Lessons learned in Bennett’s first year in office
Rep. Taylor Bennett ( D-Atlanta), the attorney who broke the Republican supermajority in the Georgia legislature in 2015, faces his first test to defend a pivotal House seat, and a loss could hand a veto-proof majority back to Republicans.
Bennett, whose mother is openly gay, won an upset bid to replace pro-equality Republican Mike Jacobs in 2015, after Jacobs took an appointment to the Dekalb State Court. When Bennett won, Republicans lost their two-thirds majority in the House and control of the Fulton and DeKalb legislative delegations. He is facing a well-funded, pro-equality, Republican challenger: Meagan Hanson.
House District 80 encompasses parts of Fulton and Dekalb counties near the cities of Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and Chamblee, making it one of the most competitive in all of Georgia. Both candidates have raised approximately $120,000 in donations by the Sept. 30 filing deadline, and both are putting forth different visions on how to use that district to promote equality. Bennett said his win prevented Republicans from overriding Deal’s veto of the controversial “religious freedom” bill House Bill 757. His Republican challenger, Hanson, promises to change her party from within.
Both Bennett and Hanson support the Pastor Protection Act, and oppose HB 757. Bennett worked on the Pastor Protection Act to narrow its focus.
“It came through our committee, and the original wording of (Pastor Protection Act), we felt that there was some room for discrimination in the third section, particularly in housing discrimination,” Bennett said. “We felt for certain that it was 100 percent sure to pass, and as a minority party, we can’t stop it…. So, we worked to make sure to make sure the language was air tight… so State Rep. Taylor Bennett (l) faces off against well-funded, pro-equality Republican challenger Meagan Hanson (r) in House District 80. (Courtesy photos) it only related to pastors, religious organizations and some of the events that they do.”
Both candidates said they would fight the return of HB 757 in 2017. In an unexpected move during the last legislative session, Republicans unveiled a new version of the Pastor Protection Act that could have allowed faithbased organizations to opt of serving anyone based upon the organization’s religious beliefs. The day was unexpectedly bittersweet for Bennett and his family, because that was the
October 28, 2016
first day his mother attended a session, not knowing that bill was on the calendar.
“I gave a floor speech, an emotional one because my mother, who happens to be gay, was in there that day. So, she sat behind me and had to hear all of my (Republican) colleagues stand up in support this discrimination,” Bennett said. “It was very disturbing to watch colleagues of mine come up and apologize for it later, saying they didn’t agree with it, but had to vote for it.”
Bennett can argue that the only reason the legislature didn’t override Deal’s veto is because he took away the vote they needed. Hanson, however, argues that she can be a more effective advocate for the LGBT community because she will be in the room when decisions like HB 757 are made, “and raising hell while I’m there.”
“I’m proud to be a Republican who also supports LGBT issues,” she adds. “I feel that I could become one of the LGBT community’s greatest allies, given that our state government is controlled by Republicans. Bills like (HB 757) are written behind closed doors, and if you’re not in the room then you don’t have a say in how it’s written. You can try and change the bill once it’s made public, but it’s a lot more effective to change the bill before it’s public. I feel like I can be the voice for the LGBT community in those rooms.”
Bolstering her claim is that Jacobs, who held HD 80 for a decade, is widely credited with single-handedly killing state Sen. Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) so-called “religious freedom” bill Senate Bill 129 in committee last year by successfully introducing an amendment that supporters claimed gutted the bill.
Hanson said marriage equality is a no-brainer, and credits an openly gay classmate at the University of Alabama law school for setting her up with her husband. She said she wants to use the bully pulpit and profile that House district gives a Republican to move her party towards universal support of marriage equality.
“If I am a state House representative I think I will have a better platform to make changes in the party,” Hanson said. “If you’re not elected, sometimes you’re running your head into the wall trying make changes because people don’t listen to you.”
By MATT SCHAFER