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Jesse Houle on Commission Dysfunction and Why They’re Not Running Again

District 6 commissioner Jesse Houle.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle is stepping down at the end of the year after a single term representing District 6. Houle—who has a background in organizing and activism and uses gender-neutral pronouns—recently sat down with Flagpole to discuss their decision, what they see as dysfunction on the commission and the anger directed at elected officials from the left and the right.

Flagpole: You pretty much had your mind made up that you weren’t going to run again a few months ago. What was your reasoning?

Jesse Houle: I spent most of 2023, honestly, thinking about not running, really wrestling with it. Why? So many reasons. If I could summarize concisely, it became clear to me that this job is unhealthy for me. It just feels at odds with my well-being, my soul.

There’s an element to this job that many people seize on, which is performance or theater. I’ve realized that not only do I not personally enjoy it, I have a really low tolerance for seeing it in others. How that plays out most often in the debates and discussions that we have, when the cameras are rolling, do not include people’s real reasons for doing things. I thought I could be a person in the room who could force people to share their real reasons by asking questions and sharing my real reasons, and I discovered that is not effective. Instead, I get really… anxious and frustrated and exhausted and disheartened, every Tuesday, and sometimes Thursday and Friday, too. It’s just not the way I want to spend another four years of my life.

It was very clear to me that if anyone stepped forward who I felt at least OK about, that I would definitely not [run]. With each passing week, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that I made the right decision. I feel like I’m completing my sentence instead of my term.

FP: You posted a pretty thoughtful statement about Laken Riley’s murder on Twitter [now X] and wound up dealing with a lot of trolls and deleting your account. Did that reaffirm your decision? And how do you feel about the way social media has changed how politics are conducted?

JH: It’s a mix of good and bad. From my perspective, in this role as a public figure, I’m stuck between deciding not to use it at all and forgoing an opportunity to use this tool that lots of people see value in and some people rely on to get their information. I can’t block people. I can’t delete comments. It’s considered a First Amendment violation.

But I was getting death threats. I was getting people wishing death upon my baby. My address is public. I was getting people emailing me screenshots of my family—all this stuff that was vague enough that you can’t go to the police. You know, 99.9% of them are just trolls or bots, or people letting out their frustrations into the ether of the internet, but 0.1% are people with guns looking for a way to cement their legacy as the savior for their cause by murdering a bunch of people. 

It’s also wild because I noticed over time that fewer and fewer people were engaging with my social media, even though more and more people were engaging with me outside of it. It was clear that I had built good rapport with all sorts of people from District 6, including people that are different from me, ideologically. I feel like we’ve had real human connections and been able to talk through what we agree on and disagree on, and at least take each other seriously and treat each other respectfully.

FP: Not to both-sides it, but this happens on the left, too. These pro-Palestinian groups have been making a lot of noise lately. Five years ago, you probably would’ve been one of them, so how does it feel from behind the rail?

JH: First of all, what you do matters. Why you do it also matters. I think there’s a big difference between being angry, swearing or whatever, when you’re trying to stop people from being killed [in Gaza], versus being angry and swearing and asking for [immigrants] to be killed. My experience is that most of what we might call leftist activists are generally saying, ‘Hey, we don’t like genocide, we don’t like war or murder.’ Then, it might be unfair to lump everyone on the right together, but people with these more neoconservative views are saying, ‘Give these people the death penalty and deport them.’ Aggression for the purpose of stoking violence is very different from aggression to bring about peace.

Like, I don’t like that people marched on the mayor’s house. I’m hesitant to critique people’s tactics, [but] I didn’t think that was a good one. I also felt like I understood why they thought it was, but now, looking at this… nightmare circus of anti-immigrant craziness, people on the right will point to the Palestinian folks marching on the mayor’s house and say, ‘We should go to his house, too.’ So it has made me think a lot more about being ultra-careful and ultra-strategic about which tactics we employ.

FP: You gave me the opening earlier, so I’ll ask, who is the candidate you think is at least OK?

JH: In my mind, there is a clear better choice. I will be voting for Rashe [Malcolm]. I also want to be clear that I think both people running are quite different from me in a lot of ways. 

Rashe, she’s done a lot of great work for the community for a long time, so I very much trust her heart, and I think she’s a really smart person, and I think she’ll take the job seriously. But she’s not a very political person, so what I don’t know is how she’ll apply that to policy. That ambiguity gives me some ambivalence, but I feel unambiguously that she is the clear better choice.

FP: What’s next for you once you leave office?

JH: More humor. More music. More joy and appreciation. I don’t know. Not this.