For Tommy Valentine, there’s the “glossy brochure” version of Athens—R.E.M. and Wuxtry—and then there’s the city’s dark and rarely acknowledged racist past. Although Valentine said he loves his hometown, at a rally May 21 to announce his candidate for Athens-Clarke County Commission, he mostly wanted to talk about the latter.
People often want to think that Athens was “somehow exempt, that Athens was a utopia,” he said, but in 1860, half the people who lived here were slaves, and African Americans suffered under Jim Crow for another 100 years, just like every other Southern town. “We’ve been cruel to each other,” he said. “We look past one another.”
Still to this day, the local African-American unemployment rate is 15 percent—more than three times higher than for whites. Valentine rattled off more statistics: One in five wake up not knowing how they’ll feed themselves. Athens’ poverty rate is 38 percent, and even discounting college students—some of whom struggle, too, he noted—Athens is still the poorest college town in the nation, according to the Census Bureau.
“We know where we need to go,” he told a crowd of about 100 at his campaign kickoff at Lay Park. “The question is, do we have the courage, the conviction, to get there?”
Valentine was named Most Likely to Succeed at Hilsman Middle School, the former principal, Patricia Clifton, said at the rally. It’s been a winding road. At one time a well-known battle rapper, Valentine gave up music to go into politics, running Democrat Bobby Saxon’s 2008 congressional campaign. He spent a few years in the jewelry business, then returned to UGA for graduate school, where he’s a doctoral candidate in public administration. He’s returned to politics recently, becoming active in the local Democratic Party and various progressive movements. He and his wife, Laura, a teacher, recently bought a house in the Newtown neighborhood after renting there for several years.
Valentine is the first candidate to announce for the District 9 seat, which Commissioner Kelly Girtz is leaving to run for mayor. Stretching from gentrifying Pulaski Heights and poverty-stricken Bethel Midtown Village northeast to the Hispanic Pinewoods mobile home community near the Madison County line, it’s one of the most diverse in the county, and Valentine has a diverse campaign team to match. Headed by Rachel Bailey, the former executive director of the hipster-y website My Athens, it also includes leaders in the African-American community like hip-hop promoter and volunteer coordinator Montu Miller, fundraiser Sterling Gardner and treasurer Tracy Davenport, as well as scheduler Karina Paniagua-Lopez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Clarke County.
And Valentine outlined a platform aimed at lifting up Athens’ minority and low-income communities. He supports deprioritizing marijuana arrests (following the example of Clarkston, which has essentially reduced possession to a parking ticket), and additional funding for community-oriented policing and officer training.
On transportation, “we want safe streets, whether you’re cycling, walking or driving,” he said. And he wants fare-free transit, funded with a $10–$20 fee paid by every resident.
On the economy, Valentine wants to not only focus on recruiting businesses that pay a living wage (which he defines as $15 an hour) but rewarding and recognizing existing businesses that pay a living wage. More ambitiously, he pointed to the city-county unification charter, which promises a comprehensive, well-funded and well-staffed anti-poverty program that he said does not exist. (ACC’s Housing and Community Development Department is funded entirely with perpetually shrinking federal pass-through grants that are under further threat from the Trump Administration.)
“How many more generations in Athens-Clarke County are going to suffer because we can’t keep our promises?” he said.