March 19, 2014

The Other Denson

Photo Credit: Porter McLeod

Time Denson (right) campaigns for mayor in East Athens.

Well, we know one thing: Athens-Clarke County's next mayor will be named Denson.

When the candidate qualifying period came to a close Friday, Mar. 7, there were only two candidates on the ballot for mayor: the incumbent, Nancy Denson, and Tim Denson, a relative newcomer to the community who has nonetheless flung himself headlong into political activism the past few years.

Tim—we're all on a first-name basis here, aren't we?—grew up in South Florida, reared by Pentecostal parents who he says couldn't always afford to keep the lights on and moved around a lot proselytizing. Drawn by the local music scene, as so many transplants are, he moved to Athens in 2005 and now owns a home on Midway Road on the Eastside, where he lives with his wife, Jenny. 

"I never really felt like I had a home where I could identify with people, that had a culture I could identify with, until I came here to Athens," he told a curious audience at a meet-and-greet last month. "Unfortunately, not everybody is having the type of experience I'm having here."

You might not know Tim, but you've probably seen him before, whether he was camping out in front of City Hall with Occupy Athens to protest the proposed downtown Walmart or wearing a 19th Century top hat in front of the Arch urging voters to write in Charles Darwin against U.S. Rep. Paul Broun.

Now, he has a more difficult task—trying to unseat an incumbent mayor who has big advantages in experience, fundraising, political connections and name recognition (at least her first name). For anyone who's unhappy with the job Nancy is doing, though, Tim's your only hope. And if you get in front of the touch screen May 20 and can't think of which Denson you meant to vote for, just remember—Tim's the one with the beard.

After he got off work at Barnes & Noble, where he is digital director (in charge of e-books, basically), Tim agreed to meet Flagpole at the Hi-Lo Lounge to discuss his campaign over a beer. "Something hoppy," he requested.

Flagpole: First things first—why are you running for mayor?

Tim Denson: I'm running right now because I see a need. Our current mayor is not working for everyone. I want to make sure everyone is being represented, that their communities are being represented. Everything from the lack of focus on poverty, the lack of focus on transportation, I think the lack of transparency in our local government. All of those are things I care deeply about.

Going back a couple of years, I didn't see this happening in my life at this time. But the opportunity is there, I believe somebody has to do it, and I'm willing to do it, and I think that I'm very capable of doing it. I want to be working with residents, asking for input, in contrast with my opponent.

FP: Were you surprised that no else ran, other than you and the mayor?

TD: The day after I qualified was my wife and I's third anniversary, so we had a prior agreement to get out of town and have some time to ourselves, but I was definitely refreshing my iPhone a little bit.

I would have been shocked if somebody had thrown their hat in the ring this late. We've been working on this publicly since November and privately for even longer. We're for real with this. We're going at this in a great grassroots manner. It takes time, and I wasn't able to see somebody build up a campaign in 10 weeks.

FP: Did you want to go head-to-head with Nancy?

TD: I wanted it to be Denson versus Denson. That was my hope from the get-go. That was our campaign's hope. We know that, me being the only opponent, we can really push these important issues that we feel like Nancy's not really going at. We feel like we can really get our poverty initiatives out there and not have to share the light with another candidate.

And it's a great name. Come on, everybody's going to have a ball with this. You're going to have a ball with this.

FP: I think I might be all out of Denson versus Denson jokes already. So, you see poverty being the most important issue in the campaign?

TD: Poverty is our No. 1 issue, and I feel like a lot of other issues stem out of that. We talk about having a fair, safe approach to crime; that comes out of poverty. We talk about transit; that comes out of poverty.

We have more than 40,000 people who are under the poverty line. It's unacceptable. That problem has an effect on so many things, from our economy to our crime rates to our graduation rates. It affects everybody, even if you're not under that poverty line.

The poverty initiative that happened before [Mayor Heidi Davison's Partners for a Prosperous Athens and OneAthens], those meetings have stalled out. I feel like it really hasn't been a priority for our mayor and commission, and that has to change.

FP: When you qualified, you rode the bus downtown and told the passengers you want to make the bus free. How do you plan to do that?

TD: I'm not expecting that, whenever I take office, I'm going to snap my fingers, and the bus will be free. Obviously, it will be a process we'll have to work through.

Guaranteed, I will not raise the bus fares. The fact that Nancy's raised it so much is horrible, especially with the fact that she's cut service.

One thing I'd like to do is somehow combine it with the UGA transit system. Right now we have two publicly funded transit systems servicing the smallest county in Georgia. Obviously, if we combine those two, we can make them more efficient.

Other options we'd be looking into is free fare zones such as Provo, UT, has, doing it around downtown or other corridors that are used quite often. Or we could be going the route of time-based free fares, say around rush hour, so we can get more passengers on there and get people adjusted to using the bus on a day-to-day basis.

Study after study is coming out showing that, not just Athens, but the entire country is moving toward public transit. They're moving away from auto-centric transportation. We need to be adapting to that now, so we're moving with that trend, not trying to react to that trend after it's already happened, as we so often do.

FP: How would you pay for it?

TD: Working with UGA would help cut down on administrative costs. The gap we're looking at, if we kept all the other funding in place, is about $800,000. That's how much we're getting from the farebox.

FP: What about the fares UGA pays, about $1.2 million?

TD: They have students pay up front through fees. They'd be doing the same thing they've done for years, just not paying it through the farebox. I hope the university would see it that way.

FP: You come from an activist background and haven't been involved in government before. Are you prepared to be an insider?

TD: It's a different environment for me, I'll admit that. Coming from an activist background, I work very well with people. I don't try to go at things unilaterally. I want to get as much input as I can. I think it'll be refreshing to have a creative approach on how to solve problems. 

FP: How would you work with conservatives in Athens and the state government?

TD: I've gone to tea party meetings here in Athens and also in Atlanta, and we can find common ground. If we can put our differences aside and focus on what we can agree on and move forward, it benefits everyone.

FP: There were progressives, too, who were looking for someone else to challenge Nancy. What are you doing to reach out to them?

TD: We're going to have to win people over, and maybe that's not fair, but the thing is, there are preconceived ideas about who a mayor should be. A mayor isn't somebody we think of as having a beard, being 32, coming out of an activist background. But we are convincing people, and it's exciting. It's bringing in different ideas from different generations, and I think that diversity is a strength for our campaign.

FP: Being a buy-local, anti-corporate kind of guy, is there a disconnect for you working for a big company?

TD: I've gotten asked that, and I can understand where that's coming from, but I'm not anti-corporate, for one thing. There are good corporations and bad corporations. Barnes & Noble has treated me well. I worked for them even before I came here. They're excited about my campaign, too, and really cheering for me. 

At the same time, the paychecks I get, I usually take that money and spend it in the local economy, at local bookstores, at Daily, at local bars.

FP: There's a common perception that Athens, especially downtown, is becoming more corporate. Should we be encouraging more locally owned businesses?

TD: We give a lot of tax breaks to corporations that move here. I'd like to make sure we're willing to work the same amount to help local businesses that want to open up or might be struggling.

Downtown we see as this precious gem, and people get very protective of it. I'm protective of it, too. At the same time, we can't be seen as—it gets thrown around a lot—anti-business. We should be encouraging businesses who want to come here and offer living-wage jobs, and we can't be scaring away people who show a genuine interest in our community and want to be a part of it.

FP: Raising the minimum wage is part of your platform, right?

TD: Some of my work has been with Georgians for Local Economic Control, which is fighting the state law preventing cities and counties from raising their own minimum wages. But we have to deal with that limitation that's in place right now.

What we can do is something called the Mayor's Living Wage Award, which I'm very excited about. As long as businesses can prove they're paying a living wage or higher, then they would earn a seal that they could put on their window and be listed on our website. Then shoppers know, when they spend their money, where that money's going. That way, we incentivize businesses that offer a living wage but don't punish those businesses that aren't able to offer a living wage yet.

FP: On other issues you talk about, like immigration and decriminalizing marijuana, local government also is limited by state and federal law. How would you handle those?

TD: The biggest thing is the dialog coming from the mayor's office. I would be very vocal about my stance against the state's immigration laws, what I believe are just hateful laws against undocumented residents. The fact that they were born on the other side of an invisible line isn't a reason they should be punished. People have to know they're going to be treated like human beings here in Athens, GA.

The same thing with the marijuana issue. Larger cities like Chicago have passed a law decriminalizing amounts under an ounce. A lot of communities have done this in the face of state and federal laws.

It's very obvious that the entire national community is really starting to change their minds on marijuana. In the Georgia House and Senate, there's a good chance they'll be passing a medical marijuana law. I don't think anybody would have thought that a year ago.

The tone is starting to change. It's so expensive to keep people in prison. It stunts our workforce. It stunts peoples' personal ability to grow. It hurts our community on so many levels.

There are other problems, like racial overtones. Black and Hispanic individuals have a four times greater rate of being arrested for marijuana possession than Caucasians do. 

FP: Is racial profiling something that happens in Athens?

TD: I don't have any experience with it. But many, many times, we'd go into some of the poorer communities and give them surveys, and that was one of the No. 1 issues they're facing. So obviously, there's some of it, and one instance is too many.

We want to make sure to work with and support Chief [Jack] Lumpkin and the ACC Police Department. I know they're probably doing everything they can to make sure it doesn't happen.

FP: Let me shift gears. A lot of citizens are concerned about the Lyndon House and what they see as the lack of emphasis on arts and nature programs at Leisure Services. What's your opinion?

TD: I would like to see more support for the arts and music scenes from the county and elected officials. Years ago, when I was in college, I ran a cooperative record label. I toured in bands for years. My wife is an artist. Arts and music are a big part of our lives, as they are a lot of Athenians' lives.

When it comes specifically to the Lyndon House, I am concerned about combining arts and nature under one department. I see those as being two very different things, two very important things, so I would like to see them separated.

FP: Finally, here's the big question. Your opponent has lived here for 50 years and served in office for 34, she's never lost an election, everyone knows her, and she has way more money than you. What makes you think you can beat Nancy?

TD: Sure, we don't have nearly as much money as my opponent does, and I don't think we need as much money. If somebody said "I'll give you a $100,000 check if you get rid of that staff you have working for free," I'd say, "No way." They want to see an Athens for everyone, an Athens that's the best it can possibly be, a beacon for equality and sustainability and prosperity that other cities will aspire to. We're taking that door-to-door and spreading it. It's infectious. People are getting excited. They're telling their neighbors. They're holding barbecues and potlucks, handing out flyers, spreading word of mouth. If my opponent isn't worried, she's wrong, because we have a serious shot.

This is a movement. This isn't just a campaign. May 21st, we're going to see this community change, one way or another.