Convinced he needed to take a stand in support of his gay mom and sister, attorney Taylor Bennett made a run for the Georgia House and placed first. Now he faces an August runoff.
Bennett, a 29-year-old attorney, Democrat and former Georgia Tech quarterback, says he jumped into the race for House District 80 after watching Republican lawmakers again try to pass the anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation championed by state Sen. Josh McKoon. The House seat in Brookhaven is a race to replace former Rep. Mike Jacobs, who was appointed to a State Court judgeship in June.
Jacobs, a gay-friendly Republican, helped kill the “religious freedom” bill during a House hearing earlier this year.
Bennett says the legislation was the “hair trigger reason” he jumped into the race.
“My mother is gay and she's been with her spouse now for 10 years. They got married in March in Arizona. And I'm sitting here in Georgia watching our legislature waste time, resources and energy trying to figure out ways to discriminate,” Bennett tells WSB.
“And as a discrimination attorney and a personal connection to that very issue, I sat back and was thinking to myself why am I going to sit idle by and watch this unfold in front of me. We live in 2015 and we are finding ways to discriminate. There are no shades of gray in discrimination – it either is or it isn't,” he adds.
With McKoon promising to introduce the bill again next year – for the third consecutive legislative session – Bennett says he's in the House race to replace Jacobs with another lawmaker ready to fight it and pursue legislation to protect LGBT people.
“I wasn't going to sit idle by and watch that happen. I wanted to stand up and be an advocate for this issue and that's really kind of the hair trigger reason why I wanted to jump in,” Bennett says.
Bennett has made equality a central plank of his campaign, including it among employment, transportation and education as issues he highlights on his website:
Georgia cannot, must not, and will not stand for inequality. Even with the progress that has been made over the last few decades, the discrimination that persists today is a stark reminder of how far from many of our societal goals we actually are.
In the 1960’s, Georgia was the epicenter of the civil rights movement, today; we are still constantly fighting against proposed legislation that would legalize discrimination and injustice. I believe that each and every citizen of this state deserves to be treated with decency, respect, and equal rights under the law. I will always be an advocate for these issues and strongly oppose any legislation that could threaten liberty, equality, and justice for all.
Bennett placed first in the July 14 election, besting three other candidates – all Republicans – and will face former Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis in an Aug. 11 runoff.
Georgia Equality endorsed Bennett, who welcomed the support:
I am honored to have received an endorsement for Georgia Equality, as the LGBT community and the challenges it faces are particularly close to my heart. A large part of why I decided to seek this office has been the Republican Party's insistence on pursuing legislation that would allow for individuals to discriminate against the LGBT community on religious grounds. As the son of a gay mother and a brother to a gay sister, I cannot and will not stand idly by while our state legislature attempts to legalize discrimination in any form against any group of Georgians. As a state legislator I will oppose any attempts to curtail the rights of the LGBT community or permit discrimination in any form, and I look forward to working with the LGBT community to build on the substantial progress we have already made towards true equality for all. I have been an active advocate in the LGBT community for over 30 years. I understand the importance of sponsoring and supporting legislation that preserves and protects the rights of every Georgia citizen. The legislative victories throughout the country speak volumes to the power of organizing and standing together. I alone, am the candidate most prepared to sponsor and support legislation that protects the rights of the LGBT community.
Every forum is an opportunity to build diversity awareness, create partnerships, mobilize grassroots support, and reach mainstream audiences to promote and advocate for ending discrimination against LGBT citizens. I have dedicated my life to fighting for equality, equity, and the recognition of human rights and I have a track record to prove it. I will continue this pursuit as your State Representative.
The District 80 seat is among the most liberal held by the GOP, prompting Davis to walk a fine line on LGBT issues in his campaign, according to the AJC.
On one hand, Davis said it is “unintelligent and wrong” for a business to deny service to a customer based on sexual orientation. But neither does he want to see government coercion to prevent such discrimination.
When he decided to leave the Legislature, Jacobs called Davis — then still the mayor of Brookhaven — to ask whether he was interested in the seat. Given that, I pressed Davis on whether he agreed with Jacobs’ decision to deep-six SB 129.
“Mike did what he did. He was representing the wishes of his constituency. I’m not going to disagree with what Mike did,” Davis said. But the Republican candidate said he would pursue a “fresh approach from a different angle.”
And that might mean backing the Pastor Protection Act floated recently by House Speaker David Ralston.
But Davis mostly wants to avoid talking gay marriage and LGBT equality in his campaign. Bennett says that his efforts to attract younger, more progressive voters to the race means equality will be front and center.
But younger voters are intensely interested in the gay marriage and religious liberty debate. That is a topic that will drive them to the polls, Bennett said. “You have social issues that make everybody stop and say, ‘Wait, what are we trying to do here?’” he said. “You see an awareness when it comes to issues like that.”
And so, over the next three weeks, House District 80 will become something of a Democratic laboratory. If Bennett is right, and if the religious liberty issue proves a reliable driver of younger voters, the strategy could have serious implications for the 2016 debate in the Legislature on the topic, and the 2017 race for mayor of Atlanta.