This year, both of Oconee County’s two districts for the Georgia State House are up for special elections: both Rep. Regina Quick and Rep. Chuck Williams (both Republicans) have accepted other positions, as a federal judge and as head of the state Forestry Commission respectively.
Athens attorney Deborah Gonzalez is running in the 2017 special election for the 117th district, hoping to claim Regina Quick’s former seat. She recently gave us an interview covering her background, her views on state government, and many of the issues facing the state house today.
Deborah told us of her life as an Army child, her first job in a factory, and the challenges raising her daughter as a single mother. She went to law school to be able to give her daughter more, running her law practice as a small business. Running for office she describes as “an responsibility, instilled in me by my father”… but also one that is worthwhile and rewarding for the people she meets, and for their stories.
Asked about the district she hopes to represent, which includes portions of four counties (Oconee, Clarke, Jaskson, and Barrow), she described the district as “gerrymandered” and said she had originally been worried the various constituencies would have different needs and concerns. Instead, however, she has found that across the district, people largely want the same things: affordable care to keep themselves and their families healthy; a good education, whether college or technical training, and K-12 education before that; jobs that pay well enough to support themselves. In that very basic sense, she finds the district very unified in its desires.
When discussing plans to keep in touch with voters after the election, however, she did acknowledge some separation, describing a need for county-specific contact people, and plans to keep her office available late at least once a month, in locations varying across the four counties. This would make her accessible to citizens whose schedule might not allow them to see her during “business hours:” she promised that anyone in the office by 9:00pm would be seen. This is an idea she borrows from former Atlanta Mayer Shirley Franklin, which she hopes will augment more traditional hours, as well on on-line and social media resources.
Like many candidates, Deborah has announced positions on many national issues on her campaign website. However, we wanted to ask her about her views at the state level, since that is the office she is contending for. As Deborah noted, we are nationally very divided today, but what divides us is known. That creates an opportunity to find what will bring us together—a process which she believes government, and particularly the state government, has a large role to play. It is also an environment in which her experience at mediation may be particularly helpful.
In Deborah’s view, elected officials have information, collected by aides or provided by lobbyists, that citizens do not have access to, nor time to understand. She views it as the officials’ job to gather as many viewpoints as possible, consider all of them, and then to communicate accurate, reliable information to all stakeholders. She cited the recent Campus Carry bill as an example of the system not working properly: the governor received over 14,000 calls against from citizens’ voices across the community, but passed the bill in response to about 1/100th as many supporters, many of them lobbyists.
And Deborah pointed out that the state government is relevant even on those national issues. Healthcare, for example, is not only the ACA and its repeal and replace efforts: it includes expansion of Medicare, which is a state decision. So are school privatization decisions, livable wage and minimum wage laws, and other examples. Asked about the top challenges facing Georgia specifically, Deborah lists representation as one: which voices are heard, who gets to vote, and how those votes are apportioned during redistricting. All are issues addressed at the state level.
Deborah also brought up Internet privacy and accessibility issues during our interview; these are issues she feels strongly about, and has expertise in, from her previous work. When I pressed about why she emphasized those, and why voters should care about issues that may seem abstract and technical, she reminded me of how deeply the Internet has penetrated our lives. The issue for her is not only about bandwidth costs for large corporations like Netflix, but about Internet service costs to consumers, and costs to smaller entities: schools and on-line education offerings, technology entrepreneurs, and “mom-and-pop” companies hosting their websites. If Internet costs for those enterprises rise sharply, that causes a loss of access to what has become a necessary resource in modern business and modern life.
And, despite viewing the district as having been gerrymandered, Deborah sees an opportunity to flip the 117th. The district voted for President Trump, but only by a 3% margin; her challenge, as she sees it, is ensuring turnout in the special election, particularly by those who are supporters, but hesitant of her chances: she feels she can win, but only with all of those voters’ votes.