The Georgia House race for a district that includes portions of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs between state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Meagan Hanson has put LGBT equality and "religious freedom" bills in the spotlight.
Both candidates for the District 80 seat have pitched themselves as pro-LGBT. But Hanson has gained notoriety for transphobic tweets and been criticized by a coalition of gay and gay-friendly Republicans for her lack of work against anti-gay legislation – despite claiming she would work behind closed doors as a lawmaker to defeat it.
Last week, Better Georgia unearthed anti-LGBT comments Hanson, an attorney, tweeted in 2013 and 2011.
Yet in an interview with the Georgia Voice, Hanson said she could become a great ally to LGBT people and fight anti-LGBT legislation like House Bill 757, the "religious freedom" measure that lawmakers passed earlier this year before Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it.
“I’m proud to be a Republican who supports LGBT issues,” she adds. “I feel that I could become one of the LGBT community’s greatest allies, given that our state government is controlled by Republicans. Bills like (HB 757) are written behind closed doors, and if you're not in the room then you don't have a say in how it's written. You can try and change the bill once it's made public, but it's a lot more effective to change the bill before it's public. I feel like I can be the voice for the LGBT community in those rooms."
Hanson also spelled out her opposition to "religious freedom" legislation in a candidate questionnaire for the Brookhaven Post.
"I strongly support Governor Deal’s veto of the final version of HB 757. Unequivocally, I did not and will not support any religious freedom legislation that can be used to discriminate against my fellow Georgians."
She also called the legislation "grandstanding."
"I would like to see the General Assembly focus more on finding solutions to major issues that directly affect our quality of life-like transportation, education, and taxes. Too much time is spent grandstanding on high-profile issues such as the Religious Freedom bill while real problems like failing schools and traffic facing our communities are left to languish."
Hanson also cited her opposition to the anti-gay bill as an example of her willingness to oppose Republican lawmakers. But she stops short of pronouncing any “unequivocal” support for the rights of LGBT Georgians.
“While I certainly cannot predict future issues that may arise, I point to my position on the Religious Freedom bill as evidence that I am not afraid to stand up for what me and my constituents believe is right, despite significant opposition from other members of my party."
The gay director of Georgia Republicans for the Future, which has fought "religious freedom" legislation and pushed for a more inclusive GOP, accused Hanson of lying about standing up to supporters of the legislation.
Hanson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Bennett, also an attorney, did speak with Project Q Atlanta about the campaign and his support for LGBT rights.
“I think that there are certain people that will say they are against these types of bills, like the RFRA bill for example, just simply because it’s politically convenient to be against them right now,” Bennett said.
Bennett shared that several conservative members of the House approached him after the vote on RFRA to apologize for voting for the bill. Bennett would not speculate on what motivated them to both vote for the legislation as well as to apologize to him, but it does speak to the immense pressure Republican legislators face to support the party agenda.
“So there are individuals that literally approached me after the votes on the floor of the house to apologize for voting for those bills,” Bennett said.
Hanson was endorsed by Sam Olens, the former Georgia Attorney General turned president of Kennesaw State University. Hanson praised the endorsement.
“We don’t need a legislator controlled and funded by third party groups from outside Georgia. We need a leader who fights for our priorities and all the citizens of HD80, like Sam Olens has done for Georgia.”
That would be the same Olens who defended the state's gay marriage ban, mocked LGBT couples and sued the federal government over federal guidelines about the treatment of transgender students. KSU students have opposed his appointment as president in part over his record on LGBT issues.
Bennett has been endorsed by LGBT groups Georgia Equality and Georgia Stonewall Democrats, and attends LGBT events including Atlanta Pride, a Victory Fund fundraiser and the annual dinner of the Stonewall Bar Association of Georgia. Georgia Equality also endorsed Bennett during his campaign in 2015.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Bennett was directly involved in trying to shape compromises around "religious freedom" legislation, took to the floor of the House to speak against it and denounced it in a press conference with LGBT lawmakers. He also pushed for protections for LGBT people in a sweeping bill that would prohibit discrimination in public accommodations, but the effort was defeated and the bill later stalled.
“Although that bill had been brought originally by Republican members,” Bennett said, referring to the original Pastor Protection Act, a widely supported, much less harmful version of RFRA, “we worked extensively on that bill in the committee process.”
Bennett and Hanson are neck-and-neck with their fundraising efforts, according to campaign finance reports. Hanson has raised nearly $128,000 and still has about $50,000 cash on hand. Bennett has fundraised just under $126,000 and has about $78,000 on hand. He started the year with almost $23,000 leftover from his previous campaign.