Tim Denson: working for change from outside the mayor’s office

By: Aaron Conley

The information desk at a local bookstore is not the first place that anyone would expect to find one of the most polarizing political figures in a community, but that is exactly where you will find Tim Denson, and that is exactly how he likes it.

Standing behind the information desk at the Barnes and Noble, his signature beard makes him instantly recognizable, more so than by the simple “Tim” emblazoned on his nametag. His job further exemplifies his status as a political outsider, a central role in his 2014 mayoral campaign.

That campaign failed, and left Tim Denson with a lot of ideas, and a lot of questions, but no answers. Those answers are exactly what Tim is still trying to provide to his supporters today, nine months after the election.

Tim Denson is not a politician, and he does not want anyone to mistake him for one.

“My experience came more from the activism side of things,” Denson said. “Coming at an angle of being a regular, everyday person who has lived in and out of poverty and knows the everyday struggles of individuals gave me a unique perspective.”

That perspective inspired Denson to make the transition from activist to politician, and begin his campaign to become mayor of Athens.

“I felt like the current local government was not promoting an Athens that worked for everyone, instead of just the elites,” Denson said. “I wanted to see decisions get made that would benefit everyone in this community where I really felt at home.”

Even though Tim Denson moved to Athens in 2004, drawn by the music scene, he quickly became ingrained in the community. Between questions, he sways slightly to the music, and drinks his iced mocha in Hendershot’s, a unique combination of a bar, coffee shop, and live music venue. Anyone can easily understand why Denson has grown to care so greatly for Athens in such a short time.

Athens, as a city, has some major problems. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Athens fifth in income inequality among cities with populations greater than 100,000. The USDA Economic Research Service also lists Athens-Clarke County as one that suffers from persistent poverty. Tim Denson hoped to promote a city government that would support everyone in Athens, on both sides of the income gap.

In doing so, he began a campaign for mayor based almost entirely on questions. What are the real problems in Athens? What needs to be done to make Athens better?

To find those answers, Tim Denson’s campaign began with more questions.

He traveled around the city, and around the rest of Athens-Clarke County, going door-to-door to learn what issues mattered most to everybody that calls Athens home.

“It was very eye-opening. We learned about the major issues that were most important to the community,” Denson said. “People were shocked that someone running for major office was actually concerned with what they wanted, and that this wasn’t a publicity stunt or a photo-op.”

Through those interviews, Tim Denson found the issues around which he would build his campaign.

One issue that repeatedly arose in those issues was sexual assault prevention. Before conducting those interviews, Denson did not understand the magnitude of sexual assault in Athens, but it quickly became a central focus of his campaign.

“We knew it was a serious issue, but we didn’t realize how many women and men in this community had experienced something like that,” Denson said. “It’s a major problem, and we needed to tackle it.”

Public transportation also dominated those issues.

“Athens Transit wasn’t meeting the needs of the people that used it most,” Denson said. “So many people told us about how they needed to get to work, or to other needs, but they couldn’t do that because the public transportation is too expensive.”

Expansion of service for Athens Transit, along with reducing fares, quickly became the most visible aspect of Denson’s platform. His goals for public transportation were more concrete than his ideas on many other issues. Ultimately, he wanted Athens Transit to expand service to Sundays, and run late nights on weekends. Eventually, he envisioned a bus system with no cost for anyone to use in Athens-Clarke County.

Along with those major issues, Tim Denson also campaigned on a platform that included other social goals. He hoped to decriminalize marijuana possession, as well as prevent racial profiling within law enforcement; two issues that he believes are deeply connected.

Denson also hoped to encourage businesses to pay employees a living wage, which can be defined as a the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet all of their basic needs. Those basic needs often include housing, as well as incidentals such as clothing and nutrition.

With the discussion of every issue, Tim Denson outlines diagrams on the surface of the table with his hands. For him, the effort of campaigning has made these issues real, and almost tactile. With every sentence he works to transmit that realness to anyone listening.

Over the course of the campaign, Tim Denson was not the only person asking questions. Many of his detractors questioned if his plans were even possible, much less practical.

His opponent, Nancy Denson, the incumbent mayor of no relation, consistently questioned his plans, even calling them “scary.” In a May 2014 interview with the Georgia Political Review, Mayor Denson expressed doubt over his ability to even serve as mayor.

“The mayor and commission cannot even call a referendum on their own,” Mayor Denson said. “That’s the difference in 26 years of experience and knowledge of the way government works. I don’t have to backtrack and learn all this”

Tim Denson hoped that all of the questions that his campaign raised would be answered following his election as mayor.

Those answers never came. He received 42% of the vote in May 2014. Nancy Denson had been re-elected.

Most casual observers assumed that the defeat would spell the end of Tim Denson’s relevance in local politics, but he still possessed the determination to prove them wrong. He believed that an Athens for everyone was more than just a pipe dream. It was a true possibility, and that drove him to make it a reality.

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

Following the election, Tim Denson transitioned his campaign into Athens for Everyone, an organization that works to promote the ideas that he hoped would result in his election, to answer the questions.

Over the past nine months, Athens for Everyone has worked to maintain the energy and momentum from the campaign, and plans to hold its first annual meeting at the end of February.

To this point, the organization’s main focuses have been the installment of a sexual assault prevention task force, and the expansion of Athens Transit service to include Sundays. So far, however, the organization suffers a real lack of tangible results.

Ultimately, Tim Denson’s endeavor to answer questions has left Athens with its biggest question yet. Will Athens ever truly be an Athens for everyone?

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