Georgia’s House District 80, which encompasses Chamblee, Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, has long been a swing district.
In 2015, former Georgia Tech quarterback Democrat Taylor Bennett — whose mother and sister are gay — won a special election to represent the area. He lost by a slim margin the next year to Meagan Hanson, a Republican who once worked for former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Bennett’s not running in 2018, but Hanson is: and an openly gay candidate named Matthew Wilson is vying for her seat.
The issues that matter
“I think our district deserves a representative who will focus on the issues that matter most to us: ensuring a quality education, expanding transit options, growing our economy and ensuring equality under the law for all of our friends and neighbors. I don’t think that’s what we have right now,” Wilson, a Democrat, told Georgia Voice. “We’re one of the most educated districts, one of the more affluent districts. It’s focused on business, it’s focused on economic growth and ensuring a bright future for our children, and so these other issues that Georgia Republicans have tried to push in election years, such as [religious exemptions] for one example, just absolutely do not play well in our district.”
The trial lawyer grew up in Griffin, Georgia, and now lives in Brookhaven. He never ran for public office before, though he worked on a previous gubernatorial campaign, and as the legislative director for the State Bar Association.
District 80 is “the single-most 50/50 district” in Georgia, Bennett said. He described District 80 as moderate, with lines originally drawn to favor the GOP. However, as metro Atlanta’s population changed and young professionals began moving to the area, the district balanced itself out. The representative before Bennett was elected as a Democrat and switched parties during his time in office, Wilson said.
“Anybody who wants to run for office in District 80 can’t be a wack job on either side. It is the most moderate district in the state,” Bennett said. “District 80 won’t tolerate anyone who’s crazy. Be very aware that you can’t deviate from the middle line.”
He plans to support Wilson “wholeheartedly, 100 percent” in the 2018 race because of his awareness of the political climate. Bennett said the president’s ability to empower people to speak openly against minorities and get away with it should not be tolerated, and said it was necessary to have elected officials at all levels stand up to that behavior.
“That is a huge gap in leadership, in my opinion, and that is something that our current state representative in District 80 doesn’t have. That’s why I think [Wilson] will be a wonderful candidate,” Bennett said. “Being a gay man, it’s exciting that he’s stepping into the public world to run for office. It’s a very scary thing for anyone to do.”
Progressive representation in a moderate district
“There’s a huge void in the South with socially progressive legislation,” Bennett said. “When you … get to the underbelly of how prevalent discrimination still is, you understand how important it is that we have people in office who grasp those concepts and move that legislation through, and say to the people of Georgia that we won’t tolerate that. I think Matt Wilson totally understands that. … I think that’s something that differentiates him from his opponent in this race.”
Wilson’s opponent, however, disagrees.
Hanson plans to bring up a revised “brunch bill” that allows restaurants to serve alcohol before noon, and support the overhauled state adoption code, but her magnum opus in the 2018 session may be the hate crimes bill she introduced at a press conference on Jan. 3.
“I’m working on it myself since I went into session, and comparing statutes that other states have, Georgia is only one of five states that does not have a hate crimes statute on the books. I think that is utterly ridiculous for the state that we are, given that we are an economic engine and we see ourselves being a more progressive state,” she said. “I struggle with why a hate crimes statute is even perceived to be a partisan issue.”
Wilson appears to take Hanson’s comments with a grain of salt. Him and another House District 80 candidate, Bryan Ramos, took to Twitter after Hanson’s press conference announcing her plans for the bill, calling it an election year stunt.
“Now that we’re in an election year, her record is going to become a lot more progressive,” he told Georgia Voice. “If you look at her record last year, I don’t think you’ll find that she’s the progressive representative that our moderate district deserves.”
Reaching the voters
Bennett said in order for either candidate to get voters’ support, they’ll need to be genuine. For Wilson, that means talking about how the legislation he’s against could affect himself and other Georgians.
“As a gay man and an openly gay candidate, I’ve been affected by those issues and I’m ready to stand up against the Republicans and fight on the issues that impact us day to day,” Wilson said.
He doesn’t have a legislative record to show voters like Hanson does. But he’s ready to share his experiences and how they affect the issues he’s passionate about, like teaching at a Title I school, working on a statewide campaign, lobbying legislators against religious exemptions bills and being chosen to represent his clients at vulnerable times in their lives.
“It also shows me how incredibly important our civil justice system is and how, when lawmakers discuss changing particular aspects of our civil justice system, I understand the impact it has on everyday Georgians,” Wilson said. “For most of the voters, those resonate more than a voting record.”