Five openly gay candidates seek seats in the Georgia General Assembly in the Nov. 6 election, including three lesbian incumbents and two gay men challenging GOP state lawmakers. Two other known gay candidates are also on the ballot in Georgia, running for state Public Service Commission and Floyd County Commission.
In addition, Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT political group, targets six races with gay-friendly Democratic candidates to try to keep Republicans from gaining a constitutional majority in the state legislature, which would allow them to put constitutional amendments on the ballot without needing any votes from Democrats.
Also, the state Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), which would make it illegal to fire state workers based on sexual orientation and gender identity, would be in danger of stalling. In the past session it stayed stuck in the House Judiciary Committee.
State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) won a special election in 2009, becoming the first openly lesbian African-American state lawmaker in the country.
In the House, Bell is a top co-sponsor of the Fair Employment Practices Act. Her long career in public service includes working for the Health Initiative and as community educator for Lambda Legal. Bell faces Republican challenger Earl Cooper on Nov. 6. She is endorsed by Georgia Equality, Atlanta Stonewall Democrats and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
Timothy Swiney is challenging Republican Rep. Valerie Clark. Swiney, who lives in Lawrenceville with his partner and their two adopted children, is a strong advocate for changing Georgia law to specify that LGBT couples can adopt. Currently, Georgia law is silent on gay adoption, leaving decisions to individual judges.
Swiney is endorsed by the Atlanta Stonewall Democrats.
Brad Ploeger, a Libertarian, is running for the Public Service Commission against incumbent Chuck Eaton and Democrat Steve Oppenheimer. Ploeger said he is running for PSC because “by most appearances the Commission serves solely as a rubber stamp for the businesses it is charged with regulating.”
Rome resident Gary Harrell hopes to unseat Republican incumbent Garry E. Fricks for the Floyd County Commission Post 2 seat. Harrell said he is running on a platform of fresh ideas, supporting small businesses, balancing the county’s budget thoughtfully and using new green and clean technology to move Floyd County forward.
“There is a lot at stake — the presidential race, a constitutional majority and sponsors for FEPA,” Georgia Equality lobbyist Cathy Woolard has said of the upcoming election.
Openly gay candidates
When Nov. 7 rolls around, there will be at least two openly gay people serving under the Gold Dome.
State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) has no opposition and will be reelected to House District 85. The first openly LGBT person elected to the Georgia legislature, Drenner has held onto her post since she was first elected in 2000.
State Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta) battled a crowded field in the Democratic primary, but also has no opposition in the general election and will win her first full term in House District 60 after winning a special election in early 2012.
State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the third openly lesbian member of the Georgia House, faces Republican challenger Earl Cooper in the redrawn House District 58.
Interestingly, Cooper’s Facebook page displays a photo of him with Vice President Joe Biden and also a photo with First Lady Michelle Obama and wearing an Obama ‘08 pin.
Bell’s 2009 election made her the first openly lesbian African-American state lawmaker in the country. She faced a tough Democratic primary this year, beating fellow Democratic Rep. Ralph Long after Republicans drew the two incumbents into the same new district.
Two openly gay men are also vying for seats in the General Assembly — Timothy Swiney of Lawrenceville is seeking state office for the first time while Tim Riley of Athens is making a fourth run.
Swiney, a Democrat, is hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Rep. Valerie Clark in House District 101. Swiney is endorsed by the Atlanta Stonewall Democrats and said he would strongly advocate for the Fair Employment Practices Act.
Riley is again running for the state Senate against Republican incumbent Frank Ginn for Senate District 47. Riley also supports FEPA, saying he would work to ensure all people are treated fairly in the workplace.
No openly gay man has been elected to the state legislature. State Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) lost to incumbent Pat Gardner (D-Atlanta) in the July primary. Taylor came out as gay after already being in office.
Also on the Nov. 6 ballot, Brad Ploeger, who is gay, seeks a seat on the state Public Service Commission. The mission of the PSC is to “ensure that consumers receive safe, reliable and reasonably priced telecommunications, electric and natural gas services from financially viable and technically competent companies.”
Meanwhile, in Rome, Ga., gay Democratic activist Gary Harrell is challenging Republican incumbent Garry E. Fricks for Floyd County Commission Post 2. Sexual orientation has not been an issue in the race, Harrell said.
Fear of a GOP super majority
LGBT Georgians will suffer if the GOP solidifies total control of the state legislature, according to Georgia Equality’s Woolard.
“I can’t overstate how important it is that this [constitutional majority] not happen this time around, or the next time around. We need to not be moving toward this, we need to be moving away from this. This is too close to the edge,” Woolard said at a recent political briefing at the Rush Center.
A constitutional majority, or two-thirds of the members of the House or Senate, is the vote threshold required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Georgia.
In 2004, it took Democrats crossing party lines to vote with Republicans to put the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot. If the GOP wins a constitutional majority, similar amendments could be sent to voters without needing any Democratic support.
In the state House, Georgia Equality believes four out of five key races must have Democrats win to block a GOP constitutional majority. The races are:
• Kimberly Alexander (D) vs. Bob Snelling (R). This is the newly drawn District 66 in the Douglasville area west of Atlanta. Snelling has name recognition because he was a state representative in 2002.
• Rep. Carl Von Epps (D-LaGrange) vs. Gene King (R) in District 132. Von Epps is a long-time incumbent and a sponsor of FEPA.
• Renita Hamilton (D) vs. Joyce Chandler (R) in the new District 105 that includes Lawrenceville and Grayson of Gwinnett County. Hamilton also received an early endorsement from Georgia Equality.
• Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) vs. Chris Boedeker (R) in District 81 that includes North Central DeKalb and a section of Gwinnett. Holcomb is the incumbent and a sponsor of FEPA.
• Rep. Pedro Marin (D-Duluth) vs. Mark Williams (R) in District 96. Marin is also a long-time incumbent and FEPA sponsor and is endorsed by Georgia Equality.
On the Senate side of the General Assembly, there is one crucial race to keep the Republicans from gaining a constitutional majority — the race between incumbent Rep. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) and Republican Hunter Hill for District 6, which includes Sandy Springs, Buckhead and South Cobb.
Stoner has received Georgia Equality’s endorsement but Hill is a tough opponent because he is a native of the area, an Iraq War veteran and a Westminster graduate.
Top photo: Georgia Equality’s efforts to get out the LGBT vote included the LGBT political group’s Gold Dome float in the Atlanta Pride parade; other strategies include direct mail, phone banking and social media. (by Bo Shell)