Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson
With Commissioner Kelly Girtz vying for Athens’ top position, two candidates are battling it out for his vacant seat representing District 9, which stretches from Pulaski Heights and Newtown up to the Madison County line.
Tommy Valentine—a former hip-hop artist and now activist and PhD student in public administration at UGA—was the first in the race, but longtime social worker and school board member Ovita Thornton is leveraging her decades of experience to mount a stiff challenge despite a relatively late start.
Valentine hopes that his run not only energizes the voters of his district, but unifies the city around empowering all of its citizens. “The knowledge that all of these people are coming together [and] feel empowered by our movement is what gives us strength,” he says.
An Athens native, Valentine has witnessed firsthand the privilege that Athens offers to some of its citizens. Coming from a middle-class background on the Eastside, Valentine recalls a time that he saw someone who appeared to be homeless on Oak Street, but later that same day realized they were one of the many underpaid workers at UGA.
This and other similar accounts of injustice inspired Valentine to do more to end poverty and strive for economic justice in Athens. “When four out of 10 are poor but only four out of 100 are unemployed, we have a glaring issue,” he says. He wants to end the stigma of being America’s poorest college town, according to Census Bureau statistics. The first step, he believes, is adequately funding anti-poverty programs guaranteed in the city-county charter.
Valentine believes that the work he and his team have put into this race will result in a higher-functioning government due to the large “new progressive” coalition that spans not only District 9, but the whole city. “By our very size and diversity, [we] can go anywhere and have support from all districts,” he says.
Photo Credit: Caroline Elliott
Thornton, the executive director of the Georgia Clients Council, which provides resources for low-income people, has also served 15 years on the Clarke County school board. Her district significantly overlaps Girtz’s, but is not identical because the school board has nine seats to the commission’s 10.
Thornton has been involved in the community since she moved here more than 30 years ago. Thornton’s long history stems from her advocating for her son and other African-American students to receive additional help and support with their studies in and outside of the classroom.
The biggest motivator for Thornton is her experience on the school board, which showed her the limited role that a citizen can have, even if they are a part of government. This was highlighted for her most recently with the passage of T-SPLOST, which affected areas around schools. Though she is happy that the initiative passed, “I think that the school board should have been more involved in the process.”
It’s not just the school board that is left out, in her mind. Business leaders, families and citizens in District 9 are lacking a clear voice, she says. “You’re not going to change things if you’re not involved,” she stresses.
Thornton believes her experience will be the difference in the race. “[Anyone] can be revolutionary,” she says, but there is a difference between having an idea and actually “working in the trenches” to implement change. She believes her track record of successes and community involvement over the last 35 years towers over her opponent’s.
However, to Valentine, this race should not be about the candidates, but about their vision. “We aren’t running against a person,” he says. “We’re running against a city that is very apathetic to the needs of the people.” He hopes to mobilize and include anyone who is willing to fight against the current system.
Despite Valentine’s alliance with groups like Athens for Everyone on issues like the county anti-discrimination ordinance, A4E has endorsed Thornton. But Valentine says that even though the progressive establishment isn’t supporting him, he is running on the most ambitious progressive platform in Athens history—pushing for living wages, fare-free transit, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, marijuana decriminalization and a committee to investigate discrimination complaints.
Valentine is also fighting voter skepticism about some of his more ambitious platform policies. He says some voters have even asked, “What does a commissioner do?” Though the task is daunting, Valentine says he is inspired by the eagerness of his base.