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April 4, 2018

Candidates Talk Diversity at NAACP Forum

City Dope

The grueling schedule continues. The University of Georgia chapter of the NAACP and the Athens Economic Justice Coalition sponsored a candidate forum Mar. 26 featuring the three candidates for mayor, seven candidates (three unopposed) for school board and 10 of the 14 candidates for six county commission seats. There’s not a whole lot to be gleaned when—even over a three-hour period—each candidate has just a few minutes to speak, but in between the soundbites, a few interesting tidbits emerged.

In spite of his inability or unwillingness to pay his own employees, mayoral candidate Richie Knight criticized UGA for not paying a living wage. He also faced a question from Emily Dardaman, the wife of a former employee at Knight’s company, HW Creative Marketing, about former employees suing him over late and missed paychecks. Knight blamed clients who had paid him late. “Being a business, you run into hard times,” he said.

One interesting question for Sims and Girtz: Do you regret any of your votes on the commission? “Overall, I’m very happy with the votes I’ve made,” Sims said. “Whether everybody agrees or not is another question.”

Girtz, however, said he’s learned a lot in recent years about the history of Athens and how public and private entities intentionally kept African Americans from creating wealth. (Athens had the eighth-highest income inequality in the country in 2014, according to a Bloomberg News study.) He said he wished he’d “pushed a lot harder a lot earlier” on issues of racial equality and affordable housing.

Both of the Commission District 5 candidates present—Danielle Benson did not attend—talked mainly about their records. Whatever Athens-Clarke County is doing, it isn’t working, Tim Denson said, pointing to the county’s 38 percent poverty rate, lack of affordable housing and stagnant wages. He also took credit for victories like Sunday bus service and living wages for ACC employees. “I have a new playbook,” he said. “It’s a bold playbook, and it works.”

Incumbent Jared Bailey said he has been an effective commissioner who focuses on constituent services, and reminded the audience that he was involved in civic life long before he became an elected official, helping to build up the downtown music scene. “I’ve made a noticeable difference in the quality of life in this town, and I’d like to continue to do that,” he said.

District 9 candidate Tommy Valentine toned down his attacks on Ovita Thornton, who asked students in attendance for help. “The university is growing,” she said. “Y’all are doing amazing things. But the town around you is dwindling.”

When asked about diversity, a plethora of white, male candidates on stage knew well enough not to say much. “There’s no way I will stand up here as a white male and talk to you about diversity,” District 7 candidate Carl Blount said. “I will say I’ll listen.”

District 3 candidate Tony Eubanks had a similar answer. “I don’t know the answers,” he said. “In some cases, I don’t even know the questions.”

Another District 7 candidate, Bill Overend, said he wishes he saw the same kind of diversity in downtown restaurants on a Friday night as he sees in public schools. “I don’t know how we can increase the black middle class in this community, but that’s what we need to do.”

Others answered a bit more aggressively. Valentine urged voters to look at the makeup of his staff. Russell Edwards, also running in District 7, brought up the Baldwin Hall debacle, in which construction workers uncovered slave graves while building an expansion. “The fact is, slaves built this university,” he said, and UGA should acknowledge that history as a form of restorative justice.

On the topic of youth, Valentine noted that he, Edwards, Denson, District 1 candidate Patrick Davenport, District 2 candidate Mariah Parker and school board candidate Imani Scott-Blackwell could be the first millennials elected in Athens. (By most definitions, Davenport, 38, is a young Gen-Xer, but let’s not quibble.) Even the elders were impressed by the younger generation’s activism. “I’m very encouraged by the renewed activism, especially among youth,” Bailey said. Edwards urged students to register to vote here, rather than their hometowns.

In the District 5 school board race, UGA psychology lecturer and Chase Street Elementary local school governance board member Kara Dyckman repeatedly said she is for “thoughtful change” based on data, while Scott-Blackwell, a senior philosophy major at UGA, said she will “explicitly fight for racial and social justice.” The question is: While the system clearly isn’t working for a lot of Clarke County students, it is working for many parents of Chase students. How much do they want to shake things up?

The most interesting response, though, came from a school board member who’s running unopposed—Linda Davis. Davis, alone, was not in favor of a mechanism for teachers to anonymously report complaints. She reminded the audience that laws are in place to protect teachers from retribution, and that individual board members (or the board as a whole) can’t meddle in day-to-day operations.

Candidates broadly agreed that UGA should be more involved in local schools. For Dyckman, that means an informal relationship where teachers invite professors to class to talk about what they do. Scott-Blackwell went further: UGA students take opportunities from others in the community, so they have an obligation to get involved in local schools and give back, she said. Carol Williams, who represents District 7, said the district should “heighten awareness of what’s available to [students],” whether that’s college or jobs. Her opponent, LaKeisha Gantt, took a broader view. “We have several nonprofits that are doing wonderful things to expose students to higher education,” she said, but again, not everyone is aware of it.

The campaigns roll on with a candidate forum at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Apr. 9 at the ACC Library, sponsored by the Junior League. Mount Pleasant Baptist Church will host a second forum at 6 p.m. Monday, Apr. 16, this one featuring school board and congressional candidates. WUGA 91.7 FM will air a mayoral debate on Tuesday, Apr. 24 (with yours truly moderating), and In Touch Management and the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity will host a youth forum Thursday, Apr. 26 at 6 p.m. at the library.

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