By David Schick
The first official debate for the Athens-Clarke County mayoral race took place Wednesday night between the only two candidates running for office, incumbent Mayor Nancy Denson and her opponent Tim Denson (no relation).
The debate was sponsored by the University of Georgia Young Democrats and held inside the Zell Miller Learning Center and approximately 200 hundred people came out to watch.
Tim Denson, the challenger and local activist, said in his opening statement that he’s got a “21st century vision” for Athens and that the city currently isn’t doing enough for residents of ACC. In addition to his participation in Occupy Athens, Tim Denson has collaborated with the NAACP and Economic Justice Coalition.
Among the chief concerns for Tim Denson is poverty. He’s devoted a sizable amount of his platform to ambitious ideas that he believes will help cut down on the 40,000 people, according to U.S. Census data, who live below the poverty line in Athens.
“Crime and graduation rates can be connected to our poverty levels in Athens. Poverty is something we shouldn’t accept,” says Tim Denson.
One of the more controversial items on Tim Denson’s platform is to decriminalize minuscule amounts of marijuana at the local level, which stands in contrast to both state and federal law. Tim Denson added that criminal charges for marijuana impact minorities four times greater than non-minorities.
Mayor Nancy Denson, for the first time publicly, concurred with her opponent and endorsed decriminalizing and deprioritizing the arrests for “small amounts of marijuana.” She added that a marijuana arrest shouldn’t affect someone for the rest of his or her life by creating a criminal record.
Free buss service is another one of Tim Denson’s platform points that he is vehemently pushing for. He has plans to combine UGA’s and Athens’ transit system. “When you increase bus fares, you lose ridership. We need to recent reverse the fare hikes,” he says.
Mayor Denson says that Tim Denson is a “nice young man” with ambitious ideas, but a mayor has to set priorities. “It’s wonderful to have great ideas, but you have to have a way to do it and everything comes down to dollars,” says Mayor Denson. She argues against Denson’s platform items that call for increased public transit service and for governmental help with childcare saying that you’d have to take those tax dollars from somewhere else.
She adds that a tax increase for people already living here would make things worse for those living below the poverty line and could cause people to move away from Athens. “Everything comes down to money,” says Mayor Denson.
One of the major differences between Mayor Denson and her opponent is that she puts an emphasis bringing in big business from out of town to develop in Athens.
“My emphasis always has been and will be on economic development, because that’s the real answer to fighting poverty,” says Mayor Denson.
The mayor emphasized bringing the Caterpillar manufacturing plant to Athens as one of the highest achievements of her administration, which she says will ultimately bring 1,400 jobs to the community.
“We can’t just be relying on businesses and corporations coming from out of state to bring jobs to us,” contends Tim Denson. He supports the idea of investing more in local tech startups, like the local non-profit company Four Athens. He adds that the director tells him the city “is not doing enough” to support local entrepreneurs.
Tim Denson also took a bold stand against the Board of Regents at the University System of Georgia by claiming that they were discriminating against undocumented students with their policies that prevent them from attending Georgia’s top-tier public universities.
Another difference between the candidates is the creation of a fee for the use of plastic grocery bags. Tim Denson supports it as a way to cut down on the waste in rivers and streams, but Mayor Denson says it would be bad for those already struggling financially.
The mayor, arguing such a fee might disproportionately affect the poor, a constituency that is a focus of Tim Denson’s campaign, said whoever might be affected by the bag fee, it’s “not going to be the little yuppies who climb into their SUVs and go to Earth Fare” with their canvas grocery bags.
Tim Denson reiterated his plan for a “21st century” Athens in his closing remarks, saying that we need ambitious ideas and an “ambitious mayor” in office. Mayor Denson said in her closing statement that if you vote for her, “you will get more of the same. You will get more of what you’ve been getting for 35 years.”