State Rep. Simone Bell faces challenger in Tuesday Democratic primary

When elected to the state House in 2009, Simone Bell became the first out African- American lesbian elected to a state legislature. She held onto her seat two years ago in a tough battle for reelection after Republican redistricting forced her into a fight for House District 58 with fellow Democrat and incumbent Ralph Long. District 58 includes portions of Fulton and DeKalb counties and the neighborhoods including East Atlanta, Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, Grant Park, Kirkwood and Boulevard.

But a spat on the House floor shortly before Sine Die this past session between Mr. Long and Bell led him to threaten her that he would run against her again if she did not back out of supporting a Fulton County Commission candidate he was planning to run against. Bell said she would not back down and on the last day of qualifying, instead of Mr. Long pay- ing the $400 qualifying fee to run for the state legislature, his wife, Erica Long, signed up to challenge Bell.

Bell supporters say this is nothing but a “personal vendetta” by Mr. Long against Bell. But Mrs. Long tells GA Voice she has always wanted to run for political office and this year was the right time to do so.

GAVO: Why are you seeking reelection?
Rep. Simone Bell: Since taking office in 2009, I have built numerous relationships at the Georgia State Capitol with my colleagues, within my party and throughout the district. I’ve made great strides and look forward to building on those relationships to lead all of District 58 and move Georgia forward.

What are some of your top accomplishments while you have been in office?
I really found my stride during this last legislative session. Our numbers are so low as Democrats in both the House and the Senate sometimes it feels like you can’t get anything accomplished. My strategy for 2014 was to work hard to kill bad legislation, be a louder voice in committees when questionable legislation arises and to work closely with moderate Republicans on issues that we can agree on and move forward.

What have some of your top accomplishments on behalf of LGBT people been while you’ve been in office?
WOW! 2014 was AMAZING for me and our state in regards to LGBT specific legisla- tion. Taking on my Tea Party/Liberty Party colleagues against their so-called “Religious Freedom Bill” was definitely a highlight. It took a lot of organizing by a lot of people to really get the truth of the bill’s intent into the media, business community and among my colleagues in the legislature. The day I spoke to the bill in committee [about her personal story being a lesbian and being in a same-sex relationship] will forever be a day that makes me proud, not just of myself, but of the entire LGBT community and our allies.

What are your three top priorities for the next session in the General Assembly?
We have some real work to do around worker’s rights and working class Georgians. As a member of the Working Families Caucus I’m looking forward to partnering with labor groups and small businesses to be sure that both have the resources they need to be successful. Continuing the work on the Fair Employment Act falls into this priority.

Seniors remain a central focus of my work. We have laid a foundation to begin to get better services for seniors and their family members who are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Georgia is really behind the curve on setting up needed resources. I’ll continue to voice and a vote in the Human Relations and Aging committee to be sure our seniors remain a priority.

Two years ago we passed criminal justice and juvenile justice reform bills. Some of this legislation comes through the Juvenile Justice Committee on which I serve. We passed a fairly decent bill this year as it relates to juveniles, but we could have gone much further with assisting ex-felons with re-entry into society, access to employment, banning the dreaded “have you been convicted of a felon” box that appears on employment applications, and holding reporting agencies responsible for clearing a person recorded once they have completed their sentence. Right now there is no time obligation enforcement for reporting agencies to do so.

Why are you more qualified than your opponent?
I have a proven record of accomplishing effective work at the Capitol on state Issues. I’ve spent the last five years learning Georgia’s system of state government and who holds power on different issues. Therefore, I am already prepared to engage and build on those strengths. The foundation for creating a better District 58 is already laid, and the wheels are already in motion throughout the district.

How can you or will you help with the federal class-action lawsuit filed seeking to overturn Georgia’s same-sex marriage ban?
I will continue to be a loud voice for LGBT rights at the Capitol and throughout Georgia. I’m looking forward to educating my colleagues on the merits of the case, how the law has harmed our communities and families, and the importance of relationship recognition. It’s great to have allies who can do the work, but no one can tell our stories like we can.

Mailer_Pic1(Erica Long, courtesy photo)

GAVO: Why are you running for this office? As you know, there was some controversy surrounding your husband first telling Rep. Simone Bell he was going to run against her but then on the last day of qualifying, you filed to run.
Erica Long: I made the decision to run for State Representative, House District 58, because I finally understood that I am too talented, and have too much to offer, to continue sitting on the sidelines. No one who knows me well is at all surprised that I am running for office. I have been interested in politics and public policy since I first visited Washington, D.C., on my fifth grade class trip. For as long as I can remember, I have been passionate about understanding who the people are who make decisions that impact the lives of others and how individuals can use their voices to foster change in their communities. As a Harvard graduate, a native Atlantan, and an active member of my immediate community the idea of serving the state of Georgia is an intricate part of my DNA. I have always been groomed to be a leader and the people who know me best are excited that I have “finally” placed my name on the ballot.

Have you wanted to run for this seat for a while?
I have considered running for the legislature for the past several months. Because this is a relatively small race, it did not require me to do a tremendous amount of forethought in order to run. At some point, as a professional, educated woman, I grew tired of listening to those internal voices telling me why I “couldn’t” run and decided to do it.

Why do you believe you are more qualified than the incumbent?
In addition to my significant government and professional experience (serving in the Clinton White House, on Capitol Hill in Wash- ington, working as a federal and state lobby- ist), and the fact that I am a native Atlantan with substantial ties to the entire community, I believe I would bring a more accessible and active approach to representing House District 58 that is preferred by the voters.

What are the top three issues you want to support in the General Assembly?
• Working directly with private insurers to bypass state government and expand Medicaid coverage to 700,000 Georgians.
• Foster state programs providing for age 0-5 early childhood education.
• Statewide funding for public transit.

What is your reaction to the recent federal lawsuit filed in Georgia seeking to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban? If elected, how would you work to help the lawsuit succeed?
I was pleased to hear about the filing of the federal suit seeking to overturn Georgia’s same-sex marriage ban. Our country has a long history of diverse communities seeking out federal relief from state-sanctioned bigotry. I hope that the lawsuit succeeds.

If elected, I will take initiative over educat- ing my constituents about the lawsuit and connect any interested individuals with opportunities to add their own perspectives to the suit.

Are you active with any LGBT organizations? If so, what is your level of involvement?

Other than my strong support for equality and the civil rights of the LGBT community as a concerned individual and progressive Democrat, I have not yet played a leadership role over LGBT issues. I look forward to working with, and learning from, LGBT leaders as the representative for District 58. Outside of my professional life, I spend my free time volunteering at my son’s school (I am the President of the PTA), working within my family’s church (I am a Sunday School teacher) and working with my Sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Why should LGBT voters vote for you?
I will be a strong straight ally for LGBT voters. I learned from my first boss, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) that the fight for civil rights and equality does not allow for draw- ing lines or limiting your efforts. We must all work together in the struggle to make our society more humane for all. As a Christian woman, wife and mother, I cannot be a part of any effort that espouses hate or that limits the justice owed to all communities. Failing to fight for the civil rights interests of the LGBT community goes against my values.

In addition to the specific issues of concern to LGBT voters, I will work to make Georgia a better place for all—including and especially working people, young people, and those who are often powerless. Because I am working to expand health care coverage, build a strong education system and bring economic development to our state, I am working for LGBT families, straight families, and all of Georgia.