-sex couple. I am also committed to working towards ending all forms of discrimination exercised toward LGBT individuals that are still legal in Georgia.  LGBT equality is a very personal issue for me. We have made great strides in recent year and we cannot rest until all citizens have equal rights.

I am the only candidate in this race who has been elected to office in the past and I have a strong record of service on issues important to the LGBT and progressive voters of this district from my time as a State Representative. My experience also includes serving as Chief-of-Staff to former Senator David Adelman when he represented District 42. It is due to this record of accomplishment that I have the support and endorsements of many of the elected officials in and around the district, including Rep. Drenner, Democratic House Leader Stacey Abrams and former Governor Roy Barnes.

What makes you more qualified to be elected than Parent?

KW: This district is more than 70 percent Democratic and overwhelmingly progressive. This district has a tradition and I believe a moral obligation to not just be a Democratic vote, but to be a progressive voice and advocate. I have a known and proven track record working on progressive and Democratic issues and causes for more than a decade. I am the son of the factory worker and a cafeteria worker who worked her way up to teacher’s assistant.

I am the first one in my family to go to college and then on to law school paying my own way through on scholarships and part time jobs. I chair the Decatur Education Foundation that oversees a million dollar budget to remove obstacles to learning by funding student and teacher scholarships and grants to help close the gaps facing our schools and serve on the Advisory Council for College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. I serve on the Private Bank of Decatur Advisory Board, and as Treasurer of the Decatur Business Association. I am former chair of Georgia Equality, and early board member of Red Clay Democrats, and a former president of Georgia Conservancy’s Generation Green. I also know what it means to make payroll and manage a small business. I am more qualified because I have a known and proven progressive track record in this district. I get this district and know that the values and conscience of this district are mine.

My opponent has a known and proven voting record during her two-year term representing the Chamblee area in the House of Representatives. That voting record shows that time and time again my opponent was out-of-step with this district and our progressive values. That voting record is simply way too conservative for this district. My opponent stood with Governor Deal and voted to gut the HOPE Scholarship, stood in the way of voter access by voting to limit the number of days for early voting and restrict voting on Saturdays, and took decision making away from local school boards to expand charter schools. This district expects and deserves a state Senator that will lead on progressive issues. I will be that state Senator.

How would you ensure, if possible, the passage of Medicaid? What would you do to help the some 600,000 people ― including LGBT people and those with HIV — who will fall through the gaps because there is no Medicaid available to them? How and what would you do to ensure medical care is continued to be provided to people with HIV?

KW: We have to stop playing politics with our health and scientific research.  This district is home to CDC, Emory, DeKalb Medical, and just down the street from Grady yet we have one of the highest HIV infection rates in the state because of politics impeding science and medical research and prevention.  Policies of Governor Deal prevented CDC from needed federal funds for HIV prevention research and prevention. I commit to actively sponsor and advocate for such funding and legislation. Georgia is the disturbing home to one of the highest rates of maternal mortality or pregnancy-related death.  I fully support and will work for extending the Medicaid family planning waiver set to expire on June 30, 2014, increasing funding for Medicaid family planning waiver, and expanding the Medicaid family planning waiver to include STD testing and reproductive health care for men.  Additionally, I support and will work for making the issue of maternal mortality or pregnancy-related death a priority of the Georgia Department of Health, which is currently not identified as a priority in the Department’s budget presentation.

We must also expand Medicaid to cover the additional 650,000 Georgians that are currently left out.  I was proud to stand with Cover Georgia, Georgia Equality, and friends and supporters on the steps of Capitol to rally for and demand this necessary expansion.  The need is great with Georgians living with HIV/AIDS as recent studies estimate that only seventeen percent of individuals with HIV/AIDS had health insurance in comparison to the estimated sixty-five percent of the general population nationwide.  Session after session at the Gold Dome we see a bill dropped because a Republican thinks they know better than a scientist, than a doctor, than a patient, than a woman.  I will not play politics or class warfare with our critical health needs or our necessary scientific advances.

EP: Medicaid expansion is an issue I have devoted significant effort to as the Executive Director of Georgia Watch.  Georgia Watch is a member of the Cover Georgia coalition advocating for expansion of Medicaid and we have helped numerous people find healthcare coverage, some for the first time in many years, on the federal exchange.  Nothing is more difficult for us than when we encounter someone who was meant under the ACA to be covered under the expansion of Medicaid and we have to tell them that they do not quality for health insurance because they make too little.

We cannot rest until Medicaid is expanded in our state.  It makes sense morally and financially.  The opposition is purely ideological, and as a State Senator I will continue to work with the Cover Georgia coalition to press this issue and highlight the stories of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who are still going without basic healthcare until we achieve access to healthcare for all Georgians.  I support the ACA mandate that people with pre-existing conditions like HIV must be covered under all healthcare plans.

Homelessness among LGBT youth and also among transgender people is a serious issue for many parts of several cities in metro Atlanta. What are some possible ways you see to help these very marginalized populations?

EP: One of the largest barriers to reducing homelessness among these populations is a lack of state and local funding dedicated to addressing this problem. As a state Senator, I will advocate for funding in the state budget for programs that have been proven to successfully address this issue. I will also support measures that increase the resources our schools have to provide outreach to these youth. Furthermore, I support efforts to educate the broader community about the unique issues faced by LGBT youth and our transgendered citizens to increase awareness and tolerance.

KW: I grew up gay in rural west Tennessee. I sat in a church pew and listened to homophobic sermons growing. Like many of us in the LGBT community, I know how it feels to be teased and bullied, to struggle with coming out, fighting for acceptance, and willing to find a life.  LGBT individuals of all ages and in all areas of our state deserve respect and to be safe. Satisfying the needs of and removing the risks to LGBT youth are crucial to removing obstacles to allow each kid and family to realize their full potential.  That need and those risks are greatly increased for our transgender community due the added discrimination and even refusal of shelter by housing due to their own identity or expression.

I fully support and will work to increase state funding for the provision of local services such as Lost-n-Found, targeting and including LGBT homeless and for support services for LGBT youth and their families. I fully support and will work to expand and adopt inclusive nondiscrimination policies and mandatory training for the needs of and risks to LGBT youth and our transgender community for our service providers.