Courtesy Taylor Bennett
Three months ago, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, to become a DeKalb County judge. Amid a string of unlikely events, which included the death of state Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, and the abrupt resignation of state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, the fight to become Brookhaven’s next legislator turned into more than just a local race. It’s now one that could end the GOP supermajority that has rendered Democratic votes futile.
On August 11, Brookhaven voters will decide in a special election runoff who will replace Jacobs. Three attorneys—Democrat Taylor Bennett, Republican Catherine Bernard, and Libertarian Loren Collins—and former Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis entered the race. In a Republican-leaning district, Bennett emerged as the top vote getter in the special election. But since no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, Bennett and Davis moved on to the heated runoff.
Bennett, who played quarterback at Georgia Tech and professionally in Europe, works as a lawyer representing employees in discrimination lawsuits. He decided to run for Jacobs’ seat after watching the Brookhaven representative vote against his party members to table the “religious freedom” bill, a measure that could allow business owners to deny service to LGBT people, during a House judiciary committee last March. Bennett, whose mother is openly gay, wanted to run to ensure further attempts to pass a “religious freedom” bill would be defeated. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has already stated that he will bring back his legislation for the third consecutive year in 2016.
“Equal rights is a humanity issue, not a partisan issue,” Bennett says. “When I saw it was still a hotbed issue, it’s my belief that Jacobs’ replacement would support it, that the bill could go to the House floor for a vote, and we could be sitting in a different situation for the LGBT community.”
If elected, Bennett also wants to look at potentially ending some corporate tax credits to free up cash for schools. He also says lawmakers should be supportive of MARTA’s $8 billion transit expansion plan that’s expected to be a major issue discussed during the 2016 legislative session.
“We need to kick those [MARTA plans] into overdrive,” Bennett says. “This is not about just spending money, it’s an investment of capital, and people need to be invested in this individually. It’ll affect metro Atlanta and the state. We’re the gateway to everywhere in the Southeast.”
Davis—who declined an interview to discuss his candidacy, after spending several minutes on the phone inquiring about the article’s intent—has run a campaign that calls for tax cuts and greater investment in the region’s roads and transit. He’s also billed himself as a proponent of reform to both the state’s ethics laws and DeKalb County’s dysfunctional government.
Despite Bennett’s surprising finish as the top vote-getter (who received some help of Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson Jr., his former college roommate), Republican voters previously split between Bernard and Davis are expected to consolidate around the former Brookhaven mayor. That could spell problems for Bennett in a district that has had Republican representation since 2007. He is also now facing an ethics complaint for failing to file his personal financial disclosure before a deadline—something Bennett says he immediately resolved once he became aware of the missed deadline.
But there’s an opening for Bennett amid a sexual harassment accusation against Davis over allegedly spraying a women’s buttocks with an aerosol can filled with air freshener. The former mayor has denied wrongdoing, though others have cried foul over a coverup of the incident. Bennett, who coincidentally represents workers involved in sexual harassment cases, declined to comment on the Davis allegation but used it to call for stronger ethics laws.
“I don’t know the details,” Bennett says. “Regardless of what happened, openness and transparency is required. When a coverup happens, that’s why we should have laws in place to prevent things from happening.”
Should Bennett beat Davis, Georgia House Republicans would lose their effective supermajority (state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, tends to vote with the GOP). Why’s that important? Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, says Democratic lawmakers would be able to block GOP-backed constitutional amendments that now sail past them untouched. If that happens, he says, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, would need to unify her entire caucus to make the 60-representative block work to her party’s advantage.
“What we’ve seen is that Abrams is pretty savvy in playing her hand for all it’s worth,” Bullock says. “It might allow her to talk to GOP leadership to get something in return.”
House Republicans would still have the upper hand on many votes during the 2016 legislative session. Yet Taylor’s victory would represent an important victory not just in Brookhaven, but across the entire state.