June 11, 2014

Tim Denson Isn't Giving Up on an Athens for Everyone

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Tim Denson conceded nothing in his concession speech on May 20 after losing to Mayor Nancy Denson. At times it sounded like a victory speech, and in a way, it was. Tim and the grassroots political organization he and his volunteer staff built aren’t simply going home and waiting for 2018. 

“All this election decided was which route we’re going to take to get to an Athens for everyone,” he said to the crowd on election night. “The goal of this thing wasn’t to make me mayor,” he said in the speech. “The goal of this movement was to help our community.” 

The campaign is immediately transitioning into Athens for Everyone, an organization that will challenge Mayor Denson and the county government to work for Athens’ most vulnerable populations: the poor and working class, racial minorities, women and the LGBT community. Its first meeting is 2 p.m. Saturday, June 14 at the Athens-Clarke County Library. Here's how Tim says the group plans moving forward.

Flapole: How do you feel about the campaign? 

Tim Denson: Honestly, the way that I look at this is that running for mayor, working in the mayor’s office, would have simply been one of the paths that we could have taken to build a community that works for everyone, to bring positive change to our community. I think that may have been the easiest path we could have taken, but it was one of many. So we move over to a different path and keep working at the same goal.

I’ve never been a politician before. What is more my usual game is working as an activist, as an advocate, doing community organizing, getting people out in the street, organizing them. That’s where I come from, and so it was a bit of a change for me to make the shift over to a candidate. So shifting back into this feels very natural. I don’t feel like we lost anything, we just had to pull out a second game plan.

I said it many times, never to a reporter, that there were three goals for our campaign. The first goal, obviously, had to be and was to win the campaign and get into the mayor’s office. 

But the second goal was to change the conversation, not in the way my opponent was saying, but change the conversation back to talking about poverty, talking about the fact that we’re leaving a lot of people behind, talking about the fact that we don’t have a community that works for everyone, and bring back these issues, like transit. And changing who the conversation was with and bring in people that we feel haven’t had their voices heard into the conversation. I know that Nancy used that line a lot, that we “changed the conversation.” I feel that the conversation was simply changed in a very small, privileged group, possibly. 

The third part was to organize a movement, to get people behind these kinds of changes, these kinds of ideas, and I think that while we didn’t achieve goal one, we definitely achieved goals two and three. 

FP: Your campaign reminds me a bit of President Obama’s campaign in 2008, which relied heavily on a grassroots ground game, reflective of his experience as a community organizer. A lot of people were disappointed by what they saw as a squandering of that energy when Obama was elected. 

TD: There was a lot of disappointment after that amount of energy that bubbled up. I didn’t vote for Obama in the primary, but I felt the energy, too, once it was there, I felt that this is exciting. I had an Obama T-shirt, I did, the ones that Satisfactory printed up. They were fantastic. I felt the energy, and even though I was very cynical beforehand, I was like, "Wow, I can feel this, maybe this is gonna happen." And then, yeah, it didn’t. 

Maybe if we had won, people would’ve thought, “OK, we did it. Let’s go back home.” And maybe that’s a little of what happened with Obama. And I wonder if that would’ve put that fire out in people’s bellies that we were able to help ignite because they felt like the job was done, and now Tim’s gonna go to the mayor’s office and do all these things and my work is done. My work was to get him elected. While now, with this situation here, nobody’s work is done. We now all have to unite even stronger, work even harder and still get these things done. 

We’re launching this new organization called Athens for Everyone. We have a lot of input coming in from that. I honestly expect we might have a couple hundred people at this first public meeting, which is going to be just mind-blowing if we do. And it’s gonna show that we’re gonna be a real force that has to be reckoned with, that has a strong voice, that wants to see some progressive change, and we’re not gonna stop until it’s done. 

We saw it with the Selig development, the downtown Walmart, people coming out and making change, the public curfew law that Mayor Denson tried to pass, and I was involved with people who got that stopped, and that took definitely about 50 people working nonstop to get that stopped. So we know that that can happen. So I want to see, what if we can get 500 people together? What if we can get 500 people in the street demanding that we have affordable, reliable public transit? I think that might do something. 

FP: The idea of free bus service and an overhaul of Athens Transit and the campus system really got people’s attention. Is that really feasible? 

TD: At first, when we were talking about it, we were just like, “Let’s just try to reduce the rates.” We were obviously angry that the administration was increasing the fares basically almost every year. We said, “We can make it more convenient, we can increase ridership, and let’s just have the fares cost 50 or 75 cents.” One of the people who works on my staff, Ethan [Epps], threw out the idea to have it be free. And we said, “Free would be fantastic, but let’s be realistic here.” Ethan stepped up and said, “No, I think it is realistic.” 

And once we really started looking into it and met with the transit director at Clemson [SC] and toured their facilities and rode their system, we started researching more, and we realized, “Oh my gosh, it’s not just at Clemson and Chapel Hill [NC], but it’s also Boone, NC is doing it, Vero Beach [FL] is doing it, other communities now are starting to branch out into this. This is a thing that is very much feasible. Not just feasible in Europe or out west, but here in the South. 

By not doing it, it’s actually going to be costing us. Everything’s moving toward a direction where we’re gonna have to be smarter about how we spend money, smarter with the way we build our infrastructure. Why don’t we start taking the steps now? 

It was an issue that connected a lot of people that we felt were being left out of the conversation, and it was a nice piece to wedge that door open and start that conversation. I think it brought a lot of people in, and it’s definitely going to be one of the focuses of Athens for Everyone. It’s one of the issues that we feel we can get done, even outside the mayor’s office.

We have a transit study happening next year. We’re going to have to be purchasing the next generation of fare boxes coming up in the next four years, and the purchase of those fare boxes, we’re talking about a $700,000-plus investment. We can choose to go ahead and take on this free system, and by saving that $700,000 we basically get almost two years free to start with.

FP: Tell me more about the campaign’s transition to Athens for Everyone. 

TD: The sexual assault prevention task force is something we can get done. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before the mayor and commission really understand the severity of this issue in our community, especially with the federal government putting out a task force focusing on college towns and sexual assault problems. It was on the cover of not only Flagpole, but it was also on the cover of Time magazine two weeks ago. There would extremely minimal costs for putting that together, but what we get out of it—a safer community, a more informed community that knows what consent is. 

A lot of the things that have to do with government accessibility and transparency, I plan on pursuing, and my group does. We’d like for the mayor and commission work sessions to be televised like [other] commission meetings are. We’re just gonna go ahead and start doing that ourselves… so until the county decides to step up, we will be filling that gap for them. We are getting people signed up to start translating the agendas of the mayor and commission meetings. 

I’d like to see the idea we had [for] a living wage award put in place. I think that could be, again, an easy thing to implement, but I think the impact would be huge for our community.

The human rights ordinance that we were discussing late in the campaign: We could have an ordinance put in place, so that people, no matter of their gender identity or sexual orientation, could be legally protected from discrimination in the workplace, from landlords and housing situations, from being refused service in businesses, those sorts of things. That’s another thing we’d like to pursue that we think we could have as a success for us even outside the mayor’s office.