Events

Dekalb House & Senate Voting Rights Forum: Join members of the Dekalb House and Senate Delegations on Tuesday, February 23 at 6:30 pm to learn more about the voting legislation that’s pending in the Georgia General Assembly. Register for the Zoom meeting here https://bit.ly/3auUSj4 or watch the livestream from the Dekalb House/Senate Delegation Facebook page here.

Legislative Town Hall: Thank you to everyone who joined our Senate District 40 Legislative Town Hall event. I’m especially grateful to my House colleagues, Representatives Mike Wilensky, Matt Wilson, Scott Holcomb, Josh McLaurin, and Beth Moore, for serving as panelists.

If you missed it, you can watch the livestream replay here https://fb.watch/3Lz2VLCZET/. We plan to do another one later in the session.

Pandemic Progress

Mass Vaccination Sites: Governor Kemp announced this week that Georgia will soon start receiving 200,000 vaccine doses per week (a 25% increase) and open four new mass vaccination sites on Monday, Feb 22, in Albany, Macon, Clarkesville, and Atlanta/Hapeville. This expansion means we’ll be able get to the next phase more quickly, maybe even within a couple of weeks.

Centralized Appointment System: The centralized vaccination scheduling system is now available, but it’s limited to the four new vaccination sites for now. If you are Phase1A+ eligible, you can sign up at https://myvaccinegeorgia.com or by calling 844-275-5425. If you’re not in Phase 1A, you can also sign up to be notified as Georgia moves into different phases.

Under Cover of Darkness: Voting Bills

Wednesday morning, well before the sun came up, I made my way downtown through heavy rain, flood warnings, and temperatures barely north of freezing. Two Senate Ethics Sub-committee meetings had been scheduled simultaneously at the unusually early hour of 7am — both dealing with very controversial voting bills.

No Live-streaming: When I entered the committee room, I realized there would be no live-streaming of the meeting, and social distancing requirements meant there were very few people in the room, so there would be very limited public comment. In normal times, controversial hearings like these would be overflowing with advocacy organizations and concerned citizens. But Republicans shut Georgians out of the process.

Without the live-streams, committee members  were also in the dark about what happened in the other  subcommittee meeting we couldn’t attend, which put us at a disadvantage when we came back together the next day (again at 7am) as a full committee to vote on the bills.

Curtailing Absentee VotingThe first bill my sub-committee took up was Senate Bill 71, authored by the most powerful man in the Senate — the Chairman of the Rules Committee. SB 71 repeals Georgia’s no-excuse voting law — the very law this Chairman supported in 2005 when Republicans decided it was in their favor to allow as many people to vote-by-mail as possible.

Now the Chairman was standing before us proposing that only the disabled, people 75 and older, and those needing to be out of town, should be able to vote by mail or dropbox. Why? The Chairman’s explanation was because his constituents had lost faith in the election process due to excessive fraud. He went on to cite data and stories that have already been discredited by the Secretary of State’s Office. I had to speak up.

So I raised my hand to be acknowledged and proceeded to state that his constituents lost faith in the election process because they were lied to by the President, and that this situation cannot be fixed by legislation, but rather requires leadership.

That night when I got home, exhausted, my husband handed me a postcard that came in the mail that day from the Harry Truman Presidential Museum. It said:

“I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” 
— President Harry Truman

It’s painful to have to spend so much time on something that isn’t broken when we could be focusing on what the people of Georgia need right now —  healthcare, unemployment insurance, and education.

Bills that passed the Full Ethics Committee:

The Chairman’s SB 71, repeal of no-excuse absentee voting, did not move on for a vote in the full Ethics Committee the next day. I do believe that with enough advocacy, we can kill this bill and others that propose to limit absentee voting. But other bills did pass and next will move to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Photo ID for Absentee Voting: SB 67 requires a driver’s license or government-issued ID to request an absentee ballot. There are some good things in this bill like codifying the online absentee ballot application portal that was developed under emergency rule last year. And it could be worse. Other bills have required multiple photocopies of photo ID, which would be a huge impediment to many voters, while this bill only requires ID numbers. But it doesn’t provide enough options for first time voters and those who may not have a photo ID. This bill passed along party lines.

State Takeover of Local Elections: SB 89 allows the State Elections Board to remove and replace “low performing” county elections superintendents. I’m very concerned about this becoming a partisan power grab. The State Elections board is currently comprised of the Secretary of State, an appointee from the House, one from the Senate, and one by each party, which means our State Elections Board currently has four Republicans and only one Democrat. This unfortunately passed along party lines.

Faster Reporting: SB 184 and SB 188 require faster reporting for county elections officials. SB 184 reduces the time counties have to report that a voter has voted from 60 to 30 days and imposes a $100 per day fine for counties that are late. SB 188 would create a statewide election reporting system to track the number of votes cast and how many are in-person, absentee, and provisional. Counties would enter this information as soon as possible after the polls close. I voted against these bills because I didn’t have a chance to check with my local elections offices, and the author indicated he had not reached out to any election offices to ensure this timeline is reasonable.

Tabulating Ballots Before Election Day: SB 40 was the only Democratic bill we heard, even though there are many that have been filed. It again codifies an Emergency Rule, allowing county election clerks to begin tabulating absentee ballots the second Monday prior to an election to speed up election results. This bill was the only one that passed unanimously.

“Be Loud” in the House

Late last week, the Chair of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity rolled out HB 531, a 48-page omnibus bill that contains a number of restrictive voting measures like banning Sunday voting, which is a direct attack on black “Souls to the Polls” events, restricting early voting to only one Saturday, limiting ballot drop box access to business hours only, and shortening the absentee ballot request period among other things.

This bill will negatively impact low-wage voters and voters of color the most. It’s time to be loud in the House. Call or email the members of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity and tell them to vote No on this bill

We’ve heard rumors for weeks that Senate Republicans plan to roll out a similar omnibus bill, but so far, nothing has been filed.

Shining a Light on Developmental Disabilities

When I was elected to the Senate, I was heartbroken to hear that there are more than 7,000 families on a waiting list to receive NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers, which help offset the cost of care for adults with developmental disabilities. This was an issue I first learned about when I served in the House and I was so disappointed to hear that the problem persists today. Many of these families have been on this waiting list for a decade or more and many don’t know the waiting list exists until it’s too late. Most adults with developmental disabilities require full-time care which makes it impossible for their caretakers to work without help. And the cost of care is so high, it’s like having to pay for college for an adult’s entire life.

So this week, I filed SB 208 to gradually increase funding for the NOW/COMP waivers so that we can eliminate the waiting list over the course of 5 years. Political will is the only thing stopping us from fully funding this program. We could have funded this program with the tax cuts Republicans gave away in 2018.

A Bright Spot for Criminal Justice: Repealing Citizen’s Arrest 

This week, Governor Kemp announced a measure to reform the state’s Citizen’s Arrest Law, a law that’s been in effect in Georgia since the Civil War that allows average citizens to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime. The Citizens Arrest Law was initially used to defend those that killed Ahmaud Arbery last summer as they claimed they believed he committed robbery before video evidence showed otherwise. House Bill 479 still allows security officers and retail workers to detain those that are suspected of shoplifting or other crimes and allows off-duty police officers to arrest crime suspects, but provides more specific guidelines under the law for those circumstances.

This bill has bipartisan support. I plan to work with my colleagues and stay in close touch with advocacy organizations to determine how this bill needs to be strengthened.

Looking Ahead

This Monday is the halfway point of the 2021 legislative session. We will be in session every day this week as activity ramps up in advance of Cross-Over Day. The week will be long and full of controversy.

Upcoming Events

Click 'Show Images'Sally’s Legislative Town Hall: Save the date! Please join me and Georgia House Representatives whose districts overlap Senate 40 for a virtual legislative town hall on Thursday, February 18th at 7:00 pm.

Register here: http://bit.ly/legtownhall
Submit questions in advance here: http://bit.ly/Sd40questions

The Zoom link will be emailed to all registered participants prior to the event. We will also livestream the event on my public Facebook page Sally Harrell Senate District 40.

Vaccines UP — Cases DOWN

Cases on the Decline: COVID positive cases are currently decreasing throughout most of Georgia. The same is true in the Senate — we had zero positive test results this week! This news seems to have settled the question about whether or not the session should continue. We now have a schedule that takes us through the end of this month, to legislative day 25 (out of 40).

Vaccinating Teachers: I want to thank those who responded to my last Snapshot and offered thoughtful suggestions for ways we could start to vaccinate teachers while we wait for more vaccines to cover our 65+ population. Several supporters proposed systems for alerting nearby school Principals when there are no-shows so that we can start to vaccinate our most at-risk teachers and school personnel. I plan to summarize and share your ideas in a letter to the Department of Public Health.

When will “1-B” Begin? Many of you have asked when Georgia will move on to phase “1-B” (critical infrastructure and essential workers). Most of us realize why we must wait our turn, but waiting is very hard when you have no idea how long the wait will be. Our Department of Public Health needs to be more forthcoming about the current status and future plans. This week, according to the best data available to the public, the number of vaccines administered increased 21% over last week (now approx. 283,000/week), and the number of vaccine doses shipped by the Federal government increased 22% (to approx. 282,000/week).

‘Morning, Mr. Oglethorpe!

The most germ-free route from my office to the Senate Chamber is up the north stairs, where every morning I pause to say a silent “good morning” to General James Oglethorpe, whose statue rests on the landing between the second and third floors. As a young man in England, James Oglethorpe was a prison reformer, exposing overcrowded and abusive prison conditions where many were jailed for being unable to pay their debts. To give these debtors a second chance, Oglethorpe proposed to King George that he send these prisoners to America, giving them a second chance through a business venture to produce silk — farming mulberry trees, the sole food of silk worms. This month marks the 288th year since the establishment of the Colony of Georgia.

Oglethorpe was a progressive social reformer and activist. His vision for Georgia was to create an egalitarian economy completely free of slave labor. He allowed Jewish refugees to settle in Georgia after they had been rejected elsewhere and he worked respectfully with Native Americans to purchase land and negotiate treaties.

Sadly, Gen. Oglethorpe’s progressive policies did not endure. The colonists eventually argued their way into repealing the ban on slavery, saying they could not compete with the economy of neighboring Chartleston, South Carolina. But I believe that Georgians, as part of our unfolding story, are continually called back to our founding. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that Georgia became the center of the Civil Rights Movement, that we’ve recently led our country on some issues of Criminal Justice Reform, and that we just sent a Black man and a Jewish man to represent us in the US Senate.

Correcting Our Corrections Crisis

Georgia needs to call on Gen. Oglethorpe for inspiration today, as our state corrections facilities are at a crisis point with massive staffing shortages and increased murders and suicides among inmates. I’ve heard from several constituents that this issue is affecting loved ones that work in the system or are incarcerated. The mid-year budget includes a pay raise for our state corrections officers, but we have to do much more.

To address this issue, I sent a letter to the Chair of the State Institutions and Property Committee, Senator Ed Harbison, requesting that we hold a public hearing on the current conditions of our prisons to see what we might do to help. Senator Harbison agreed and we’re now in the process of scheduling the hearing. Stay tuned for more on this issue.

Education: The Antidote to Incarceration

The best way to prevent incarceration is to ensure a free, quality education for every child. One of the main reasons I ran for office was to advance “whole child” education. Our education system is so focused on academics that we’ve forgotten about kids’ psychosocial and developmental needs. Research is clear that when we address the whole child, kids learn better.

This week, I filed three bills to improve the physical, developmental, mental health, and safety of Georgia’s students:

School RecessSenate Bill 122 requires local school boards to schedule at least 30 minutes of unstructured recess time daily for first through eighth grade students. I’ve worked for decades now on making sure every child gets a daily recess. You may recall that Governor Kemp vetoed a recess bill last term, but I’m not giving up. The pandemic has robbed our kids of critical free play time with their peers. Requiring recess is as basic and fundamental as requiring lunch. I plan to reach out to discuss this with the Governor directly as the bill moves forward.

Young Children & Graded HomeworkSenate Bill 110 gives Georgia’s kindergarten through second graders and their families more freedom during family time by prohibiting graded homework. It also levels the field for kids who don’t have parents who can help them get the homework done.

Permanent Classroom Act: Overcrowding has plagued the schools in our district and around metro Atlanta for decades, which has made it so hard to safely send kids and teachers back into schools during the pandemic. I’ve spoken to many parents about this well before the pandemic, and this bill includes their suggestions.

Senate Bill 123 directs the State School Board to establish better safety standards for mobile classroom units, including maximum useful life, minimum fire exits and windows, proximity to water sources to extinguish fire, and safe pathways to and from school buildings. The bill requires school districts to develop a plan to retire mobile units and move students into permanent classrooms within five years. It requires school districts to collect and report data on square footage of each school per student to better understand school overcrowding, improve facility planning, prevent disease spread, and improve the general school climate for our students.

Bills on the Senate Floor

The Amended Budget and Bonuses for State Workers: The Senate finalized the “small” mid-year adjusted 2020/21 budget by passing an amended version with a last minute addition of $1,000 bonuses for more than 57,000 state employees who make less than $80,000 a year, thanks to federal funds that have offset state funding. These bonuses acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of our public health workers, Department of Labor employees, law enforcement officers, and many others during the pandemic. Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler reminded us that so many Georgians are still struggling. “We could and should have done more,” she said.

Protecting our Very Vulnerable: The Senate passed several bills this week to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, including a bill to prevent patient brokering — a kickback scheme whereby drug abuse treatment centers pay third parties to procure patients for them. Sadly, this practice preys on people in desperate need of help and sometimes deliberately sets them up to relapse so they can return to treatment centers to increase profits. We also passed two bills to protect human trafficking victims stemming from First Lady Marty Kemp’s GRACE Commission — one that allows human trafficking victims to change their names without having to publish it in the newspaper as the state currently requires, and the other to allow victims to sue their perpetrators.

Time to “Be LOUD” on Voting

State Voting Bills (the bad ones): The GOP’s voter suppression bills are starting to make their way through the legislature. There are 20 voting bills currently assigned to the Senate Ethics Committee so we’ve been divided into subcommittees. I will serve on Subcommittee A, and next week, we’ll consider SB 67, a bill that requires photocopies of ID along with absentee ballots, and SB 71, that will eliminate absentee voting for the vast majority of voters. The sub-committee has been set for Tuesday, Feb. 16th, 7am (room 307 “CLOB” Coverdell Legislative Office Building)

Federal Voting Bills (the good ones): While we deliberate these state measures, there are federal measures awaiting action in Congress that could mitigate their effects. For example, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prohibited states from enacting discriminatory voting measures. The We the People Act, or HR 1, expands voting rights by requiring same-day voter registration for federal elections, permitting voters to make changes to their registration at the polls, requiring 15-day early voting periods, and establishing automatic voter registration.

So like James Oglethorpe and John Lewis, we need to make some good trouble and “Be LOUD” at both the state and federal levels. Call, email, and send postcards to your state representatives, members of the Senate Ethics Committee, and your Members of Congress. Tell our state legislators that you oppose any bill that limits voters’ ability to vote, and urge your members of Congress to advance HR 1, The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and all other legislation that expands and protects voting rights as soon as they can.

Upcoming Events

Click 'Show Images'Sally’s Legislative Town Hall: Save the date! Please join me and Georgia House Representatives whose districts overlap Senate 40 for a virtual legislative town hall on Thursday, February 18th at 7:00 pm. Details will be forthcoming.

Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux Virtual Open House: Join US House Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux and her staff for a Virtual Open House event showcasing their new district office.

  • February 9, 2021 at 6:00 pm
  • February 11, 2021 at 9:30 am
  • February 15, 2021 at 12:30 pm

To R.S.V.P. please email Rob.Tester@mail.house.gov 

Workers at the Capitol

The grounds around the Capitol are completely torn up in preparation for Governor Kemp’s new fence around the building. Workers are digging trenches as State Troopers in military garb patrol the perimeter of the building carrying M4 rifles. Does this sound like a war zone? The price tag for all this is five million dollars. While the security is unfortunately necessary, the fence is abominable.

Inside, the empty Capitol hallways echo. The people aren’t there. Many lobbyists are even staying away.

The Capitol doesn’t feel like the People’s House right now. The legislature is trying to carry on business as usual, but since the people aren’t there, it is not business as usual.

Protecting our Essential Workers 

Senate COVID Spread: While the spread of COVID in Georgia is showing signs of weakening, we continue to have positive cases in the Senate. Once again this week, I sat next to a Senator in a committee meeting who had tested positive but hadn’t gotten his test results back yet. This meant I had to cancel plans to see family and I’m wearing a mask around my house. This must be how many essential workers feel. Since I learned the Senate isn’t doing formal contact tracing, I went to the Senate well (https://youtu.be/sIr4NqXKpTM) to thank my colleagues for voluntarily disclosing their positive results, hoping to encourage other Senators to do the same.

Teachers & School Personnel:  As vaccine supplies still lag, do we only focus on vaccinating people over 65, or bump teachers and school personnel ahead in line? Public health makes these decisions by evaluating data regarding serious illness and death, in order to protect our healthcare infrastructure. Eighty-five percent of COVID deaths are people ages 60 and older. But schools are an important part of our economic structure. Many parents can’t work when their kids are at home, plus we must recognize the social and emotional needs of our children.

There are 450,000 public school teachers and personnel across the state who need two doses of vaccine and we are currently receiving just 156,000 vaccine doses per week.

Leftover Doses: One Senate 40 constituent who is volunteering to administer vaccines shared with me the other day that there were 590 people registered at a vaccination site. At the end of the day, there were 200 no-shows. If only we could organize those unused vaccines for teachers! If you have ideas or thoughts about how we can get our teachers vaccinated, please let me know. There are also many people under 65 who have serious risk factors and disabilities who need a place in line.

Serving our Displaced Workers

Possible Department of Labor Changes: The Senate Appropriations Committee added funds for a “Chief Labor Officer,” a position that would be appointed by the Governor to oversee operations at the Department of Labor. This is in part due to our months-long efforts to “be loud” on behalf of our constituents who have had such a hard time getting their unemployment benefits. But Republicans quickly got on board when it was revealed this week that the Labor Commissioner was late getting financial information to the State Auditor, threatening our state’s AAA bond rating, the highest grade financial firms give state governments, which in turn allows us to borrow money at lower interest rates.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the amended budget early next week.

Working For the People

It was a quiet week as many committee meetings were cancelled so we could focus on the mid-year budget. But several important issues were addressed:

Tax Incentives: Among the few bills we voted on this week, the Senate unanimously passed SB 6 to allow the Senate to evaluate tax incentives given to businesses to determine if the state is getting an appropriate return on our investment. This is long-overdue and sorely needed to make sure we’re not giving away money without getting something of value in return. Nine billion dollars worth of tax incentives are given out each year by the state.

Medicaid Public Option: I filed my very first bill of the session, which creates a public health insurance option for Georgia. Senate Bill 83 directs Georgia’s Department of Community Health to design a “Peachcare Public Option” that allows all Georgians, regardless of age, income level, or insurance status to voluntarily purchase a Medicaid Managed Care plan, the same system used for Georgia’s popular Peachcare for Kids program. The Peachcare Public Option would cost consumers no more or less than what it will cost the government to provide the service, and it would cover all ten Affordable Care Act essential benefits, including maternity, mental health, preventative care and prescription drugs. The plan could cost substantially less than an equivalent private plan. This approach contrasts with the Governor’s partial Medicaid Waiver Plan, which steers people to insurance brokers who then sell plans that cover less and have high deductibles.

Over the summer, I wrote an op-ed about the dangers of Governor Kemp’s partial Medicaid Waiver. (link)

Working for Families

Caucus Work: One way legislators advance our policy work is through official Caucuses, which are bipartisan policy groups that regularly meet to learn about issues. This session, I’m a Vice Chair for the Working Families Caucus, which focuses on economic issues facing families.

This week, the Working Families Caucus (link) presented an in-depth analysis of the Governor’s FY 2021/22 budget, otherwise known as the “big” budget that we’ll pass later this session. The Governor’s proposed budget is $1.2 billion below pre-pandemic spending levels, maintaining deep cuts to education, criminal justice, transportation, and human services while our savings account is at a record high. I have always been proud Georgia’s fiscally responsible budgeting, but Governor Kemp has padded our savings account more than any other Governor in the past decade, while our citizens struggle in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. I find that unacceptable.

What’s Not Working

Voting Rights: The Senate Ethics Committee hears all of the voting bills and I specifically requested this Committee assignment when I was first elected so I can fight for voting rights. This week, my Republican colleagues rolled out a slate of voting bills, many of which will make it harder to vote by proposing to eliminate ballot drop boxes, automatic voter registration at the DMV, and absentee voting for most people.

Many Georgians have been tragically misled about the integrity of our elections. But as leaders, it is our job to correct those misperceptions instead of perpetuating them. In the middle of a pandemic and economic recession, these bills are a major distraction from much more urgent issues. I am ready to do my part to fight these voter suppression efforts. I’m hopeful that even if they pass the Senate, they’ll get a tougher reception in the House. But ultimately they will fail because Georgians now know that their votes make a difference and no matter what, we will make our voices heard!

All voters, no matter their party affiliation, will be impacted by these bills, so I encourage you to be “be loud.” Contact your representatives and members of the Senate Ethics Committee, to let them know that you oppose bills that make it harder for people to vote. Utilize your network of friends across the state who can reach out to their representatives, especially Republicans. It’s especially helpful to share stories of Republican voters who will find voting harder due to these bills.

The Senate’s Uncertain Work Schedule

We do not have a legislative schedule past Monday, as House and Senate leaders work to decide if they will suspend session once the Senate passes the mid-year budget. We hope to know more very soon!

Sally’s Senate Snapshot #3

The Sun Will Come Out

Click 'Show Images'As the week started off rainy and cold, it reminded me that this time last year, both of my kids were starting new schools on college campuses in cold, rainy January weather. I told them to hang in there because soon spring would come when they could enjoy their campuses more. The same can be said for these rainy days for our state and country. There will be better days ahead!

Brighter Days Ahead for Vaccines

Slow vaccine rollouts, difficulty obtaining appointments, and the threat of new virus variants are tempering the elation we all felt with the good news of effective vaccines last December. But it’s important to remember that it’s only been 6 weeks since the first vaccine was administered in Georgia. Already, almost all long term care residents have been vaccinated (where 40%+ of the deaths occur), most healthcare workers, plus the age 65 and up Georgians who have been lucky enough to get an appointment. If you’re a math person, you’ve already calculated how long it will take to vaccinate the rest of us and the numbers aren’t good — but I believe the pace will speed up.

Increased Supply: The Biden administration announced that states will soon receive a 16% increase in the amount of vaccines and Governor Kemp announced that CVS and Walgreens have almost finished their contracts with nursing homes which will free up an additional 40,000 vaccines per week. The maddening web of systems to find a vaccine should also improve when Georgia’s centralized vaccine system goes online in a couple of weeks.

Georgia Dept. of Public Health: If you qualify for stage 1A+, you can go to any public health site in Georgia to get a vaccine and you may have better luck if you are willing and able to drive outside of metro Atlanta. You can find a full list of sites on the Georgia Department of Public Health website at https://dph.georgia.gov/locations/covid-vaccination-site

Grocery Stores: You can also periodically check Ingles, Publix and Kroger. Walmart will participate as well, but right now most Walmart vaccination sites are outside the Atlanta area.

Private Providers: Be sure to ask your doctor to see if they have vaccines, or if they will get them soon. Some small pharmacies may be administering the vaccine and may have a waitlist. Follow your county health department on social media. Some like Dekalb may announce when they have new appointments available.

Text Notifications: The text notification system I announced last week has a new number, 844-554-4024. Text VAX to this number, or visit https://discodroid.ai/vaxapp/, and the system will alert you when appointments open up in the following counties: DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton, Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton. Unfortunately, all of these systems require computer access and literacy, which leaves too many of our citizens behind, especially the elderly. We need to find better ways to make vaccines accessible to everyone.

Weathering the Pandemic at the Capitol

Masks and twice-weekly testing continue to be the norm at the Capitol. I was happy to see House Speaker Ralston, who expelled one of his members for failing to get tested, taking things very seriously. Since session began, six Senators have tested positive, two of whom are in the hospital. Testing has helped to limit viral spread, but I was shocked to discover that no formal contact tracing is being done, after learning through the grapevine the entire Gwinnett Senate Delegation was exposed to a colleague that tested positive last week. After speaking with Minority Leader Gloria Butler, I hope that will be remedied soon.

So much of our work relies on conversations between colleagues, which is tough when you’re wearing masks and wanting to keep interactions as brief as possible. Many meetings are done via Zoom, including the Women’s Legislative Caucus, which I co-chair again this year with Representative Kim Alexander. We held our first Zoom meeting this week and heard from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute about how the pandemic has affected working women.

The “Small” Budget Moves with Lightning Speed

The “small” budget that adjusts current fiscal year spending flew through the House and into the Senate to get it done as soon as possible in case the pandemic worsens and we have to cut session short. After back to back appropriations subcommittee meetings, the House passed the budget on Thursday and immediately transmitted it to the Senate so that the Senate could start our subcommittee process bright and early at 6:30 am the next morning.

Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic and state revenues being up 4%, Governor Kemp’s recommended budget included only a 2.5% increase, opting instead to rely primarily on federal funds and preserve the state’s $2.7 billion “rainy day” fund while it pours down rain on hard working Georgians. The House added funds to cover several new senior level public health positions, replace our state’s outdated vaccination tracking system, boost funding to nursing homes and a program that provides HIV/AIDs medication to low income Georgians, and purchase 500 new school buses to replace a third of the state’s aging fleet.

There were no new funds for the Georgia Department of Labor, even though the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute estimates that there are nearly 10 times the number of Georgians in our unemployment system than this time last year. In an unplanned coincidence, two of my colleagues and I took to the Senate well (video) on Wednesday to speak about how we are frustrated and failing hard working families that can’t get their unemployment benefits. Speaking from the well, especially en masse, helps to amplify issues, especially for those of us that don’t serve on the appropriations subcommittees. I will continue to push these issues to help as much as I can.

Bringing Sunshine to Issues

The Senate Democratic Caucus began rolling out our legislative agenda that focuses on our priorities of expanding voting access and helping our struggling working families. Here are some bills to watch:

  • SB 26: Requires dropboxes at all early voting locations
  • SB 35: Allows poll workers to be from any county to address poll worker shortages
  • SB 36: Establishes a pilot program for voting awareness grants, particularly in rural areas
  • SB 37: Joins the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement among a number of states to award all of our electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the national popular vote
  • SB 38: Allows people to request to permanently opt in to vote by mail
  • SB 39: Restores voting rights for people with drug offenses
  • SB 40: Allows counties to start counting absentee ballots before Election Day
  • SB 24: Raises the Georgia state minimum wage from $5.50 to $15
  • SB 25: Provides childcare tax credits to Georgia families

Democratic Caucus Whip Senator Harold Jones asked me, along with Senator Tonya Anderson, to be Assistant Whips, which means that we will help ensure our party stays unified on key votes.

In the coming week, I’ll begin rolling out my own legislative agenda that focuses on issues I know are important to you: expanding access to affordable health care, eliminating barriers to voting, saving our environment, tackling gun safety, making higher education more affordable, and improving our educational environment.

The Local Forecast

Our county delegations heard from a member of Congress and our county commissioners this week. It’s so important that all levels of government are connected so that we can serve you as effectively as possible. I was elected Vice Chair of the Dekalb Senate Delegation and I look forward to working closely with Dekalb Caucus Chair, Senator Emmanuel Jones. Cityhood is a major topic of discussion in Dekalb as we have active cityhood initiatives in both Central and South Dekalb. We now have the opportunity to look at cityhood thoughtfully and holistically, and to think through how these initiatives impact the entire county.

The Gwinnett Senate Delegation met with newly-elected Congresswoman Carolyn Bordeaux of the 7th Congressional district. Her district office is now up and running and she would very much like to hear from her constituents about what you need from our federal government. Her district director is Arthur Tripp and you can reach his office at 770-232-3005.

Storm Clouds Ahead: Redistricting

The ACLU presented to the Democratic Caucus on redistricting this week, a topic that is increasingly top of mind and anxiety-provoking for all of our elected officials. The legislature is responsible for redrawing district lines every 10 years just after the Census to make sure our districts account for population shifts. This means that all of our districts will look different the next time we run for re-election. We already know that Census data is running late this year due to the pandemic and other factors, so we believe that the Governor won’t be able to call the special redistricting session until mid to late fall.

In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about redistricting, demand an open and transparent redistricting process, and keep a close eye on the redistricting session to ensure that the General Assembly draws districts that allow voters to choose their representatives and not the other way around. As you often hear me say, redistricting will require us all to use our voices and to Be Loud!

Sally’s Senate Snapshot #2

Vaccine Update: Taking the Helm while Waiting for Help

An Atlanta entrepreneur has launched a free text messaging service to help you know when new appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine are loaded on to a county’s website. Simply text VAX to 678-679-0250, then answer questions via text about your county. The app continuously checks several County Health Departments and as soon as a county opens registration, it sends you a text to let you know. As of Jan. 22,  this app worked for Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Newton and Rockdale counties with plans to add more. However, you may still encounter difficulties accessing county websites to sign up. It’s wonderful to see concerned citizens stepping in to help while we wait for the Georgia Department of Public Health to release a centralized appointment registration system, and for the Biden administration to scale up vaccine availability. Click https://discodroid.ai/vaxapp/ for more information.

Into the Deep Chasms of Georgia’s Budget

Budgeting from home: During the second week of Georgia’s legislative session, the Joint House & Senate Appropriations Room normally is packed with the most elite and influential of Georgia‘s elected officials, with a crowd of advocates and lobbyists standing in the back. But last week during the budget hearings, this room sat largely empty, as most legislators watched the hearings through video streams due to the terror threats against our nation’s state capitols and the continued risks for COVI-19. Neither threat seems to be abating soon enough. The Georgia Tech surveillance COVID testing program identified yet another Senator positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

The sole requirement of the legislature is to pass a balanced, annual budget. This translates into two bills, both of which must originate in the State House. Legislators must act quickly to amend this year’s budget, which started last July, by passing the “little” budget (HB 80) at lightning speed, just in case we need to recess early due to the spread of COVID. Sub-committee meetings already have begun in the House. The second bill (HB 81) is the “big” 2022 budget that funds the government for next year and begins July 1, 2021.

The Revenue Estimate: Unlike Congress, the legislature is required to balance Georgia’s spending with anticipated revenue. The Governor has the power to set the revenue estimate, which he does in consultation with his appointed State Economist. This gives the Governor an inordinate amount of power. For instance, according to a Governor’s spokesperson, despite the pandemic, this year’s revenues are 4.7% ahead of last year’s, yet the Governor has set the revenue estimate for the remainder of the year at 2.5% below last year’s actual revenue levels. Granted, there could be extra costs in the coming months, such as higher than usual tax refunds, and the economy could still tank if the pandemic worsens. But Georgia already has a robust Rainy Day Fund of $2.7 billion. The revenue estimate for FY2022, which begins on July 1, has been set at 27.2 billion, nearly a billion dollars less than the original FY2021 estimate.

Georgia’s foundation is eroding: For two years, Kemp has taken a proverbial chainsaw to our budget, demanding further cuts and revenue estimate reductions due to COVID-19 and a huge 2018 income tax cut. As a result, this year, the Executive Branch Department Heads were finally told they did not have to include cuts to their FY2022 budget proposals. During their presentations, I could hear the strain in their voices as they struggled to convince legislators that they will be able to meet needs with what they have. This simply isn’t true. Federal stimulus dollars have clearly helped, but Georgia’s budget is plagued by decades of underfunding and deep chasms in the services that Georgians need, especially as we continue to find our way through a pandemic that requires a strong government response. This is not the time to make soup from a stone.

Many state employees work for 40% below market rates, and there are now 18,000 fewer state employees working for Georgians as there were just prior to the 2008 recession.

The GBI Director said they cannot hire forensic pathologists because these workers can go anywhere in the United States and get paid more.

Conditions at state prisons have reached inhumane and dangerous levels due to understaffing, COVID-19,  and the low pay of correction officers. (AJC)

Education budgets for public schools continue to be slashed while millions in tax-payer funded scholarships are handed out to private schools.

The Governor’s Medicaid Waiver costs more in state dollars to cover fewer people than what it would cost the state per person to enact full Medicaid expansion.

The Georgia Department of Public Health, underfunded for decades, is having to choose between administering COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, a choice that diminishes our opportunity to get a handle on cases in our state.

Seven thousand disabled Georgians remain on waiting lists for Community-Based Care, a waiting list that has existed since the early 2000s.

Georgians are going without food, without healthcare, and without an end in sight, and yet billions of tax dollars are being stashed away in the Governor’s Rainy Day Fund. It should be obvious to all that the time is now to use that fund, or we can wait for the impending flood of poverty and disease to carry more of our hardworking and tax paying citizens away with it.

A Major Sea Change at the Federal Level

We won, but our work is not finished: Georgians won big during the last two elections, and we have reason to celebrate! But we must not think our work is finished. We must utilize the grassroots network we’ve built over the last four years to work even harder to implement the change we want at the federal level. This is going to take a conscious shift in thinking — we’re not used to Congress actually working for us!

Remember we didn’t build our network to defeat Trump, and we didn’t build it to elect Democrats. We built it to ensure everyone has healthcare and quality public education, from cradle to career. We built it to enact environmental policies that reverse global warming to save our earth from harm. We built it to pass gun safety laws, to close the income equality gap, and to bring about racial justice.

Don’t expect policy changes to happen automatically just because we elected candidates with “D”s after their names. We, the People – the ones who put our leaders in power – must lead our communities to progress.

Write Congress a To-Do List: If we are loud enough, the leaders we elected will follow us. We have a minimum of two years to get all this done, so the time to dream big is now.

What do you want your two new US Senators, and your US Representatives to do for you? I want them to channel the depression-busting policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who believed in the power of government to help people, and those of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who believed in the ability of government to build the infrastructure to support people and businesses.

Reach out now and tell your US Senators and Representatives what you want! Ask them to host a Town Hall Meeting in your community. We must compete with the well-funded lobbyists who are already busy trying to charm our new legislators in the hallways of Washington.

The Governor’s State-of-the State address included millions of state dollars for the installation of rural broadband. The Speaker of the House wants a few billion dollars to address Georgia’s freight and logistic challenges. Georgia needs to build its public transit infrastructure. These are all the kinds of things Congress used to fund for states decades ago, which freed states to focus their resources on services such as education, mental health and the needs of our disabled citizens. We must persistently demand that our governments once again step up and work for the citizens!

Be the Captain of your Ship! 

Request a Town Hall with your U.S. Senators and Representatives

  • Sen. Jon Ossoff: 202-224-3521
  • Sen. Raphael Warnock: 202-224-3643
  • Rep. Lucy McBath: 202-225-4501
  • Rep. Nikema Williams: 202-225-3801
  • Rep. Hank Johnson: 202-225-1605

Sally’s Senate Snapshot #1

Finding Normal in the Sea of Anomaly

As I arrived at the Capitol Monday morning for the start of the 156th Georgia General Assembly, I felt a little like Nemo trying to find his way through the sea anemone. I admit I was scared. It’s not the first time I felt scared at the Capitol, so I told myself I knew I could push through it — like the time in the early 2000s when in order to get to my office I had to push a baby stroller through a swarm of angry men waving 1956 Confederate flags.

As the week progressed, I realized the only way to govern through scary times is to look for the “normal.” Experiencing the rites and rituals of the legislative process, and dealing with the necessary mundane business of organizing, gave me the stable ground I needed to calm my nerves.

Many of you have reached out to express your concern for my safety and health. Your concern has sustained me. And, you’ll be pleased to know that the legislature will not be in session next week. It is a longstanding tradition that following the MLK holiday, we recess for budget hearings, and I will watch those budget hearings from the safety of my own home. Security at the Capitol has been ramping up all week, though I must say, it is very disconcerting to see State Troopers all decked out in military garb and holding M4s. Sadly, it is necessary.

Georgia’s Vaccine Rollout is having a Whale of a Time

There is no doubt Georgia is having a difficult time rolling out vaccines and that people are very frustrated. The hope we felt when we first heard of the vaccines has unfortunately turned to frustration at the difficulty of getting it into people’s arms. Like everything else about this pandemic, the Trump administration has punted the vaccine deployment to the states, and Georgia is relying on a public health infrastructure that has been severely underfunded for decades. As recently as January of 2020, during good economic times, Governor Kemp asked public health to make draconian cuts to their budgets. Even Republican legislators thought this was a shortsighted move.

That being said, help is on the way and I am confident the situation will improve. There’s talk of a centralized, statewide registration system being developed and many commercial entities such as grocery and drug stores are signing up to be providers. There’s also a massive effort to recruit volunteers, including healthcare and non-clinical volunteer positions. If you are interested, please apply through Georgia Responds (https://dph.georgia.gov/georgia-responds).

Out to Sea: The First Legislative Week 2021

At my first freshman legislative training, a veteran legislator said travelling to the Capitol for the legislative session felt a little like being on a ship out at sea.

I personally think it would have been more responsible to postpone Georgia’s legislative session until things settle down from the election, and vaccines are rolling out more smoothly. By Georgia’s constitution, we must begin the second Monday of January, but we could have all been sworn in, then gone back home. The General Assembly is the perfect superspreader event. We bring people to Atlanta from every corner of the state, put them together in two big rooms, then send them back out. And we do this every week for about three months. The Governor, public health, GEMA and the National Guard don’t need the distraction of the legislature right now. That being said, the legislature is taking the virus much more seriously now than they have in the past.

COVID Testing: My first trip back to the Capitol since June began the week before session, as I went for my first COVID test. Many years ago I learned from Speaker Tom Murphy that the legislative desks in the chamber used to all have spittoons so legislators could spit their tobacco. Now legislators are spitting into plastic specimen cups!

Last fall, I learned about Georgia Tech’s very effective COVID surveillance testing through my own Tech student’s experience. I was so impressed, I called Georgia Tech to suggest they offer the same service to the General Assembly. I’m thrilled to report that Georgia Tech is now on-site at the Capitol doing mandatory testing for all staff and members twice a week. Four Senators (out of 56)  have already tested positive, including the Majority Leader.

This is the kind of testing program that should be provided to every K-12 public school in the state, so that teachers are safe, and kids can return to the face-to-face learning and the socialization that they so desperately need.

Swearing-In: Following Monday morning COVID testing (which almost half the House skipped), members of the Senate were sworn-in by Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel. For me, taking the oath is always highly emotional. Two years ago, fresh on the heels of winning a very intense campaign, I could hardly get the words out. I did much better this time. This year I chose to place my left hand on the Constitution of the State of Georgia, since in the oath I promise to “support the Constitution of the state and of the United States.”

Rules & Preachers: This year’s Senate Rules passed easily and without controversy. Instead of the volatile changes we saw last term, we approved some minor rule adjustments to allow for flexibility due to COVID safety. Though guests are not allowed this year in the Senate chamber, we still have our Chaplain of the Day. As I’ve said before, I enjoy a moment of quiet reflection in the morning, and many of the preachers do a good job of offering thoughtful and appropriate words. But too often that is not the case.  Monday was the first time I needed earplugs. The Preacher of the Day spoke of love, but yelled it so loud it hurt! Wednesday’s preacher was a bit rattled because he had a car accident that morning with the Preacher of the Day scheduled to address the House!

Committee Assignments: This year, I hoped to be placed on either Health & Human Services or Appropriations. I did not get either of these committees, and instead was placed on Retirement. I will continue to serve on Ethics, Higher Education, Natural Resources & the Environment, and State Institutions and Property. You might have heard that three prominent Republicans were stripped of their Committee chairmanships ostensibly due to their participation in promoting voting conspiracy myths. Ironically, these three legislators are ones I found reasonable to work with last term. Only three Senate committee chairs this term are women, out of 26 committees, and these three committees are relatively minor committees that don’t receive many bills.

Senate Resolution 5: The Senate Democratic Caucus filed Senate Resolution 5 this week, condemning the disgraceful action of right wing violence and sedition that took place in the United State Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

The Big Fish: Governor Kemp’s State of the State

On Thursday, Governor Kemp gave his State-of-the-State address to a Joint Session of the House and Senate. In order to properly distance, only three members of the Senate sat in the House chamber, while the rest of us watched through video streaming in our offices. The State-of-the State address tends to establish the “tone” of the legislative session, since Georgia’s government is structured so the Governor is the “big fish” with the resources available to push through a strong agenda. The Governor’s 2021 – 2022 budget was released to legislators following the address, and next week we will focus on presentations from the executive branch on proposed departmental budgets. The state fiscal year runs from July 1 – June 30.

Here are some highlights from the Governors address:

  • No additional departmental budget cuts or furloughs have been requested (though the budget is still lean and most cuts from last year have not be restored)
  • $20 million for Rural Broadband Grants and $10 million in each year moving forward (Bringing broadband to all rural households will cost around $3 billion and would need federal intervention)
  • $76 million to GA Pathways and Access, the Governor’s Medicaid Waivers. (Please read my analysis of these waivers in my Op-Ed published by the AJC)
  •  Restoration of $647 million of the previous billion dollar cut from the education budget
  •  The Governor is committed to holding schools harmless for pandemic related enrollment reductions.
  • The Governor wants to use Federal stimulus money allocated to local school districts to provide $1000 bonuses to teachers and other school personnel (although final decision about how to spend the funds will be left to local school districts)
  • $10 million in Governor’s emergency funds for care of special needs children
  • $5 million in grants for public university Juniors and Seniors to help them stay enrolled in classes
  • Reform the Citizens Arrest Statute.
  • Legislative packages for Adoption Reform, reduce Human Trafficking, and assistance for victims.

New Office & Staff Introductions

Many of the decisions about who gets what in the Senate are based on seniority. Last year I ranked 53rd out of 56. Now I rank 42nd. This earned me an office inside the Capitol (110-D), which will make it easier to get around, rather than having to trudge across the street to the Legislative Office Building.

I’m thrilled that the same team that served me so well last year will be in place once again.

Amy Swygert, Communications Director: I’m thrilled that Amy will be continuing as my Communications Director. Amy has three decades of communications experience that she’ll be using to keep all of you informed and to help amplify my work. Amy serves as my chief aide and helps me with my legislative agenda and other duties. You can reach her at amy@sallyharrell.org.

Laurie Lanning, Political Director: Laurie, who has been a devoted volunteer since the beginning of my campaign, will again serve as my Political Director. In this role, she keeps her ear to the ground and monitors which issues we’re hearing most about from you. You can reach Laurie at laurie@sallyharrell.org.

Jay Harrell, Operations and Strategic Advisor: Jay keeps the wheels turning and the train on the track.  jay@sallyharrell.org

Administrative Assistant, Keridan Ogletree: Keridan will continue as Administrative Assistant to both me and Senator David Lucas, with whom I now share an office suite in the Capitol building. Keridan is a Georgia native and Georgia State political science graduate. I owe so much to Keridan who has been on the front lines answering phone calls, keeping my meeting schedule updated, and helping to address constituent needs. You can reach her at (404) 463-2260 or Keridan.Ogletree@senate.ga.gov.

   

Resources for Tracking the Georgia General Assembly

I always love seeing constituents at the Capitol, but during the pandemic, for the safety of members and staff alike, certain operations like the rope lines, the Senate page program, and access to the Senate gallery have been suspended. I invite you to watch our chamber sessions and committee meetings online. Here’s a great guide for how to tune in. Also, Georgia Public Broadcasting’s show “Lawmakers” is very informative.

Please look for my next Snapshot, where I will highlight pieces of my own legislative platform, as well as the legislative agenda for the Senate Democratic Caucus.

During the last month, I’ve made it a practice to sincerely look into the eyes of grocery store cashiers to ask them how they are holding up. Several times, they’ve smiled and mentioned their excitement about the vaccine (the liquor store owner smiled and said business is good)!

There’s a general feeling of hope in the air that 2021 will bring better times. That jobs will return, schools will reopen for good, and we’ll be able to visit again with family and friends. But we still have the winter to get through and all experts are pointing to continued death and suffering from this disease in the interim.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, and hospitals struggling to provide enough workforce and beds, we must be even more guarded than before. We know this ride is dangerous – it’s not time to suddenly grab a seat because we think they are installing the brakes next week.

Our healthcare workers who are waging this battle for us — every day they walk into a patient room, every time they put a sick person on a ventilator, or remove a tumor, or fix a broken bone. As we see the first vaccines go into their arms, we breathe a sigh of relief for them, while quietly wondering when we will have our own place in line.

The “cavalry,” as Joe Biden put it, can’t come too soon!.

It’s important that all of us hold the line as long as we can. We can help our healthcare providers by choosing to limit our physical contact with loved ones a few months longer.

Can you do this with me? Sacrifice a little more, even though it hurts? Help your community members a little more even though you’ve been helping for months? Give up one holiday so more people can celebrate with their families next year?

Keep in mind that victory within sight is not yet victory. But it will be if we hold steady just a little longer.

P.S. Here’s a three minute animated video (https://youtu.be/Ut_6GInouYg) that provides a powerful reflection on how our lives have been changed by the virus, and the transformation the vaccine will bring about. Every time I watch this I tear up just a bit, because the animation so captures the trauma of what we’ve all been through. As the hope offered by the vaccine rolls out slowly, begin to release pent up grief little by little.

Crocus photo: When I was a child, the crocuses in our front yard would begin to push up through the snow before it completely melted. Eventually, I learned this was a sign that spring would arrive soon. Like the crocuses, pictures of healthcare workers getting the first vaccines remind us that the end of the virus is on its way.

Fever Dreams

Lately, I’ve been waking up wondering if what is happening around us is really real. A virus that sneaks around spreading itself without symptoms, mixed with conspiracy theories of massive election manipulation make me keep hoping that one day, I will wake up and everything will be normal again. This all just feels like we are living in some strange fever dream.

But the agonizing reality we cannot avoid is that virus deniers continue to knowingly spread a killer virus, and angry citizens are making death threats against public servants who are doing their duty by our constitution.

A Tale of Two Senate Committee Meetings

Last Thursday two Senate Committee Meetings met. Both meetings dealt with election integrity, but the meetings were as different as night and day.

Government Oversight Committee: Speakers invited to the Senate Committee on Government Oversight included Georgia Secretary of State’s staff as well as staff from various County Election Offices. Election Office staff were unable to attend because they were still busy completing President Trump’s requested recount of votes. The format of the meeting allowed legislators to ask questions of staff.

The presentation by the Secretary of State staff was an impressive description of several of their more than 250 investigations of election irregularity complaints. For example, many of these reports were made by voters who showed up to vote in-person and were surprised to be told they had already received an absentee ballot. Upon investigation, most of these voters had forgotten that they had “checked the box” to automatically receive a ballot for the next election. These checks in our system are there to prevent people from voting multiple times. These reported “irregularities” actually helped to prove that the system worked to deter and avoid voter fraud.

Judiciary Committee: Speakers invited to the Senate Judiciary Committee included members of Trump’s legal team, led by Rudy Giuliani, and several witnesses who weren’t from Georgia and appeared via “Zoom.” The two main points Giuliani made during the six hour meeting were that Georgia’s November election was fraught with extensive fraud and that the election didn’t follow Georgia election law.

Legislators were incorrectly told that according to federal law, which they claim supersedes state law, legislators can call their own special session to choose electors. They believe that they can bypass Georgia’s constitutional requirements that a special session must be called by the Governor or 60% of the legislature. Furthermore, Giuliani stated that a simple mistake such as a voter being allowed to cast a vote in a county that has not been that voter’s primary residence for at least 30 days is an example of the legislature’s election law not being followed — and that alone is enough to disenfranchise millions of Georgia’s voters by choosing a different slate of electors.

Giuliani’s team presented numbers that were impossible to believe, for example claiming tens of thousands of ballots were cast by underage voters. But the Acting Chair of the Judiciary Committee didn’t have any staff members there from the Secretary of State’s office to address these claims, or answer the questions of legislators.

Several legislators in attendance, many of whom were not actually members of the Judiciary Committee, made closing remarks that voiced support for calling an immediate special session. Sen. Elena Parent (D) pointed out how witness affidavits described seeing things that looked suspicious, but many of these concerns have been easily addressed by experts who know the entire election process. Sen. Parent concluded we lack the actual evidence for taking further action.

Sen. Bill Heath (R), Chair of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight, warned his colleagues to be careful about taking legislative action they might later regret, pointing out that perhaps some of the witnesses were not telling the entire truth.

Sen. William Ligon (R), on the other hand, who chaired Thursday’s Judiciary Committee meeting (but who is not the appointed chair), is now circulating a petition requesting that a special session of the legislature be called by Tuesday, Dec. 8th.

We are in a very serious situation. All legislators are getting bombarded with very angry emails and calls and are under tremendous pressure. Administrative assistants are being cursed. But saying something happened doesn’t mean it’s true. I’m left to wonder if they aren’t the ones in the grip of a fever dream. Giuliani, at least, was coming down with COVID-19 when he visited our Capitol without a mask last week.

Now, it is more important than ever that we are watchful, aware, and informed. We must be vocal and active in our support for our elected officials who have been threatened, and we must work hard to remove the chokehold on our democracy. We must speak up against this attempted coup because it is corrosive to our democracy.

Make your plan to vote in the run-off, and don’t just assume that other people around you are planning to vote because they voted before. There are lots of distractions right now, so spread the word to everyone you know to vote as soon as possible. Our country needs every one of us.

It’s Time to Make the Catch

The day the election was called for Biden, my daughter texted me an audio recording of cheers spontaneously erupting from the balconies of midtown apartments. A wave of joy moved through the city, followed by a collective sigh of relief. People described how four years of stress suddenly left their bodies. For many, it meant the nightmare was over.

But for those of us who pay closer attention, we know it’s not over. Not only will he not concede, but the damage of division has left deep scars. We must count all the votes again, and possibly again after that. The eyes of the nation are upon us, as the balance of the U.S. Senate depends on us to get our people out to the polls, again.

Life has been too full lately. Too dramatic. Too angering. Too joyous. Too confusing. Too sad. Too lonely. Too much.

This weekend I grabbed a set of binoculars and watched a great blue heron. If you want to see a heron do something, you must wait quietly, because they can stand still for a very long time. I admired how its neck both coils up, and stretches out tall and straight. How its feathers drape around its body like a designer feather boa. How its strong, slightly webbed toes claw into the earth to steady its body.

I saw the heron catch a fish and eat it. Then it flew off in its linear formation, with its neck tucked up and its legs straight behind.

Be still for a moment and catch a second breath.

And then let the work begin, again!

Here’s Where it All Stands

State Senate 40: Did I mention that I was reelected to serve as the Senator of the 40th distinct, with 60.5% of the vote? Thank you for all your help in this success! I am honored to serve another term.

Biden Votes: After all the votes were cast and counted, Biden won Georgia by about 14,000 votes. This is actually a larger margin than he has in Arizona, which ended up being around 10,000 votes.

The Recount: The hand recount is now underway across Georgia. I’ve been watching a live webcam of the vote counters in DeKalb county, and it looks like a very neat and orderly operation. Every vote and all of the counting is checked by a second person. Plenty of monitors are watching to make sure there are no shenanigans. We are all proud of Sabrina Rahim, Senate 40 resident and poll worker, who was hired as a vote counter and is giving us reports each day. Here’s what she had to say after Day One: “I have a lot of confidence in the process. We had observers and monitors, many from the Carter Center. No one worked alone. No one could have cheated even if they wanted to. It was quite remarkable how streamlined the entire system was.” Let’s hope Sabrina’s observations are true all over the state.

I know the idea of a hand count makes us all nervous due to potential human error or dishonest actions, and since the hand count is the final certified count. But please remember that the new voting system is also being evaluated with this hand count, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger does not want his expensive new machines to fail. The hand count also serves as an audit of the QR code that was scanned to count your vote.

I consider Trump’s criticism of our recount an assault on all our voices and a threat to our democracy. He has called the recount, which he requested and is not paying for, a scam, because we are not matching signatures. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that our votes are secret. I also find Governor Kemp’s silence on this matter very distressing.

Run-offs and Absentee Ballots: Three state-wide races were pushed into runoffs — Warnock, Ossoff, and Daniel Blackman, who is running for the Public Service Commission. Early voting begins for these races on December 14th, culminating on Election Day January 5th. Request your absentee ballot NOW for this election, and get others to do the same. This is a race that will be decided by turnout. Don’t assume people will vote — tell them the importance of bringing balance to the U.S. Senate by electing two Democrats here in Georgia, explain how to get a ballot, and encourage them to use a dropbox.

The Georgia Legislature: Sadly, we did not get the gains we wanted in the Georgia Senate or House. We gained three seats in the House, but lost the Minority Leader’s district, Rep. Bob Trammell. Republicans targeted his district with over a million dollars of negative campaigning. We will miss Rep. Trammell. In the Senate we gained one seat. Later next year, when the legislature convenes in a Special Session for redistricting, we will need grassroots volunteers to scream loudly with an anti-gerrymandering message.

What you can do: For four years now many of us in DeKalb have been helping to build up the DeKalb Democratic Party, and we are ready for this moment, so please volunteer and donate to the DeKalb Dems if you can. There is a “Take Back the Senate ALL CALL” Tuesday night, Nov. 17th from 7 – 7:30pm. There are 500,000 registered voters in DeKalb, and the county votes 82% Democratic. DeKalb alone has the power to swing the U.S. Senate back into balance!

Remember to tell your friends to request their absentee ballot NOW at https://ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov/ 

I will be co-hosting a fundraiser for Daniel Blackman for Public Service Commission on Friday, Nov. 20th at 5pm. Here’s his website – you should check him out. If you’d like to register for the event, please do so here, and donate at https://actblue.com/donate/daniel-for-georgia-1.

Warnock and Ossoff are also accepting contributions. Ossoff, due to the national spotlight of the 6th District Congressional race in 2017, has a funding base, but Warnock is not as well known in politics, so he could probably use more local help.

Remember that blue heron I mentioned?  He quietly waited for just the right moment to catch his dinner. Thousands of people across Georgia have been working quietly behind the scenes for years, just to prepare for this moment. We are ready to make the catch! Please do what you can to help us.

Photos by John Boydston. Follow him on Instagram – @johnboydstonphoto

Photos by John Boydston. Follow him on Instagram – @johnboydstonphoto

If you are like me, you are feeling extremely anxious right now. Will voters be safe Tuesday? Are we going to win? When will we know? If we do win, how are Trump and his followers going to react?

As we fasten our seat belts for this wild ride, remember that we are all in this together. Take a moment to ponder with me your answer to one very important question —

What if we win? What if we take the Presidency, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House?

We must not think our work is finished. We must prepare to work even harder to bring about the change our country so desperately needs.

We’ve built an incredible network of grassroots advocates over the last four years, but we need to keep our eye on the prize.

We didn’t build our network to defeat Trump, and we didn’t build it to elect Democrats.

We built it to ensure everyone has healthcare and quality public education, from cradle to career.

We built it to enact environmental policies that reverse global warming and save our earth from harm.

We built it to pass gun safety laws, to close the income equality gap, and to bring about racial justice.

Don’t expect policy changes to happen quickly just because we elected candidates with “D”s after their names. We, the People – the ones who put our leaders in power – must lead our communities to progress.

And if we are loud enough, the leaders we elected will follow us.

We must push our leaders to act decisively and boldly. We have so much damage to our nation, our processes, and our people to repair.

First, we must communicate with our elected officials that now is not the time for status-quo. The Republican party has taken a chainsaw to our government, and we cannot allow them any further opportunities to destroy our democracy. We will not turn a blind eye nor compromise on issues critical to our survival.

Second, we must insist that our elected officials respond first to us, rather than the powerful corporate lobbyists who hang out in the halls of our Capitol.

Many pundits are estimating that we’ll only have a narrow window of two years to get our most important work done. History has shown that two years into a new administration, the House can shift back. The first year, we must restore trust, get the virus under control, and a vaccine rolled out. And to demonstrate the government can work for the People, we also must enact progressive economic policies to deal with the economic impact of the virus, like enacting a minimum living wage, no-interest small business loans for entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color who have been hit hard by the pandemic. We need bailouts for daycares, and subsidies for childcare for working parents and all caretakers, to allow everyone to get back to business. We need paid leave so workers can stay home when they are sick, or need to care for sick family members. And we need healthcare for everyone.

If We the People remain focused and active in civic life, we can help make sure our politicians do the work we need them to do now, and this will in turn help them get reelected. It will help us heal the rifts in our communities. 

We know that some Trump supporters, who have believed every lie they have been told, will continue to feel fear, hatred, and anger if we win.

We cannot and will not tolerate hateful actions, threats, and violence.

We must also ignore the far right’s attempts to bait us. This may mean we walk past former friends, family members, and colleagues with whom we disagree vehemently, or who we feel have hurt us through their support for Trump.

We will have a job to do: we must work even harder than we did to win these elections. We must double down to promote and protect human rights, justice, and equality for everyone in our communities.

We will make sure our voices are louder than conspiracy theories, hate, and corporate interests. We will make sure our democracy stays a democracy that reflects the will of the People.

So first, make sure you and all your friends vote so that we have a chance at winning. Then, think about what you will do next to help us move forward if we win.

Photograph credit, Tina Gutierrez, my friend from college. Check out her social justice photography, as well as her amazing underwater photography.

https://www.tinagutierrezartsphotography.com