By Eli Watkins
For seven years now, a member of Congress hailing from Athens, Rep. Paul Broun, M.D. of the 10th District, has received a mixture of scorn and praise for his colorful statements and conservative voting pattern. Broun is running for retiring U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss’ seat, which leaves the race for the 10th District wide open.
The people of the 10th will vote to replace Broun this year, whether he successfully ascends to the Senate or his career goes the way of the wooly mammoth.
Seven of the eight candidates qualified for the ballot are Republicans. The overwhelming partisan imbalance reflects the fact that the 10th district leans heavily republican. According to the Cook Political Report, this district’s voters went for the 2012 Republican nominee for president, Governor Mitt Romney, by a margin of 26 percentage points. In 2012, Broun won the general election unopposed, despite 4,000 write-in votes for deceased English biologist Charles Darwin. Barring any unforeseen circumstances involving their eventual nominee, the Republican voters in the 10th district will likely decide the election.
As it stands now, the district spans many rural locations in the eastern side of the state. It stretches from Barrow and Walton counties in the northwest to Johnson and Jefferson in the southeast. Major cities include Athens, Milledgeville, Monroe, and Winder.
The general election is on November 4, but in a district this conservative, it seems the more important date to pay attention to is the primary on May 20.
Some of these candidates differ on rhetoric, but their policy stances and mutual distaste for President Obama show they agree on broad political principles. Their backgrounds involve military service, business experience, grassroots involvement, and one count of involvement in the legislature. Please see the list below for details on each candidate.
- Mike Collins is a business owner from Jackson, Georgia. He is the son of former Rep. Mac Collins, who defeated Rep. Broun in a (1992) primary. According to his website, this Collins has spent much of his life in the private sector, serving on the Boards of Georgia’s Associated Credit Union and Motor Trucking Association and as president of his county’s Chamber of Commerce, as well as running his own trucking company. His campaign is focusing on this private sector experience. Brandon Phillips, a consultant for the campaign, said, “He’s the only one with real business experience.” On the issues, Collins is a conservative candidate in general agreement with his opponents. He is against tax increases, same sex marriage, and the availability of abortions. He supports Fairtax, robust military spending, and gun rights. According to the FEC, Collins’ disclosures show $324,606 in total contributions.
- Gary Gerrard is a former Army officer and an Athens native as well as a practicing attorney and former adjunct law professor for a few universities including the University of Georgia. He supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and advocates the creation of a budget reconciliation commission to increase action on budget cuts in the style of a mechanism Congress employed to close military bases. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and abolish the Department of Education. When asked what distinguishes him from his opponents, Gerrard said, “There is at least one person in the race, maybe more, that has an originalist intent of the constitution that I believe is naive.” According to the FEC, Gerrard’s disclosures show $114,835 in contributions.
- Jody Hice is a radio host and minister living in Walton County. His religious background and his political activism are intertwined. In a forum hosted by the Newton Conservative Liberty Alliance and the Covington News, Hice summed up his appeal when he said, “I’m a Christian. I’m a constitutionalist. I’m a conservative.” Hice is proud over his fight with the American Civil Liberties Union over a Barrow County courthouse’s display of the Ten Commandments. In 2008, he joined 30 other pastors in protesting an IRS code by telling his congregation to vote for Senator John McCain. Perhaps the most overtly pro-Broun candidate, Hice takes some of the most absolutist conservative positions. He makes a number of pledges on his website, including a promise not to raise the debt ceiling, a policy many economists describe as more or less the economic equivalent of seppuku. According to the FEC, Hice’s disclosures show $255,567 in total contributions.
- Donna Sheldon has the dual distinction of being the only woman and prior office holder in the race. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives, where she eventually became Chair of the House Majority Caucus. She helped craft a bill on the House Transportation Committee that led to the T-SPLOST referendum in 2012. Her work in the legislature earned her praise from several right-leaning organizations. American Conservative Union gave her a 100 percent rating. The Susan B. Anthony List, a national pro-life organization, endorsed her in this race for her firm history of support for pro-life initiatives. According to the FEC, Hice’s disclosures show $384,056 in total contributions.
- Stephen Simpson is a retired military officer from Milledgeville. No stranger to running in this district, Simpson lost to Broun in the 2012 primary, but is now bolstered in the crowded field with the support of former Governor Sonny Perdue. Simpson is also a former member of the intelligence community. When he brought up this point at the NCLA and Covington News forum, he said wryly, “When I worked for the NSA, we didn’t overreach.” He often references Obama administration controversies like the attack in Benghazi, Libya and discriminatory IRS practices, popular topics in the republican base. He also focuses, like his opponents, on budget cuts and employment. According to the FEC, Hice’s disclosures show $185,630 in total contributions.
- Brian Slowinski is a self-described non-establishment conservative tea party republican candidate, and to the observer, it appears he is right. Whether it is his trademark of repeating his name three times or his homemade announcement video on YouTube, people can see Slowinski really was correct when he said, “I’m not part of the professional political class.” Slowinski holds Rep. Broun in high esteem, and it seems he would vote similarly to the tea party favorite. His issue positions for the most part are similar to the rest of the candidates. However, Slowinski also has an anti-establishment and libertarian bent. He supports firing Speaker John Boehner and auditing the Federal Reserve. Hice’s campaign has no funds listed by the FEC for 2013.
- S. Mitchell Swann is a Marine Colonel from Athens. He has experience in foreign policy. According to his website, Swann worked on U.S. policy for the Middle East when he was a staff officer with U.S. Central Command. Given his background, it is no surprise that Swann focuses on international issues more than the other candidates do. Demonstrating his perspective in this regard, he said, “We are the last nation of consequence in Western Civilization.” However, he does share many of the domestic concerns as his opponents. He supports budget cuts and a flat tax. One area he may differ from his opponents on is immigration. Swan has a plan to offer undocumented immigrants windows of opportunities to pay fees and ultimately gain citizenship. The FEC did not have anything from Swann’s campaign because he had not entered the race until after the last disclosure deadline.
Voters will decide which Republican candidate of those seven listed above to put on the general election ballot. On the other side of the aisle stands Ken Dious, the sole Democrat in the race. He is a civil rights lawyer, and according to his website, “was the first African-American student at University of Georgia to integrate the football team and wear a Bulldog uniform.” This means that if Dious were to win the election, Georgia’s congressional delegation would have another member of the civil rights movement.
When it comes to policy, Dious’ positions span the portion of the U.S. political spectrum unoccupied by his opponents. According to his website, Dious believes the state of Georgia should promote its “attractive tax code,” but also said he supports a “national healthcare plan.” He served as an Obama delegate in the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which may put him at odds with the vast majority of this district’s anti-Obama voters.
According to the FEC, Dious’ disclosures show $11,395 in contributions. To democratic activists, this campaign seems like a good chance for Dious–or any other Democrats looking for footholds in the area–to build up support as the state’s demographics change. Still, Dious is hopeful about his chances.
“I think my chance in this race is good,” said Dious, “but we’re trying to get my message out.”
Unless one of the Republican candidates walks away with the May primary, the two highest polling candidates will go on to compete in a runoff in June. Then the winner of that contest will face the hurdle that is the November general election. So far, the qualifying process narrowed the 700,000 or so people in the 10th district to eight possible candidates. Now it is up to the voters to make that last jump down to one representative.
By Eli Watkins
The state of Georgia is a bastion of college football fanaticism, church attendance, and gun ownership. In keeping with one of these traditions, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill in February easing restrictions on concealed carry in colleges, churches, and bars. The bill has teetered back and forth in the legislature since then.
This legislation could carry real ramifications for downtown Athens, an area predominantly composed of bars.
The gun rights expansion would bring many changes to Georgia if it becomes law. As the law stands now, gun owners of legal age (21 or over) can register with the state of Georgia and receive a concealed carry permit. Permit holders may then keep a weapon on their person. They can carry the weapon in many places with few exceptions. The proposals flying through the Gold Dome seek to remove some of these exceptions and reduce the penalties for violating the rules.
Republican legislators in Georgia have pushed hard for some expansion of gun rights with last year’s failure behind them and elections in front of them this year. HB 875, the “Safe Carry Protection Act,” and its more recently amended counterpart, HB 60, have become the substance of that push in this legislative session. The original proposal was broader in scope, and observers will have to wait for the current legislative session to end today to see what form the final bill takes, if any.
Legislators have backed down on some points so far. They curbed potential concealed carry expansions to public places, like colleges.
One of the proposed changes could affect downtown Athens more than all the others could, and so far, legislators have not taken it off the table. Georgia may remove the ban on carrying firearms in bars, instead leaving that decision up to bar owners. The question remains: Will the bar owners of Athens welcome gun owners into their establishments?
When asked about a broader proposal last year, Athens bar owner Paul DeGeorge came down as a clear “no.” He owned firearms, but that did not mean he thought they belonged in bars.
“It’s a bad environment to have access to something like that. There’s too many brawls,” said DeGeorge.
A third year journalism student and occasional bar-goer, Skye Rubel, echoed DeGeorge’s concerns.
“People drink and do stupid things. Guns and alcohol are a horrible combination,” said Rubel.
Other Athenians in the bar industry were not so critical. Norman Scholz, the general manager of The Globe, did not have a problem with the idea of concealed carry in his place of work.
“As long as it is legally concealed carry, then it’s not our concern,” said Scholz.
Opinions vary on this controversial legislation, with viewpoints ranging from outrage to skepticism to full support. Discussions over the potential expansion of concealed carry have taken a decidedly chill tone in Athens, as one would expect. However, the controversial aspects of this bill have invited statewide and national scrutiny.
The gun control advocacy organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns wrote, “This bill [HB 875] would dangerously expand the scope of the state’s existing Stand Your Ground law.” People on different sides of the debate have disputed the accuracy of this letter’s claims. However, the text of the bill they referenced did provide the legal opportunity for fights in bars to end in justifiable homicide involving firearms.
State Representative Scott Holcomb is one of the bill’s skeptics.
“As far as bars are concerned, I think that any of us that have had that witches brew touch our tongues get that you don’t want to mix guns with that,” said Holcomb.
Gun possession in bars does have its advocates. John Monroe of GeorgiaCarry.org, Inc. said his organization supports carrying firearms in bars, openly or concealed. “We think safety would be enhanced in bars if carry were allowed,” said Monroe, “Carry already is allowed in restaurants that serve alcohol… So, people already are carrying in many places that are essentially bars and there are not issues with it.”
The push from Republicans, particularly in the state house, has been strong. Almost all of the Republicans in the state house voted in favor of the bill, and they almost comprise a supermajority in that chamber. The vote in the GA house split the members from Athens. Democrat Spencer Frye voted “Nay,” and republican Regina Quick voted “Yea.”
A gun bill of the kind discussed so far may pass in the waning minutes of this session and move swiftly thereafter to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk. If it does not, observers can guarantee a similar push next year.
The Georgia state government may soon make its decision, then the bar owners of Athens will make the ultimate call.
People know the bars of Athens for eclectic music and underage drinking. These welcome frat brothers sporting identical popped-collar polos and townies sporting identical vaudevillian mustaches. Will bars open their doors to concealed firearms too? It looks like someday soon, the people of Athens will find out for themselves.
By Eli Watkins
Tim Denson rides a scooter. He enjoys craft beer. He makes his own music. He works at Barnes & Noble in the digital department and runs a vintage goods business with his wife.
And, Denson is running for mayor of Athens-Clarke County.
By some accounts, Denson faces an uphill battle. Current Mayor Nancy Denson (no relation) enjoyed a comfortable margin of victory in the 2010 election.
This relatively well-known, sitting mayor is Tim Denson’s competition, possibly along with local tattoo artist and declared candidate Ryan Berry. According to the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections, we will not know the names on the ballot for certain until candidate qualifying ends on March 7.
According to financial disclosures reported at the beginning of this year, Mayor Nancy Denson has raised $17,615 in contributions. That is a formidable war chest compared to Tim Denson’s paltry $504.To put that figure in perspective, the qualifying fee to join the mayoral race is $1,350.
He recognizes the fiscal challenge he faces. Denson boasts, “[This campaign] is all volunteers. We’re not being run with large donors and being bankrolled by anybody. It’s just people being willing to work and volunteer.”
While he may not have large signs dotting the streets of Athens Clarke County like Mayor Denson, he has quite a few people sporting trendy buttons with his image on them.
Even with the odds against him, Denson’s supporters appear optimistic. Former Occupy activist and ardent Tim for Athens volunteer Adam Lassila said, “This whole campaign is bubbling over with promise and attainable awesomeness founded in compassionate ideals.”
Denson’s campaign staff comprises mostly former Occupy Athens activists, like him. Some of these people volunteered to create his website, and others, like Lassila, have logged hours canvassing neighborhoods in Athens.
Running a volunteer campaign with almost no funds is difficult, but Denson seems to believe sincerely that it is worthwhile. He also does not hesitate to criticize his opponent.
“We need to have a mayor who has a plan. I think we’ve been lacking that for the past few years: lacking focus and vision for the commission,” said Denson, “We want to make an Athens for everyone.”
All of the fundraising, campaigning and volunteering comes down to May 20, Election Day.
On that day, voters will not only face a nonpartisan mayoral election. They will also vote in a number of races, including the Georgia Republican Senate Primary, which is sure to bring many conservative voters to the polls.
The Athens Everyman:
While Tim Denson is not from Athens originally, his allegiances bend toward the classic city on a range of subjects.
Denson is a self-proclaimed fan of the Georgia Bulldogs and a plurality of Athenian musical acts.Still, he plays the part of a politician. Asked about his favorite beer, he answers wryly, “That has to be from Terrapin, right?”
As Kurt Gloede, third year advertising student from Roswell, sees it, “Tim Denson is the hipster mayor Athens deserves.”
When it comes to qualifications, Denson stresses his everyman appeal.
I come from a place that most Athenians come from. I’ve worked in the service industry, the retail industry, the agricultural industry. I know what it is like to have to scrape by. I’ve lived under the poverty line,” said Denson.
He brings up his involvement in the grassroots political scene. Indeed, anyone familiar with local Athens politics will recognize some of the movements Denson joined in the past, from Occupy Athens to opposing the proposed construction of a Wal Mart store adjacent to downtown Athens.
Whatever reputation the Occupy movement has today, Denson embraces his experience with its Athenian chapter.
“I’m proud of a lot of the work that Occupy Athens did, and the Occupy movement in general. It helped empower a lot of individuals, including myself,” said Denson before clarifying, “This campaign is something outside of the Occupy movement, but I don’t think I would be where I am right now if it wasn’t for the movement.”
The platform Tim Denson released focuses on a number of policy areas including poverty reduction, expanding public transit, economic development, and law enforcement reform.
Like many left leaning figures across the country, Denson’s main concern is poverty.
“The big thing I want to see change is our 38 percent poverty rate. It’s the number one issue we’re focusing on.”
For every problem he brings up, he has a possible solution jotted down in his little red notebook. On poverty, for example, he prescribes a range of remedies.
“From the mayor’s office, first and foremost, my agenda is focused on trying to reverse the course of that poverty rate,” said Denson, “Another thing we could be doing is offering quality childcare and early education so that the parents that are trying to pull their families out of poverty know their kids will be taken care of.”
His fixation on poverty ties to his enthusiasm for public transit, where his answer is red and black.
“I think the easiest way for us to get more affordable, and eventually free, public transit will be to merge the Athens and UGA transit systems together,” said Denson, “Right now, we have two publicly funded transit systems serving Athens-Clarke County, the smallest county in Georgia. That just seems absurd that they’re both doing the exact same thing and funded the same way. I think that if they worked together, we could have one strong system.”
Despite his idealistic promises, he takes care not to overreach.
“I’m not saying that right when I take office, with a snap of my fingers, we will have free public transit. But, we could be moving toward making our main lines free,” said Denson.
Another major area in his platform concerns law enforcement. After taking a small survey of Athenians, he decided to address police profiling and marijuana decriminalization.
“We’d like to work with our police department and make sure the training covers that [profiling] is not something we want to be pursuing, that [profiling] is not the way that we want to be enforcing the law,” said Denson.
On the issue of marijuana, Denson said, “Right now, we spend millions of dollars incarcerating nonviolent offenders who had as little as less than an ounce of marijuana. That’s wasting our tax dollars and the abilities of the people who are sitting in prison… I am sure that we can work out some kind of resolution that permits us to decriminalize, or at least deprioritize [marijuana] in Athens-Clarke County.”
By all accounts, Tim Denson is an underdog. By his own admission, he has no experience in an official public position.
However, he does have organic, grassroots appeal and a thoughtful set of policy stances.
The voters of Athens-Clarke County will have to decide if that is enough to defeat Mayor Nancy Denson.