Lessons learned in Ben­nett’s first year in of­fice

GA Voice - - 2016electionnews -

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

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