In the new District 57, voters in the heavily gay area of Piedmont Heights and Midtown, as well as neighborhoods below I-20 including some of West End, will be forced to decide between an openly gay black man and a white woman and longtime LGBT ally seeking her 12th term.
“With Rashad and Pat, we have a very challenging race,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization.
Both have been endorsed by Georgia Equality in the past and the group stood by Taylor when he came out one year ago — May 22, 2011 — at the Phillip Rush Center after an ex-boyfriend threatened to out him to colleagues.
Being forced to decide between these two won’t be easy, Graham acknowledged.
“We have two people with proven track records. Certainly Pat has a long history and Rashad is one of only two gay black men in legislatures around the country,” Graham said.
Gardner and Taylor both said they are seeking the Georgia Equality endorsement, but Graham said a decision may not come for weeks or even a month.
The two incumbents consider each other friends and have worked closely in the legislature on many issues. But at the same time, each wants to win this race.
“The Republican redistricting is unfortunate for the city of Atlanta,” Taylor, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said at his recent campaign kickoff at the Commerce Club.
“A lot of neighborhoods have been divided. Communities of interest have been divided. It makes it hard for us as candidates and for voters to understand,” he said.
Taylor said the redistricting seems to be racially motivated and his contest is the perfect example — a gay black man against a white progressive woman.
“But I hope people support me not just because I’m gay,” he said. “I’ve worked hard on numerous issues. Pat [Gardner] has been an ally and a supporter of my leadership. We bonded in the House. It’s unfortunate to be running against a friend.”
At a recent fundraiser for another candidate, Gardner said the redistricting process was simply “painful.”
“I worked very hard to keep communities of interest together,” Gardner said. “They [Republicans] had another agenda. We believe in Atlanta that we are an inclusive society, not just black and white, but men and women, the whole gay community. Its really hard to find ourselves in this position where trying to make Democratic Party look less inclusive.
“He’s my friend. But I have some issues I care deeply about and in process of putting everything I have into this race,” she added.
Gardner, who voted against the 2004 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has experience running against a gay candidate. That same year, current Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan challenged Gardner, but she won easily in the Democratic Primary.
“Alex [Wan] and I ran against each other and are now very close friends. He supports me in this campaign. It is my hope that the gay community realizes we need allies, gay people, as much as we can get for support,” Gardner said.
Early endorsements make waves
Georgia Equality has made early endorsements of four openly gay candidates for Georgia House: state Rep. Simone Bell, who faces ally Rep. Ralph Long in the newly redrawn District 58; Rep. Keisha Waites of District 60; Rep. Karla Drenner of District 86; and Ken Britt, a candidate for the open seat of District 56.
“At this point in time we made four early endorsements where the decisions were very clear to us. We are supporting these incumbents and supporting Ken Britt who helped form the organization [of Georgia Equality]. These are people who have worked and will be able to advance our legislative agenda. And Ken has worked at the Capitol to help us do that,” Graham said.
Britt volunteered as a lobbyist for Georgia Equality last legislative session on HB 630, the Georgia Fair Employment Practices Bill. But he does have an opponent — “Able” Mable Thomas, a former state representative who also challenged U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
When reached by phone and asked for an interview about the campaign, Thomas said she wanted “equal time” for the coverage GA Voice has given to Britt, including two stand-alone stories about her, before promising to send an announcement about her campaign and then hanging up the phone.
The first GA Voice article was about Britt’s campaign announcement and was before Thomas entered the race. The second article was about Georgia Equality announcing early endorsements.
The GA Voice received a text message Tuesday, May 22, saying Thomas was holding a fundraiser at the Capital on Wednesday, May 23.
In an interview with the website Atlanta Progressive News and her friend editor Matthew Cardinale, Thomas said she was disappointed Georgia Equality did not consider endorsing her.
“I’m a little sad they’ve gone so quickly to endorse [Britt] without looking at the record and seeing I’m a consistent strong vote to ensure the rights of the LGBT community are respected,” Thomas said.
Long, expressed disappointment and even anger that Georgia Equality did not consider him for an endorsement before giving its nod to Bell in the new District 58. Bell made history when she was elected in 2009 and became the first out African-American lesbian elected to a state legislature.
“I just want a fair chance,” said Long, who is a co-sponsor of a hate crimes bill in the House sponsored by Taylor and also of the state Fair Employment Practices Act sponsored by Drenner.
“I’ve never voted to discriminate against anyone. My feelings are hurt [about the endorsement]. The LGBT community has some straight allies and if we want equality we have to want equality for all. Having a straight candidate that represents their issues gives constituents a larger plate at the table,” he said. “I’ve had doors closed in my face because I’m not gay.”
For Bell, who said she has nothing bad to say about her colleague Long, the major opposition in her race is the map.
“The map is the challenge, not my opponent,” Bell said during a May 12 meeting of the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party. “But I’m going to win.”
Bell also made it clear that she represents all constituents — whether it comes to healthcare, women’s issues, poverty and education.
“It’s important I go back because as an out lesbian I fight for a woman’s right if she wants to or doesn’t want to have an abortion,” she said. “If I am fighting for women’s rights, I know I’m fighting for lesbian rights.”
Other gay incumbents
Drenner, who was Georgia’s first openly gay state legislator and is currently serving her sixth term, didn’t have an announced opponent at press time. The official candidate qualifying period is May 23-25, with the primary set for July 31.
“My job I believe is to not only help Democrats get elected but to ensure LGBT candidates get elected,” Drenner said.
Rep. Keisha Waites, who won a special election Feb. 7 for the District 60 seat, said she was thrilled to receive Georgia Equality’s endorsement. She hopes she faces no opponent, but said she is sticking to her grassroots campaign of walking neighborhoods and especially working with children in her district’s public schools.
“We hit the ground running since I was sworn in and I plan to work for the people,” she said.
Graham of Georgia Equality hopes the redistricting process does not divide progressive voters, who are already outnumbered in Georgia politics.
“I hope the progressive community as a whole does not fall in the trap of beating up each other because of race, class and sexual orientation,” Graham said. “This year is going to be very painful for a lot of people.
“I hope the leaders in our community can keep one eye on this election cycle and another eye on working together in the future to bring equity and fairness to Georgia,” he said.
Top photo: State Reps. Rashad Taylor and Pat Gardner face each other in the Democratic primary on July 31. The two friends were drawn into the same district during the last session. Taylor is openly gay and Gardner is a longtime supporter of LGBT rights. (by Dyana Bagby)