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.”
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.