Two gay candidates join Athens mayoral race, push for civil rights committee

People like to ask Antwon Stephens if Athens, Georgia, is ready for a LGBT mayor.

He thinks it is — and he or fellow candidate Richie Knight have good chances at being the first. Both threw their hats in the ring, along with Athens-Clarke County commissioners Harry Sims and Kelly Girtz, for the 2018 election.

Stephens, an Athens native, has a laundry list of things he wants to change in his hometown if elected, and LGBT rights is one of them. He’s also passionate about making Athens a stand-out community on its own, rather than one that sometimes seems more like a suburb of Atlanta, and he wants to change the cycle of students who rent for two or three years and leave the city after graduation.

“That doesn’t benefit the city of Athens but very little,” he said. “We have businesses come in the seasons students are here and then they leave. There are no high-paying jobs. Minimum wage is still very low.”

He favors instituting a property tax incentive to keep graduates in Athens, and is in favor of a fiscally responsible “green” transportation system that provides free public rides.

Though being the first openly gay, first black and youngest mayor are all important qualities to Stephens’ candidacy, it’s not as big a deal to Knight.

“I don’t want to be a first anything. I just want to be a guy that cares about the city,” he said.

Knight, who owns a marketing business, announced his candidacy early this year, in part because he’s focused on listening to fellow Athenians. One major issue citizens raised is youth economic mobility, where students aren’t finishing high school and then find themselves un- or underemployed.

“That contributes directly to our astonishing poverty rate, which is over 38 percent when you factor in the whole community, and still over 26 percent when you take the college bracket out,” Knight said. “Our transportation is in big need of expansion. Our buses don’t go to our major industrial parks. We have huge gaps in this greenway project we’ve been working on for 20 years. Maybe it’s time we think about some public-private partnerships, or private funding, to finish these projects.”

‘A major discrimination problem’

As the mayoral race heats up, the Athens-Clarke government is urged to address the elephant in the room. And they’re not talking about the one that comes with the Crimson Tide to Sanford Stadium every few years.

“We’ve got a major discrimination problem. It’s been one that we’ve swept under the rug. I think there are enough groups that are making this an issue that people can no longer ignore,” Knight said. “There’s things happening that we as a city government have to recognize and come up with some sort of penalty on the business side.”

He said it’s almost more of an issue of the commission and mayor “stepping up and doing the right thing” than it is about civil rights. There’s a move right now to have an Athens civil rights committee as part of the County Commission.

Stephens called out Mayor Nancy Denson for not supporting the proposals for the committee.

“I have been a vocal supporter of that,” he said. “I believe that should be a steady town hall meeting of people in the city of Athens who are minority Americans, the LGBT community, where they can get together about talking to the commission and to the mayor.”

The push to have a civil rights committee in Athens-Clarke County began in 2016, after the University of Georgia came out with a community study showing there was notable discrimination downtown. Much of this was on a racial bias: a bar called General Beauregard’s reportedly had a drink named for a racist slur, and several bars imposed dress codes that seemed to favor non-black patrons — including the popular 9Ds bar, for which a complaint was raised just last month.

“We organized a big march on MLK Day, this was in 2016, on City Hall. Hundreds of people came out and at that time we had sat down and discussed, this is the time for us to be pushing for a human relations commission. We had seen other cities push for this,” said Tim Denson, president of pro-equality organization Athens for Everyone. “There’s an obvious need here.”

The county commission released a resolution denouncing discrimination, and Athens for Everyone lobbied to add gender identity.

“It was just a resolution; had absolutely no teeth to it at all. We said the statement is fantastic, but we need a next step, which is to create a body to do what this statement said,” Denson said. “The mayor and commission at that time were not too open to it. What they decided to do was pass an ordinance specifically addressing discrimination at bars downtown, when bars were selectively enforcing their dress code.”

Athens equality advocates wanted more. They felt the ordinance should apply to all businesses, not just bars, and it needed to expand to a full civil rights committee. They marched on City Hall again, at one point even singing “This Little Light of Mine” until the mayor finally gave in and put the proposal on the agenda.

The county chose to move forward with researching the implications of creating such a committee and how it could assist in addressing discrimination, and is expected to bring forward its recommendation to the County Commission and mayor next month, Denson said.

Adding voices to the conversation

Denson praised mayoral candidates Girtz and Sims for their leadership on moving the resolution forward, specifically noting Girtz as a “huge ally.”

If the committee comes to fruition, it will have several functions, including offering guidance to Athenians who feel they were discriminated against, and potentially plan community awareness events.

“It will kind of do a few different things. The biggest thing I see is that they will actu-ally do an annual report on the entire county, including the government and the community as a whole, with how we’re doing on inclusivity … then also possible recommendations on what could be done to make the discrim-ination go away,” Denson said. “This body would not have legal authority the way some other human relations commissions have in the past, specifically the one in Atlanta. It would be different in that way, although it’s possible that moving forward, that authority could be given to a body like this.”

Having a diverse slate of people governing Athens-Clarke County could also bolster the functions of the committee, as it may give minority communities the confidence to add their voices to the conversation.

“Being a part of that community, I have a different viewpoint or different eye than most would have. I recognize and under-stand our discrimination issue a little more than the average white male because I’ve seen it. I’ve been through it,” Knight said. “We have to get more citizens engaged in our local government and that’s a community that’s not engaged right now. Very few people in the LGBT community have a voice at the table.”

Stephens echoed his sentiments.

“If this city is as progressive as it says, and it is 2017, we should be ready for anybody with the right political views to be in that seat, no matter who they are or what they may be,” he said.

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The mayoral election will take place May 2018.