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Athens’ New State Reps Speak Out on Campus Carry, Net Neutrality and More

The Georgia legislature’s 2018 session gaveled in Monday, and for the first time in 20 years—back when everyone was a Democrat—every part of deep-blue Athens is represented by a Democrat in the state House of Representatives.

Two local seats held by Republicans who’d never been challenged flipped in November special elections after Regina Quick and Chuck Williams resigned to accept new state jobs. Jonathan Wallace, a software engineer for the online clothing company Stitch Fix, won outright over three Republicans in right-leaning District 119. Deborah Gonzalez, a media and entertainment lawyer, defeated a strong GOP opponent in Houston Gaines, last year’s UGA student-body president and Mayor Nancy Denson’s ex-campaign manager, despite being at a four-to-one fundraising disadvantage in a district gerrymandered to elect a Republican. Those victories surprised even many local Democrats and, along with several other wins in GOP-leaning and swing districts elsewhere, energized Democrats statewide and even nationally for the fight to come later this year.

“People do have representation now,” Gonzalez says. “And it’s gotten a lot of people excited as a motivator about what can happen in 2018.”

Wallace and Gonzalez recently sat down with Flagpole to talk about net neutrality, the campus carry law and other issues the legislature will tackle in the coming months. Their interviews have been edited for length.

Flagpole: You were sworn in a few weeks ago. Is that the point when it actually sank in?

Deborah Gonzalez: Yes, that is exactly when it sank in. That, for me, was like, “OK, this is real.”

Seeing the people there, and seeing their hope—that’s a lot of responsibility, to carry that hope and to move forward. I know it’s been a big thing for Jonathan—we talk about, “How do we get ourselves ready to do what we need to do for the people of this district?” It’s been super, super busy, but part of that is just learning. We had an orientation, but Jonathan and I have also been meeting with representatives, talking about what’s going on. I even had a meeting with Regina Quick.

FP: What advice did she have to offer?

DG: She said the district was challenging. Unlike Spencer [Frye], who has a third of [Clarke] County, or Jonathan, who has pieces of two counties, this district has pieces of four counties [Clarke, Oconee, Barrow and Jackson] that couldn’t be more different. [Laughs] I’ve run the gamut from super-ultra-conservative to super-ultra-progressive, and everybody in between.

She talked about how challenging it was for her getting to all the counties, looking at all the different needs and, I guess, subcultures of these counties. You’re representative of everybody. So, how do you make yourself available to let people know that you’re a presence in these communities, that you can talk to me? So a lot of what my team has been doing has been building an infrastructure to let people know how to contact us, how to tell us what the issues are, and make ourselves accessible to them.

Then we talked about the history of 316 and limited access. Apparently she and Spencer had done a white paper on that, and done a presentation to the DOT. There’s a lot already in process.

FP: We keep hearing a lot about a transit funding bill, but all the talk is about metro Atlanta. Have you heard anything about getting other communities like Athens included in that?

DG: Athens is actually the second-largest transit system in Georgia, and so I know there are a lot of grants that are being looked at to improve and increase our transit options here. Part of that is, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, right?

I would love to see a train system from Athens to Atlanta and all the way down the line. One of the things I’d like to see is, do we have a study on the economic impact? That’s one of the things I’m researching right now. How does that compare to making 316 a limited-access highway? Are we better off putting our money here rather than there?

My understanding of limited access on 316 is it was promised when it was built, way back when, and so it’s just been carried forward. But I don’t think anybody [at the Georgia Department of Transportation] has ever looked at, is there another option?

FP: Something that’s probably in your wheelhouse was the FCC vote to end net neutrality. Is there anything we can do at the state level to reverse that or mitigate that?

DG: That was my question. I actually have somebody researching that for me. At first glance, they tied it up to say states can’t create a runaround, but some Democratic senators have put something out about if you’re an [internet service provider] in Georgia you have to guarantee universal access. I don’t know the legalities of that yet. I think that’s something lawyers are looking at very closely. I do know there’s a lawsuit right now against the FCC about this… I think some other things, but I’m going to be nice.

FP: All right, moving on. What’s the first bill you’d like to introduce?

DG: The first bill I want to introduce is a definition of sexual harassment. We do not have one at the state level, so we have to depend on the federal [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] definition, which means we have to go to federal court if somebody is going to make a case against sexual harassment. I think we are in a very good place, timing-wise, where I think we could get something like this passed.

I’m part of an initiative called Safety Shot, which has been looking at sexual harassment in the entertainment industry in Atlanta, on film sets and TV sets, since the beginning of [2017], and we just had a big meeting with all the unions about this issue. I’m hoping with how important the entertainment industry has become in Georgia, that can help [us put] this kind of law in place.

FP: What do you think about the committee on sexual harassment that was appointed by the lieutenant governor and the speaker?

DG: It concerns me, the representation on that panel. [It consists of six men and only two women.] The House [Democratic] caucus has decided that we will create our own panel, mainly made up of women. I have offered to serve on that panel, and we’ll see when the appointments are made. I don’t think we’ll hear anything when session begins, but it is something that’s being talked about.

How do you create a policy when the people most affected by it are not being represented? I think that’s a mistake. We need to have the right representation on these panels.

FP: After the session, you’re going to have to pretty much immediately start running for re-election. I know you’ve had folks out canvassing right after the election…

DG: Yes, we did a victory canvass just to thank people.

FP: Is that a sign of how tough you think the re-election campaign is going to be?

DG: Yes and no. I know re-election is going to be tough. Republicans’ response to the election was, “We were bushwacked. We weren’t ready,” and I don’t think they’re going to do that again. I think they’re on notice, and they’re not going to take it for granted. So I think that’s going to make it tougher.

Going out was us being appreciative of the people’s vote and letting them know we’re there for them, making sure, again, they know how to reach out to me, how to connect with me, who I am. I’m still very active. You’ll find me out there in many places, partly because there are still many people who don’t know me, don’t know who I am, even though we won. I think that’s also a sad sign of the times, that we have so many people who don’t know who their representatives are. I think we need to change that.

In 2017, my word was “action.” In 2018, my word is “momentum,” that we can keep momentum going. Yeah, it’s nice we had a win, but we can’t be complacent, right? Every year we have to fight for these seats.

FP: What do you anticipate Republicans doing to get your seat back?

DG: Whenever you lose, there’s the tendency to want to change something, because, well, we lost, so it has to be unfair. I’m hearing rumors they’re going to redistrict the districts for me and Jonathan because they want to get the seats back. My stance is, until they do something, I’m not going to worry about it. If when I run for re-election all of a sudden my district is different, we’ll deal with that when we get to it.

I would hope that this close to the 2018 election, they would not go that way. You can’t make it more obvious, could you? And we do have a census coming up in 2020, which seems to be the appropriate time to take a look at redistricting, and hopefully by then we do have an independent redistricting committee or something similar. I have heard some Republicans thinking about it, because if there is this wave change in politics, it’s to their benefit to talk about independent redistricting. But if the pendulum swings the other way, the Democrats have no reason to do it. We keep going back and forth, which is not right. Maybe at this time, when things are sort of in transition, maybe now is the right time to push that from both parties.

FP: What else do you expect to come up during the session?

DG: We know that there are some unpopular bills that might be making a comeback just because it’s an election year, like [the “religious freedom” bill], campus carry, to take out those restrictions. I feel really strongly we shouldn’t have guns on campus, period. And absolutely, we shouldn’t allow discrimination based on religion.

That got tied in, sort of, with the adoption bill that died last year, because the House passed adoption reform, but the Senate added an amendment that said same-sex couples couldn’t adopt. That killed it. I know the speaker of the House [David Ralston] is still very sore about it, so I think he’s going to try to bring that back and get it passed without the amendment, for the sake of the children. And I hope it does pass, for the children’s sake, without the amendment. I know a lot of parents with loving homes and children who could use those loving homes.

The only other thing I can say is, we’ll see what else happens!



Photo Credit: House Photo Office

State Rep. Jonathan Wallace (D-Watkinsville) speaks from the House well after being sworn in.

FP: Now that you’ve been sworn in, you’re on the job, has it finally sank in yet?

Jonathan Wallace: Yes, finally. It took a while. I didn’t really get time to reflect until the Saturday after the election—I was too busy with work. It was just a short moment, but I’d say the gravitas of the situation, the import of representing 54,000 people really hit me the strongest when I was being sworn in.

I received my committee assignments [Dec. 20]. I received my office assignment. All these mundane details drove it home the most.

The other thing that’s interesting is that from one day to the next, I’m still the same person, but the responsibilities change, the expectations change, so that was a fascinating experience.

FP: Were you happy with your committee assignments?

JW: I was surprised, yes. I asked and got the No. 1, which is Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications, so I’m very thankful to the speaker for granting that request that I made. Budget and Fiscal Oversight and Special Rules were the other two committees.

FP: Why was Telecommunications your first choice?

JW: Both because of my line of work and because of the rural broadband issue, which I could see was going to become important this year, and I hope to help drive a solution there.
I get asked all the time, “What is your No. 1 legislative goal?” My No. 1 goal is to learn how to be effective, because if I run in there and just start flailing without really being conscious of how the process occurs, I think I’ll be less than effective.

My hope for being on that committee is that I can help drive a good solution that’s going to help the folks in the rural areas, and help Georgia as a whole. Even with having high-speed broadband available in some areas, it’s still not as good as it needs to be. There are a lot of things that are coming from a technology perspective that I think we need to be prepared for and be planning for now.

FP: We even have complaints in downtown Athens about the speed of broadband and the service, especially with a lot of the tech companies that are coming there. Is it just a rural issue or a city one, too?

JW: It’s a capacity issue. When we think about transportation issues—roads and bridges and cars and trucks and 18-wheelers—the common acknowledgement is that building more roads doesn’t solve your traffic problems, right? We’ve seen over 25 years [interstates] 75, 85, the [downtown Atlanta] connector go from five to six, seven, sometimes eight lanes, and you still see traffic. It doesn’t actually resolve the issue.

The same thing is happening on the internet. The telecommunication companies upgrade their infrastructure. Also, media companies are pushing the envelope in terms of delivering more data. When you’re starting to deliver 4K video, even if the telecommunication companies have just invested in infrastructure, we’re still straining capacity on that. I think that’s the issue you’re seeing in downtown Athens: The population density and the types of data we’re moving across the infrastructure are rising to meet the capacity. It’s a universal issue, but we don’t want to leave folks out in the rural areas, because they’ve already been struggling enough as it is.

FP: What’s the solution?

JW: I met with a representative of AT&T, and he mentioned that they’re employing small-cell technology, which is something we talked about on the campaign trail. Small cell offloads some of the demands on the large towers. The range is much reduced, but… you’re going to reduce the likelihood of seeing dropped calls and the like. There’s directed technology, directed antennas… and doing high-speed over power lines. The challenge with that is, that’s not today’s technology. It still needs to be proved out, rolled out and priced out. It’s not going to be useful if it’s not affordable for folks in those communities.

FP: What do you think your first bill, when you introduce a bill, will be?

JW: I’m currently investigating our options on net neutrality. I was very disappointed to see the net neutrality rules stricken. There’s a lot of disinformation folks have shared about this on Facebook. I’m very disappointed folks don’t realize this was the governing principle for the internet for 25 years. I don’t know if we have any recourse as a state, but that’s something I’d very much like to see happen, because it will stifle small company growth. It will make it hard for small companies to be competitive, and I think where we see our growth is when small companies become medium-sized companies and then become large companies.

FP: What are some of the other issues you see coming down the pike?

JW: We’re going to see the federal tax laws change, and that’s going to impact how we balance our budget here in Georgia. I think that’s going to lead to some tougher decisions for us in the legislature.

The adoption bill I think is something that’s very close to the speaker’s heart, and so that will be on the docket very early on.

I think we’re going to see campus carry come back up again this year. I’ve heard that people are looking to remove some of the exclusions. I feel very strongly that [law] was a mistake. We’ve already seen the validation with that bus driver who left his gun in the bathroom. If that wasn’t the law, that never would’ve happened, and fortunately it didn’t lead to anything tragic.

I wouldn’t leave a bunch of knives around for my toddlers to play with, and anything we can do to reduce the risk, that’ll keep people safer. There’s been no evidence that more weapons makes us safer.

FP: That’s an example of an issue where you might have a tough time because of your district, because the vast majority of people in Athens are opposed to campus carry, but on the Oconee side, I’d imagine that most people are in favor of, if not campus carry, gun rights in general. How do you straddle that?

JW: I like shooting guns. I enjoy the firing range. I don’t have any guns at my house, because that’s a risk I don’t want to take with my children. I support people’s right to own firearms, but that doesn’t have to be infringed upon when we’re respecting the local control of our university system. I’ve heard from a lot of Oconee folks who, because they work in the university system, are also against it. I’d be more concerned if I heard constituents saying we’re concerned about our right to own guns being infringed [upon], but I have yet to hear one person speak out about that. This is straight-up a gun-lobby issue, where they’re saying, “We want to sell more guns, and we’re going to make this a wedge issue so we can sell more guns.”

FP: You had a fundraiser scheduled for Jan. 5, before the session started. Obviously, you most likely have another tough race ahead of you, so is that an indication you’re thinking ahead?

JW: I am, with caveats. I need to talk to my wife, Kristina, and make sure we make a decision as a family. I will be away from my house a lot, my children, at the capitol serving District 119. I’m not going to make that decision in a vacuum, but if I do make that decision, I want there to be a balance. Whoever we run against is not constrained from raising funds during the session, but I’m not allowed to do so.

FP: There’s been a debate in the Democratic Party about reaching out to the middle or turning out your base. Given your district, you’re in a unique position to talk about that. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

JW: The way I describe myself is somebody who has very progressive values who wants to get there in a pragmatic fashion. I want us to be a just, equitable society, but I don’t think we flip any tables over or rip off Band-Aids to make that happen.

I’d love to see us address Medicaid expansion. That’s harming 600,000 Georgians who don’t have the economic resources in the first place to have health care, and maybe the jobs they’re able to get don’t offer that as a benefit. I think that’s going to drive up our costs overall, because then they show up at the emergency room for dire needs, which then costs more. Everybody knows when your car engine light goes on, you get it addressed. If you wait, you could blow up your engine altogether, and it’s a much more costly fix. That’s what we’re doing. I really reject the idea of trading short-term gains for long-term costs.

I’m just going to keep being myself. If that appeals to folks in the progressive arm, that’s fantastic. If that appeals to folks in the middle, that’s fantastic, too. But I think it’s very important that I continue to run on my beliefs, and just make sure I’m very transparent about what those are. If the voters decide those are the values they want to see, I’ll be there again, and if not, somebody who more accurately reflects their values will be there.