Right Now It’s Bad.

For most of my life, I’ve heard the Republican Party spin doomsday scenarios should Democrats gain political control. They’ve claimed the economy would suffer due to higher taxes and big government. Affordable Care Act death panels would hand out death sentences to those unworthy of healthcare.  Al Qaeda would gain influence under Obama. And yet when Democrats won, none of those things happened.

Today is no different. If Biden wins, they say Communism would take root in our country. If people vote by mail, they say voter fraud would undermine our election.  We’re all sick and tired of hearing this false rhetoric.

The reality is, the Affordable Care Act has saved hundreds of thousands of lives simply by making healthcare available and affordable to more Americans. And Bin Laden was taken down during Obama’s administration. And Democrats pulled us out of the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

It seems that Republicans have found themselves caught in a “Chicken Little” loop – if anyone they disagree with is in power, a mysterious and terrible “threat” to their idea of America is at risk.

But the irony is that while Republicans wallow in the doom of what “could be,” a different dystopia is already here: our for-profit healthcare system of “haves” and “have nots” is already choosing who lives and dies. Our citizens are being kidnapped or killed by law enforcement officers and plain clothed para-military. Our economy is in the tank because of the uncontained spread of COVID-19. And right here in Georgia we elected a woman to Congress who is willing to show off military-grade guns in preparation for acting out against other politicians who simply disagree with her ideas.

These atrocities against our Constitution, our human rights, our human decency, and our democracy have happened because of Republican fear mongering.

But the future has yet to be written. 

In Georgia, Republican budgets have cut ten billion dollars from our public schools over the last decade while offering tax credits for private and religious schools. Our Governor is proposing to dismantle access to the national Affordable Care Act website, replacing it with for-profit brokers selling plans directly, including junk plans that rip-off hard working Georgians, leaving them with huge gaps in care in the middle of a pandemic.

By submitting your ballot, you can do something about it.

We can rebuild Georgia’s economy by ensuring that people are safe when they venture out to do business. We can make sure our unemployed have the money they need to live, and the training they need to re-enter the workforce.

We can make sure every Georgian has healthcare.

We can protect our school children from gun violence with gun safety reform.

We can treat undocumented immigrants with dignity, and protect their human rights.

We can end police and criminal justice system brutality against Black citizens through greater social services funding and stronger measures to hold law enforcement accountable for abuse of their power and malpractice.

Any one of these is reason enough to build a better now… and the future will take care of itself.

Give what you can. Make a plan to vote. Volunteer your time, if you are able. We have until November 3rd to save our country.

I firmly believe that we must have a diversity of voices to ensure a thriving democracy. It follows that to protect our country from tyranny, we must make voting easily accessible to everyone.

Two years ago on election night, my campaign volunteers retrieved vote counts directly from all 48 precincts throughout the district. When totaled, my opponent had slightly more votes, but we knew we still needed to add in the early votes. We did the math, and it was clear I had won. My opponent called to concede, and he pointed out that my winning totals came from early voters—insinuating that if “those people” had not voted, he would have won.

The Republican approach to voting has not changed: their constant voter suppression tactics show they don’t want you to vote unless you are voting for them. And adding to the confusion of the pandemic, Republicans are trying to sow distrust in voting-by-mail.

If Trump wins the election day vote, many democracy experts are concerned that he will try to call the election based exclusively on election day numbers. Those who voted by mail or who voted early risk being marginalized and disenfranchised. If this happens, we must call it what it is, a coup: “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this administration already has employed tyranny to achieve its goals. Civil and human rights have been violated when people use their voices peacefully for change. They have been subjected to excessive force from riot squads. They have been pulled into unmarked vans by federal agents. They have been told that if they believe that Black Lives Matter then they are the enemy – simply for exercising their constitutional right to free speech and peaceable assembly.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump later calls all early voters and mail-in voters a threat to America.

We must use our vote even if we are worried about the sanctity of our election and its processes. We must make our voices heard so overwhelmingly that they cannot be ignored.

We cannot allow this administration and local Republican leaders to pervert the peaceful exercise of our constitutional rights into “threats” or “anti-American” actions.

Here is what you can do today to help make sure your voice and your vote counts:

Know Someone Who’s Not Registered? Maybe a grandchild, or someone’s girl/boyfriend? Get them registered to vote before October 5th so they can vote in November. I recommend registering on-line at https://registertovote.sos.ga.gov/. It takes 3 to 4 weeks to process and the deadline is October 5, so do it today!

Absentee Ballot Tips: Ballots are beginning to arrive. Now what? Here are some tips from DeKalb Board of Elections Member, Susan Motter. Please share these tips with others. Many people are voting by absentee ballot for the first time.

  1. Read the instructions before completing your ballot!!! And read them again.
  2. Use a black or blue pen.  Do NOT use a Sharpie as it will BLEED through the ballot which is a two-sided ballot.
  3. Completely fill the ovals.  Do not use Xs or check marks.
  4. Tear off the stub at the top of the ballot. This applies to ballots mailed between now and October 16 as these ballots are coming from the SOS vendor in AZ. If you do not tear off the stub, elections staff will spend hours tearing them off as the scanners are unable to scan the length of the ballots with the stubs on.
  5. Insert your ballot in the smaller white envelope and seal it.
  6. Don’t forget to sign the back of the larger return envelope (yellow). Also now is NOT the time to try some crazy new signature or be lazy when signing. Treat your signature with the same solemnity you likely had when you registered to vote.
  7. Return your ballot as soon as possible by dropping it in a secure drop box!

 

Constitutional Amendments, Referendums, and Special Elections 

You’re ready to vote, but what about those amendments and referendums? And what about that Special Election with 21 candidates?

Special election to replace Sen. Isakson: The list of 21 candidates includes Republicans and Democrats. The best chance for a Democrat to make the run-off is to coalesce around a single choice, which is Raphael Warnock. The names are in alphabetical order and he appears near the bottom of this rather long list.

Constitutional Amendment 1: Dedication of Fees.
Through the years, the Georgia General Assembly has passed legislation requiring certain fees to go into specific trust funds. Examples include the Tire Disposal Fee, which is supposed to be used to clean up landfills and dumps; and surcharges on traffic fines, which are supposed to be used for drivers’ education. However, during times of economic hardship, these funds are often diverted into other causes that are considered more urgent. So in essence, the legislature has not kept its word. Amendment One fixes this problem. It proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow legislators to dedicate fee revenue for specific purposes for up to 10 years, at which time it can be renewed. But if there is a financial crisis, the legislature could suspend the fee allocation and free up the revenue to go into the general fund to cover things like education and healthcare. Vote YES.

Constitutional Amendment 2: Waives State & Local Sovereign Immunity.
Government is generally protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which says a citizen cannot sue the government. Amendment Two allows Georgia residents to sue state and local governments to stop unconstitutional laws or laws that violate state law. This constitutional amendment, if passed, reverses a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that required Georgians to seek permission from the government to sue the government. Vote YES

Statewide Referendum: Property Tax Exemption.
Exempts property tax on single family homes built by charities such as Habitat for Humanity. Vote YES

DeKalb Ethics: The DeKalb Ethics Board has been dormant since the Georgia Supreme Court ruled its appointment process unconstitutional. The first attempt to fix this through a referendum would have weakened ethics enforcement and voters accordingly voted it down. During the 2020 session, legislators went back to work and passed a bill that maintains the force of the original Ethics Board. I recommend voting YES.

Gwinnett Referenda: Schools and Transit. Gwinnett county residents will decide whether to extend a one-cent sales tax for schools (E-SPLOST) and a 30-year one-cent tax for transit (T-SPLOST), including extending the MARTA rail line from Doraville to Jimmy Carter Blvd. Vote YES.

City Referenda: Brookhaven residents will decide whether or not to remove term limits for the office of Mayor, and Atlanta residents will vote on extending the $30,000 homestead exemption to homes built on nonprofit land trusts (only a handful of properties are built using this arrangement).

If you appreciate these emails and haven’t donated to my re-election campaign yet, please consider doing so now. Today is an important disclosure deadline and Election Day is around the corner.  I must be able to fend off any attempts by Republicans to reclaim this district. Any amount helps!

From Hazel Segall in Dunwoody: “We all decided that Absentee voting was easy, convenient, secure, COVID-19 safe, and we could wear our campaign swag.

Senate 40 volunteers appearing from left to right: Debi Shendelman, Alice Wertheim, Hazel Segall, Muriel Knope and Angela Minyard.

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair.  Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.”
–John Lewis, 1940 – 2020

2020’s Last Stand

When the pandemic started last March, we dealt with uncertainty by dividing time into manageable “chunks.” We put off making decisions, hoping a little extra time would bring the magic answers we sought. Somehow, over time, we’ve let go of certainty and settled into a new normal.

Six months have now passed. Spring heated up into summer, and now the crisp feeling of fall is beginning to creep into the air. And believe it or not, six weeks from now, all votes will have been cast, and the direction of our country will be decided for the next four years, and more.

If you’re like me, the closer election day gets, the more my anxiety level soars.

Just as everyone has made a “Plan to Vote,” we also need to make a “Plan to Cope.” The need to take care of your own mental health is very real. Here are some things I find calming.

Visit Nat Silver’s 538 Website: I don’t really trust polls, but Nate Silver came closest to predicting Trump’s win in 2016, so I tend to trust him. The website is updated daily. The predictions look hopeful.

Be good to yourself: And know you are not alone.

Get Outside and Exercise: When the pandemic started last spring, I found a daily walk refreshing. Then it got too hot, but now cooler fall temperatures are rolling in. This fall, I plan to participate in the “Face Mask Run” 5/10K. Not only does it feel good to get outside and walk, you get some really cool swag featuring the “Hope is not Cancelled” logo.

Read a Good Book or Binge on Netflix: I also enjoy escaping real life by reading fiction, and I recommend “The Henna Artist,” written by Alka Joshi, the sister of a friend and campaign supporter of mine.

Turn Off the News: If the news knocks your spirits down, turn it off. This applies to Facebook as well.

Do Something: If you need to volunteer from home I recommend the Georgia Postcard Project. Launched by Senate 40 resident Tricia Gephardt, her goal is to help turn Georgia blue by sending out 250,000 postcards with personal notes written to voters. Last I heard, they have written 200,000!

Pandemic Campaigning

I’ll be honest, campaigning during a pandemic feels like marching in a rain soaked parade. I’ve never liked making videos, and I miss in-person events. But as I’ve always said, it’s time for each of us to get out of our comfort zone, and do whatever it takes to save our country.

Despite the obstacles, we are still getting our message out to tens of thousands of Senate 40 residents.

Our first mail piece reminded voters to not wait until November 3 to vote, and to use a ballot dropbox if voting by mail. The mail postcard was a success, thanks to many of you who helped fund it. One voter contacted a campaign volunteer to say, “I was really dreading trying to figure out how to get an absentee ballot and then figure out what to do with it after voting. The postcard from Sally Harrell with the website made it easy to go to the link, put in the request, and the postcard also informed me about ballot dropboxes. Knowledge is power! Thought you’d want to know since you work with and support her campaign. She’s got our vote.

In addition to yard signs, handwritten postcards, and campaign literature distribution in apartment complexes, we have several more informative mail pieces going out to voters. We still need help raising the dollars needed for postage, so if you can make a donation, please scroll down to the bottom of this email.

After the Vote, It’s Back to Work We Go!

2021 will be a challenging year for the Georgia legislature and I am prepared to deliver the leadership necessary.

Following the November election, the Governor has said he might immediately call a Special Session. The legislature has no procedure for remote voting, so all sessions will be held In-Person.

We must closely monitor state revenues and write a budget that stimulates the economy so families and businesses can thrive again. It is possible that our regular 40-day session will be spread throughout the calendar year so we can base our budget on actual revenue numbers rather than estimates.

We must continue to work with the Georgia Department of Public Health to control the spread of the virus so schools, long term care facilities, and businesses can thrive. Hopefully this will include rolling out a safe and effective vaccine.

And finally, assuming U.S. Census numbers are ready, we will meet in another Special Session to redraw political districts, from Local School Boards to County Commissions, to Congress. How we approach this will determine the political environment for the next decade.

If there’s one thing people have learned in the last few years, it’s who we elect matters, personally. In the last six months, elected officials have determined if your kids can go to school, whether your unemployment check arrives, how we vote, and how safe it is to go out in public.

When I put my name on the ballot, I made a commitment to the people of Georgia to serve, through good times as well as hard times. We’re in the hard times now, and I remain committed to you, your Senator for the 40th district.

As the most important election of our lifetime approaches, it is critical to get this message out: “Do not wait until the last day to vote!” Request an absentee ballot now, or make a plan to vote early in-person.

I want to get this word out to 20,000 Democrats in Senate 40, but the $10,000 needed for postage and printing costs is not yet in our budget. So far, we’ve raised around $6,000 earmarked for this mailing. For every dollar you contribute, we can reach two more voters. How many voters can you help us reach with this important message?  Use this link to support this mailing: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/sd40-vote-early .

Secretary of State Releases New Absentee Ballot Request Website

If you have not yet requested your ballot for the November election, the Secretary of State’s new website, https://ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov/,  makes it easier. Just grab your driver’s license or State ID number and complete the entire process on-line. No printing, stamps, or emailing. 

If you have already requested your ballot for the November election, you do not need to request it again. If you do not have a driver’s license or state issued ID, you can request your ballot using the PDF on the My Voter Page at https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/

In Georgia, you must request an absentee (mail-in) ballot for every single election, unless you are over 65 or disabled, and you have checked the box to get ballots mailed to you for the entire election cycle. If you have not done this, or don’t qualify, you must submit a new request each time.

If you have any questions, call the Georgia Democratic Party Voter Protection Hotline at 888-730-5816. 

 

Why use the new website? Your ballot request will be processed by a dedicated vendor instead of your local election office. This will free up time for election staff to train poll workers.

When will ballots be mailed? The mailing of ballots will start September 15th. Please check My Voter Page to track the mailing and acceptance of your ballot. The sooner you sent your request, the sooner you’ll get your ballot.

Why Vote-by-Drop-Box? If you don’t feel safe voting in person, using a drop box ensures your ballot will arrive on time. And, since in-person voting will be crowded, Voting-by-Drop-Box helps shorten the lines so more people can vote. Drop boxes are monitored by 24-hour camera, bolted down, and emptied daily. No postage is required if you drop your ballot in an official ballot dropbox (not a mailbox). For an up-to-date list of ballot drop boxes please see the “Voter Info” page on my website at https://sallyharrell.org/vote/

 

It’s Not Too Late to Complete the Census!

Census workers are now masking up and going door-to-door in hard to count areas. Last I heard, Georgia’s total count was 3% behind the national average. And, the President bumped up the final date for door-to-door canvassing by an entire month. Visit https://2020census.gov/en/how-to-help.html, to help spread the word.

 

Virus Spread — Cautiously Optimistic

For several weeks now, I’ve been watching COVID-19 metrics improve. But with school starting back, I figured things would change. However, I still remain cautiously optimistic. The metro Atlanta area appears to be doing much better than the rest of Georgia. Based on my own observations, I find people in the Atlanta area are much better about wearing masks, so I’ve personally come to the conclusion that masks work. Now is not the time to let up on any precautions you are taking. 

 

Healthcare Workers

One of the key factors of making it through this pandemic is protecting our healthcare workforce. This means PPE, but it also means mental health. Our healthcare workers are experiencing trauma, and we must be ready to take care of them now and in the future. I will be working with the Georgia Hospital Association to enact policies to radically support our healthcare workers.

 

Students, Teachers and Parents

The lives of students, teachers and parents of school-aged children have been turned upside down. Parents are managing virtual, at-home instruction while keeping up with full-time jobs. Teachers are working long, exhausting days. Students miss their friends and their “normal” lives. Please reach out and support these families. And thank them for keeping us safe.

 

Finally, if you are able, please make a donation to help us tell 20,000 Democrats, “Do not wait until the last day to vote!”

https://secure.actblue.com/donate/sd40-vote-early

Vote by Drop Box

You don’t need to use the United States Post Office to cast your vote.

Nor do you need to vote In-Person using one of Georgia’s expensive new touchscreen machines.

As Karen Mixon, 1st Vice Chair of the DeKalb Democrats says, “Drop Boxes are one of the most powerful weapons to fight voter suppression in November. Please go ahead and apply for absentee ballot ASAP.

I agree with Karen, and so do the voting rights advocates I’ve spoken with recently. Order your paper absentee ballot today and plan to drop it in one of the new drop boxes located around the counties.

Delivering your paper ballot to a drop box not only protects your health and your vote — it frees up space during In-Person Voting (October 12 – November 3). The June 9th primary brought out crowds of unexpected Democratic voters who had to wait in lines for hours. The more people who Vote by Dropbox, the shorter the In-Person lines, resulting in less voter suppression.

Please help spread the word to your friends and neighbors to order a ballot now, and use a drop box

More on Paper Ballots and Drop Boxes

Where are Drop Boxes located? The State Elections Board issued rules that require Drop Boxes to be placed on county or municipal property with 24-hour video streaming for security. If you live in a city, it’s likely a drop box will be located at your City Hall. The Georgia Democratic Party maintains a list of Drop Box locations state-wide. Keep in mind that you must use a Drop Box located in the county where you are registered to vote.

How do I request a Paper Absentee Ballot? Right now, the best way to request a ballot is through Georgia’s My Voter Page. Enter your name, county and birthday, then click Submit. Look for the link titled “Absentee Ballot Application.” Print it, fill it out, sign it, then either mail or email it to your County Election Office. Call the Democratic Party of Georgia Voter Protection Hotline at 1-888-730-5816 if you have any questions. If you email the application, be sure to double check the email address before you hit send! These ballot requests are processed and mailed from your County Elections Office, and the mailing of ballots begins in mid-September. You can check back on the My Voter Page to get updates about the processing of your request and your ballot after you return it.

DeKalb county will soon be sending Absentee Ballot Requests to all DeKalb voters, active and inactive! Thank you, DeKalb! We expect this will help increase participation, like it did for the Primary election. To my knowledge, other metro counties are not planning on mailing applications to voters.

Also, in a few weeks, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office will unveil a new Absentee Ballot Request Website. Voters will enter their name, birthdate, and driver’s license or state ID number. Ballots ordered through this website will be processed and mailed by a private vendor in Arizona. Voters without a driver’s license or state ID can still use the forms from the My Voter Page to request a ballot from their County Elections Office.

More on Voting-in-Person

Vote-by-Mail utilization jumped from 5% of the electorate to 50% during the 2020 Primaries. This trend is expected to continue. This will help shorten lines during In-Person Voting, which starts on October 12 — just 58 days from today.

If you vote in person, you will be using new, touchscreen machines. These machines produce a printed ballot. Please carefully check that your selections are correct on this ballot. The printout is not a receipt — it is a ballot that must be scanned to tally your vote. Don’t leave the polling place with the printout, or your vote won’t be counted! Unfortunately, the scanner does not read the printed list of names — it reads a barcode that you cannot check. This is one of the reasons I voted against the purchase of these new machines.

If you prefer to vote in person, please vote during the Early Voting period. Don’t wait until the last day, when lines will be much longer.

Volunteer Opportunities at the Polls

It is expected that millions of people across Georgia will cast their votes in person between Oct 12 and Nov 3 this year. During the June primary, there were lots of technical issues that resulted in delays for voters. We need to recruit thousands of people to work the polls in order to reduce delays and make these new machines work as smoothly as possible.

There are many ways you can help if you are able:

Poll Watchers: Poll Watchers are trained and officially certified volunteers who are assigned to a polling place to watch the entire voting process while documenting and reporting any problems observed.

Poll Workers: Poll Workers are hired, trained and paid by your county of residence. Expect to work long days during Early Voting as well as Election Day. Poll Workers are involved in the inner workings of election administration.

The Georgia Youth Poll Workers Project: Recruit your kids and grandkids to help! Polling places were short-handed during the June Primary because many older poll workers could not work due to the virus. The Georgia Youth Poll Workers Project, led by Georgia State University graduate Evan Malbrough, seeks to recruit 5,000 students to be poll workers in the Atlanta area. Sign up here.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler Spurns Legislators

This week, Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) Commissioner Mark Butler cancelled his call with the Senate Democratic Caucus, saying:

“Due to threats to protest at the Commissioner’s personal residence by members of the Democratic Caucus and the recent protests that almost started a riot at a GDOL location, we will be cancelling the meeting scheduled for August 5, 2020 at 2 p.m.”

If you had been at the GDOL location like I was, you might have been surprised to see the approximately 50 people attending the press conference described as “protests that almost started a riot,” and no legislators have threatened Butler’s residence.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner has kept the GDOL offices closed to the public since March, and tens of thousands of unemployment claims have yet to be processed. Right next door, the Department of Drivers Services is fully open and serving the public.

I attended the Democratic Caucus-organized press conference in Gwinnett last Wednesday along with constituent Douglas Weinstein and his college-aged son, Jack. A few weeks ago, Douglas called me because he was locked out of his account due to a simple PIN issue. He called the GDOL repeatedly and couldn’t reach anyone to help. Without his unemployment benefits, he didn’t have the gas money he needed to travel to Tennessee to pick up Jack from school. Instead of getting help from GDOL, he found someone with the technical skills to find his PIN in his computer’s cache so he could access his account.

The press conference I went to last week was like many others being organized by Democrats in Georgia – peaceful and constructive. Attendees share the stress of mounting debt and the fear of pending evictions. Legislators explain how they are working hard to try to fix this mess. And the local press spreads the word.

Yet Commissioner Butler calls these rallies “a threat.”

Commissioner Butler doesn’t understand how important it is to our democracy that Georgia’s citizens are heard. He also misunderstands exactly how he is responsible when he allows thousands of phone calls from Georgia citizens to go unanswered. GDOL being overwhelmed is understandable. Being inaccessible is unconscionable.

But it’s difficult to make Commissioner Butler comprehend these issues when he cancels our conference call.

Later in the week, he released another statement to WSB-TV:

“We here at the Georgia Department of Labor are very disappointed in the actions of certain members of the Georgia State Legislature. … we implemented a process for these elected officials to forward information to our office regarding older claims.”

It isn’t working.

I worked directly with the GDOL to design the process, and I have forwarded more than one hundred claimants’ problems to the GDOL myself.

Unfortunately, despite my efforts, many of the same people are calling me back, telling me no one from GDOL ever contacted them. What other choice do I have to make the GDOL pay attention but to stand with my constituents and amplify their voices through the press?

For example, my office has been communicating with a homeless veteran for about five weeks, and we turned in his name and phone number to the GDOL. He still has no benefits, and he told me he had only $2.78 left.

But Commissioner Butler would rather duck and cover than help people like this veteran who served his country.

I called the GDOL legislative liaison and begged for someone to call this man. She said they would, but the veteran tells me his phone has not rung yet. He’s scared to even take a shower for fear he’ll miss the call.

A kind constituent heard the veteran’s story and sent him enough cash to buy food for several more weeks.

Many of you reached out to me when I shared a similar story about a single mom who only had $10 left. I followed up with her, and her benefits did finally come through, so she’s okay.

The GDOL may have abandoned Georgians in need, but we don’t have to. If you are in a position to offer a random act of kindness, like sharing some money, or delivering some meals, please fill out this form (Click here to sign up) and let us know. We will keep a log of “random act of kindness” volunteers. When my administrative assistant, Keridan Ogletree, talks to people in crisis, she’ll let me know if there’s some way you can help.

Never has it been more clear that our leadership either is incapable or unwilling to fulfill their obligations to our people during this extraordinary crisis. Georgia deserves better.


P.S. Even during these trying times, I still need to fund my re-election campaign. The Governor has threatened to call another Special Session of the legislature. If he does, the law says I can’t fund raise while in session. If you can send a contribution now, it will help hold this seat, and I can keep up the “good and necessary trouble.” My campaign relies heavily on small contributions to diminish the power of special interests. If you haven’t given yet, please consider it now! Online contributions make it easy, and every amount helps. Please give what you are able. I promise I will continue to “disappoint” our Commissioner of Labor!

Hope Isn’t Cancelled

Georgia’s Governor is running our state like an authoritarian dictatorship, and it’s not sitting well with local leaders. In a recent AJC “Power Poll”, respondents made it clear that local elected leaders should be able to protect their communities with public health ordinances that are more strict than the Governor’s orders. As Doraville City Council Member Stephe Koontz stated, “Local conditions will many times require laws that are stricter than state laws. … Let us do the job the people elected us to do!” As these voices of local leadership rise in unison, it tells me that “hope isn’t cancelled.”

 

Here’s What is Not Going Well

Our hospital ICUs are teetering on full: On June 30th, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency reported 1,459 active COVID-19 hospitalizations. As of July 30th, that number has more than doubled to 3,200. The AJC reported Athens and Tifton have run out of critical care beds. Another rural hospital, Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center, has decided to close its doors. Located in the town of Cuthbert, the hospital is unable to recover from the financial blow COVID-19 brought last spring. Cuthbert is in one of the hardest hit regions of the state.

Testing struggles to meet the need: All 50 states must compete for supplies, due to the massive failure of Trump’s leadership. Public labs have been inadequately funded for years, and private labs are so backlogged results come in too late to support effective contact tracing. Georgia is testing at one-third the national average (GA: 501 per 100,000 people; National Average: 1,657 per 100,000 people).

Schools and universities are about to open: When Governor Kemp allowed summer youth camps to open last spring, he unknowingly initiated an experiment about whether children can be spreaders. After an outbreak at north Georgia YMCA camps, the CDC took note. Seventy-five percent of the YMCA campers and staff tested were positive for COVID-19. The overall rate of infection was 44%, which is an undercount, because this includes 250 for whom test results were not available.

Ambulance services may become inadequate: Over the last decade, ambulance services have been privatized. Operating on a profit motive means that medical transport companies constantly strive for a sweet spot — how few ambulances can they maintain in the fleet and still arrive in time without someone dying? Every time an ambulance is “stalled” at a hospital due to admissions delays, the overall fleet is reduced which slows response times. And the ambulance companies, instead of adding to their fleet, point fingers at the hospitals. What that means is that right now, if you need an ambulance, it might not be there for you.

 

Here’s What Can Still be Done

Be Careful: Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch recently shared some advice from a local doctor, who reported that his number of weekly patients sick with COVID-19 had risen from 5 to 30. Though patients reported having been “careful,” three situations were commonly described: 1) outside cul-de-sac gatherings; 2) dining-in at restaurants; and 3) indoor family get-togethers. Now, even more than during April and May, it’s best to restrict your contact with people outside your immediate circles.

It’s Actually Not Hopeless: As more people personally know someone who has been hospitalized due to COVID-19, it’s hopeful that more people will take the situation seriously, reduce unsafe behavior, and start wearing a mask in public.

Hospitals Can Still Add Beds: In April, the Governor’s Executive Order called for surgi-centers and scheduled/elective surgeries to be temporarily halted. Though this Order ended in May, hospitals still have the option to pull that lever, making more room for COVID-19 patients. Additionally, all hospitals have “surge plans” in place, outlining how they will add beds and staff. Finally, according to GEMA data, only about half of the state’s ventilator supply is in use.

Fight the Governor’s “Local Governments Can’t be More Restrictive” Order: As the Governor threatens to sue and silence Atlanta Mayor Bottoms over her mask mandate and other restrictions, this week the Senate and House Democrats filed an opposition brief in Fulton County Superior Court. Last March, the Georgia General Assembly voted to give Governor Kemp broad emergency powers to protect the lives of Georgians. This power can also be revoked by the legislature. Brookhaven Rep. Matthew Wilson, who is taking the lead on the House side, stated in the AJC, “The governor’s lawsuit against Atlanta’s mayor and city council does the opposite of that — it puts more Georgians directly in harm’s way, all to score a few political points.” While Democrats don’t have the votes to overturn these gubernatorial emergency powers alone, pressure from cities all over Georgia, 100 of whom have passed their own mask mandates, could potentially influence Republicans to join Democrats in revoking the Governor’s emergency powers.


* I borrowed the phrase “Hope Isn’t Cancelled” from a 5/10K “on your own” Face Mask Run that donates part of your fee to purchase a front-line worker a take-out meal. And you get a t-shirt with the “Hope Isn’t Cancelled” logo. I’m planning on doing it. How about you?

P.S. Our Fundraising Committee is working hard to ensure we have enough money in our bank account to fight off any attempts by Republicans to regain Senate 40. If you haven’t contributed yet, we still need your help! Thanks to all who have donated already.

I cannot be quiet and do my job. Many of you helped me get elected, and the “Senator” you put in front of my name now amplifies my voice.

A couple weeks ago I told you about Georgians who have not yet received their unemployment benefits and are struggling to survive. Their pleas have still not been heard, so I brought out my senatorial megaphone to make some noise.

I was asked by the Senate Minority Leader to write an opinion piece for the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Georgia’s unemployment crisis.

Here’s that piece:

Georgia legislators have been hearing disturbing reports about the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) — reports that can be backed up by GDOL’s own data: Tens of thousands of Georgians cannot get through to GDOL to find out why they aren’t getting their unemployment benefits. Phone lines are busy and emails go unanswered. Some of their situations are dire, like a single mother I heard from who had $10 left and no food for her or her child.

The Georgia Department of Labor acknowledges that almost 10% of post-pandemic claimants, more than 100,000 people, have yet to receive any benefits.

Additional people report that their benefits suddenly stopped, and they can’t find out why. If even one small thing goes wrong, like an employer’s clerical error in a report, or a PIN that stops working, people are being left in the dark. When benefits stop, claimants have no way to reach the GDOL to resolve the issue.

Commissioner Mark Butler has said “Our overall commitment is at a level that one day historians may revisit and deem a noble effort.” I contend that the Department of Labor is falling far short of their “A” game. We are facing a humanitarian, health, and economic crisis, all wrapped in one, and relief is needed now.

We have to act immediately with the expectation that this pandemic is going to be around for a long time, and many industries will not recover. People need the benefit of time that unemployment payments offer them – time to find new jobs or retrain without ending up on the street in the middle of a pandemic with no food and no housing.

If we do nothing, GDOL’s failure will eventually cause damage to other parts of the economy: mortgages will go into default; evictions will spark a dramatic increase in homelessness; state and local governments as well as school systems will experience revenue shortfalls.

The Century Foundation, a think tank that studies unemployment systems, recommends technology options beyond simply relying on phone lines and email. For instance, they say the GDOL should update its technology with a queue system that allows for triaging the most needy cases, like the single mother with $10 in her pocketbook.

Hiring more workers to address the backlog would require training, which the Commissioner Butler has said they don’t have time for right now. But business as usual won’t work either.

Our Georgia National Guard has been successful in other pandemic response areas like helping to clean nursing homes, staffing hospital admissions and food banks, and running school lunch programs. Perhaps GDOL could use the Guard to answer phones and follow triage protocols, freeing up GDOL staff for the real problems.

The Governor and the Commissioner of Labor need to equip Georgia for the economic recovery they have been promising – by giving people time to handle a layoff, furlough, or dried up employment market. Our state has talented, committed people who have the ingenuity to fix this, but it’s going to require an acknowledgement first that the Department of Labor is failing our people.

Mask Madness, Civil Disobedience and John Lewis

Several weeks ago, I received a few dozen emails warning me that “Mandated medical interventions have no place in a free society.”

Yet requiring masks is one of the only tools we have left to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.

My grandmother, “Nana,” wrote in her memoir about being quarantined, once for the measles and once for diphtheria. “We were quarantined for three weeks. A card was tacked outside the door. No one could enter except my father who had to work.”

Nana’s experience reminded me how important it is for all of us to think more about the “we” than the “me” during a crisis.Thanks to modern medicine and vaccines, we no longer live as my grandmother did with the constant threat of childhood killers like measles, diphtheria, and polio. For this reason, I have long feared that our society has forgotten how much is at stake when we decide that our personal beliefs outweigh our moral obligation to live in community with one another.

Is a society that refuses to protect its citizens actually free? Or is that society held hostage by disease, superstition, and the lack of a moral conscience?

In Georgia, “conservative” ideological beliefs about the role of government are failing us – costing us lives and jobs. Our Governor has decided to add to these burdens a legal battle to force the City of Atlanta to remove its mandate for mask wearing in public places.

Hospitals are nearing capacity, and many are now unable to accept new patients while community spread soars. School systems and parents of school-aged children are faced with terrible choices whether they provide in-classroom learning or go virtual.

Yet, our Governor believes that everyone should be able to do what they want, no matter the cost to others around them. This is immoral, and it is anarchical thinking that inspires him to refuse to allow cities and counties to enforce their own ordinances to protect its citizenry. He has made us a tragic example of what not to do for societies in crisis.

It is time for civil disobedience from our local leaders.

One need look no further than our own late Congressman John Lewis to find the inspiration to take these steps. As a teenager, Lewis’ parents begged him to “lay low” and “stay out of trouble”, but an inner voice led him to defy his parents advice and dedicate his entire life to calling out and fighting iniquity, which sometimes meant getting into what he called “necessary trouble”.

It’s not time for our local leaders to “stay out of trouble.” It’s time to enforce the ordinances they have already passed. It’s time to defy our Governor.

P.S. If you can’t get through the Governor’s phone line (404) 656-1776, you can also submit a message digitally at the following link: https://gov.georgia.gov/contact-us/constituent-services. Choose “COVID-19 – other concerns” from the list of selections. There is a 400 character limit, so you must be concise. Please remember you can also mail letters to: The Office of the Governor, 206 Washington Street, Suite 203, State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334. Make your messages passionate and personal.

 


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John Lewis and Sally Harrell

 

 

 

Silence is a Strategy

The worse the news gets about Georgia’s COVID spread, the more silent the Governor’s office gets. And that’s no accident. Silence is being used as a strategic tool. The data I’ve studied says that COVID hospitalizations are rising quickly. Within a week or two, things could be really bad.  As I’ve often said, it’s time to “Be Loud!” If you want to know how the Governor intends to intervene, I suggest you call his office at 404-656-1776. Ask the Governor when he will step up with meaningful action to really fight this pandemic. And if he won’t do that, ask him to at least get out of the way and let local officials do what’s best for their own communities.

Just How Bad is it?

To answer this question, I compared numbers from Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) for June 30th and again for July 9th to get a sense of how quickly the situation is escalating. Here’s what I found.

The GEMA “Situation Report” divides Georgia into 14 regions and tracks the capacity and availability of in-patient and ICU beds. On June 30th, across the state, 75% of ICUs were in use, and 76% of in-patient beds. Nine days later, both these numbers have increased to 83%. At this rate, the situation could be dire by the end of the month.

At the regional level, on June 30th there were three regions with in-patient beds at 80% or higher. Now there are eight. Regions with ICU bed capacity at 80% or over went from six to nine, and regions with ICUs over 90% capacity shot up from zero on June 30 to six now. Ventilator availability is still good for now — only 35% of the ventilator supply is in use (up from 32% on June 30th).

Overall, every region saw an increase of in-patient admissions, ranging from a 1% increase in Augusta to a 23% increase in Columbus. ICU admissions increased in every region except the Dalton area, ranging from a 2% increase in Augusta to a 23% increase in Gainesville.

Georgia’s New Hot-Spots

On June 30th the regions with the highest increases in hospital admissions were Athens, as well as the Atlanta suburbs to the west (Cobb, Douglas & Paulding) and south (Henry Co. down I-75 to Macon). Now, according to the July 9th data, Columbus, Savannah, Brunswick, and Gainesville are also showing high numbers. Coastal Georgia is particularly worrisome, with ICU capacity at 99%.

Coastal Georgia and Columbus

The Savannah Morning News reports that cases quadrupled in June and continue to rise. Hospitals are adding bed space in meeting rooms and auditoriums and are postponing some non-COVID acute surgical care. PPE in Savannah seems to be in good supply. But here’s this — Memorial Hospital in Savannah stated that “the hospital system is planning for this situation to persist until March 2021.” St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah has purchased $600,000 worth of beds that they say will be in place by September 1st.

Columbus area hospitals, where GEMA reports a 23% increase in in-patient admissions, are being a bit more close-lipped. However, Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson is publishing some pretty scary data, and using it to urge people to wear masks and social distance. Savannah’s mayor recently defied the Governor’s order that no local government pass ordinances stronger than the State’s Executive Orders, by requiring masks to be worn. Other cities around the state have followed suit, and the Governor is fighting back claiming these orders are illegal.

Choosing Hope

The situation we are in is frightening and it’s easy to feel hopeless. I have said before, hope is a choice, and choice is embodied in action. So in the face of crisis, choose to do something. Call the Governor’s office and break his silence. Use the ballot box to change the direction of the county. Donate to a political campaign to help fight for humane leadership. The future of our country depends on it.


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