When conservative lawmakers start quoting scripture in their zest for anti-gay legislation, Josh Noblitt wants to hold them accountable. So the gay pastor and family therapist is running for a seat in the Georgia House.
“My background is as a minister and a therapist, and so relationship building is what I do for a living. And I really believe that that is a large part of what the legislative process is all about: is building and cultivating those relationships,” Noblitt tells Project Q Atlanta.
Noblitt, 38, is among three Democrats hoping to replace Rep. Margaret Kaiser in the District 59 seat. Kaiser, a progressive candidate who supports LGBT issues, isn't seeking another term so she can run for Atlanta mayor in 2017.
If Noblitt wins the race, he would join three other openly gay lawmakers at the state Capitol – Reps. Karla Drenner, Keisha Waites and Park Cannon. He would become the first openly gay man elected to the Georgia General Assembly. Noblitt is among eight LGBT candidates running for House seats this year, including the three incumbents.
“We are very competitive in this race. I am really excited about Election Day coming up. The year has gone by very quickly, I’ll just say, because we’ve been out there working for a full year, knocking on doors, and going to neighborhood meetings, and meeting as many people as possible, and I think our message is resonating,” Noblitt says.
Noblitt announced his candidacy in May and formally kicked off fundraising efforts in June. He faces two other Democrats – Janine Brown and David Dreyer – in the May 24 primary. And with no Republicans in the race, the primary (or a run-off) will decide the race.
Noblitt has raised $74,526 for the race and has $21,626 on hand, according to a campaign finance disclosure filed in late March. But that leaves him lagging in fundraising. Dreyer has raised $140,980 and has $125,211 on hand, while Brown has $52,508 on hand after taking in $85,288 in donations.
With an all-Democratic field competing for an open seat, and a run-off likely, what will matter most? Meeting voters, according to Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
“If you get out and work harder and contact more people in the district you have a better chance of winning," Bullock says.
“What you probably do, especially if you’ve got a little bit of money ... you get some volunteers, then you either buy voter lists from the state, or you may go out and hire a vendor who will do this for you,” he adds.
Candidates buy your voting record from the State, and they then create target lists based on voters who have historically voted in primaries. Primaries often get lower turnout than the November general election, so targeting likely primary voters is essential to using campaign resources well – whether it's mailers or visits by the candidate or campaign volunteers.
District 59 is an eclectic mix of neighborhoods, including Little Five Points, Inman Park, Grant Park, Reynoldstown, Peoplestown, along with parts of East Point, Lakewood Heights and Hapeville. That makes for a lot of walking.
'It opened my eyes to a lot of the pain'
Noblitt is a familiar face at the Capitol, repeatedly joining other clergy to oppose anti-gay “religious freedom” bills that have been introduced, including speaking at a Feb. 2 press conference with other progressive and faith leaders and another event with pastors later that month. Noblitt expects to bring his emphasis on relationship building, and continued vocal opposition to any “religious freedom” bill, with him if elected to the state House.
“I want to be able to sit across the table, as their colleague, and make them look me in the eye as they’re deliberating this. Because I really do believe, still, that relationships make a difference, and hearts and minds are changed when they hear people’s stories,” Noblitt says.
Noblitt, a firm believer in the separation of church and state, recognizes that he’d be joining the ranks of a clergy-filled statehouse. Many Georgia lawmakers are also pastors, clergy, deacons or Sunday school teachers.
“We have a lot of legislators that, at times, will quote scripture as a way of harming other people," Noblitt says. "And I can hopefully be there to hold them accountable, to be honest about whatever text they try to quote, as a way of making sure it’s known that they don’t own the Christian faith."
Beyond the “religious freedom” debates, criminal justice reform is one of the key areas Noblitt wants to address, bringing a unique background to the table and a passion for restorative justice. Noblitt spent more than eight years working with the public defender office on death penalty cases.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of the pain that exists in the state and some of the reasons for that, and how we potentially can come up with some new policies to change the context of which some of that harm comes from,” Noblitt says.
Noblitt also was tapped by the Atlanta Police Department to serve as a chaplain. His other significant foray into public safety came after being robbed at gunpoint in Piedmont Park in 2010.
These experiences, Noblitt says, gave him “this unique entry into this whole public safety conversation.”
Noblitt is a proponent of restorative justice models to address crime and public safety. Restorative justice differs from retributive justice in who is held accountable and what kinds of solutions are sought, beyond prison time or fines.
Given Gov. Nathan Deal’s emphasis on criminal justice reform and reducing the prison population, Noblitt says, “I actually think we have a unique opening,” to push restorative justice based legislation. Noting the existing interest in, and success of, drug courts and mental health courts, “To me that signals that we have a governor that is open to possibilities.”
Noblitt will become part of a long line of gay men who have campaigned for a seat in the General Assembly, including Bob Gibeling, Timothy Swiney, Christopher Deraney, Kyle Williams, Tim Riley, Randy New, Ken Britt, Keith Gross, Rashad Taylor and Allen Thornell. So far, none have been elected.
Noblitt was endorsed by the Victory Fund, an organization that trains and vets LGBT candidates around the nation. The Georgia Stonewall Democrats and Georgia Equality will be releasing endorsements over the next few weeks.
Supporters host a fundraiser for Noblitt and Rafer Johnson, a gay candidate for House District 62, on Saturday, April 23.