LGBTQ activist jumps into Atlanta City Council race

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A queer community organizer with a record of advocating for criminal justice reform and fighting the HIV epidemic launched his election for Atlanta City Council on Wednesday.

Devin Barrington-Ward wants to tackle housing affordability, crime and the city’s long-troubled federal housing program for low-income people with HIV.

“The last year has shown there are councilmembers that are committed … to doing things the old way and expecting different results,” he told Project Q Atlanta.

Barrington-Ward challenges incumbent Councilmember Dustin Hillis in District 9. The Northwest Atlanta district runs south to Grove Park, east to Hills Park, north to Bolton and west to English Park.

He also wants to continue LGBTQ representation on the council. City Council member Antonio Brown became the first Black LGBTQ member of the council in 2019, but he is running for mayor instead of seeking a full term at the District 3 post.

Barrington-Ward said it’s “imperative” to have an LGBTQ member on the council.

“Atlanta is one of the most important cities in the country and the world for the LGBTQ community, particularly for people of that community who identify as Black or another minority,” Barrington-Ward said. “Because of the work history I have in this community, I know I’ll be an effective advocate for the queer and trans community while I’m on council.”

The candidate brings a mix of political and advocacy experience to the council race. Last year, he lost a primary campaign against state Sen. Horacena Tate in District 38.

In 2012 and 2013, he was chief of staff to state Sen. Lester Jackson, a Democrat from Savannah. In Washington, D.C., he served as communications director for City Councilmember Mary Cheh in 2013, was a health equity fellow with the National Coalition of STD Directors in 2015, and served as communications director for HIV healthcare center Whitman-Walker in 2016 and 2017.

Barrington-Ward is also a longtime advocate of reforming Atlanta’s troubled HOPWA program, which subsidizes the rent of low-income people with HIV. He called it “just a mess” in 2018. Problems with the federally-funded program continued in 2021.

“We don’t have a critical mass of councilmembers who understand what it is like to lose friends and family members who’ve lost their lives to the HIV epidemic,” Barrington-Ward said.

“[HOPWA is] something that city council could have easily directed the administration to pay more attention to and get serious about making sure we’re paying HIV housing providers on time and getting services to people in a timely fashion, and now the pandemic has made all of this worse,” he added.

Along with queer state Rep. Park Cannon and Georgia Equality Deputy Director Eric Paulk, Barrington-Ward successfully lobbied Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in 2018 to earmark $100,000 in the city’s budget to fight HIV.

City Councilmember Dustin Hillis was elected to the District 9 seat in 2017. (Photo courtesy Atlanta City Council)

Barrington-Ward: Incumbent showed ‘no leadership on HOPWA’

Barrington-Ward took aim at the District 9 incumbent for not stopping rapid gentrification in the district. Hillis, a critical care nurse, won the seat in 2017.

“I haven’t seen any policies from his office that reflect the understanding that your life expectancy in Bankhead is way different than the life expectancy 10 minutes up the road in Buckhead,” Barrington-Ward said.

Barrington-Ward also criticized Hillis for not supporting the closure of the Atlanta City Detention Center, voting against a bill temporarily withholding $73 million of the Atlanta Police Department’s budget, voting for $1.9 billion in subsidies for the Gulch development downtown and showing “no leadership on HOPWA.”

“What I see from Councilmember Hillis is a lack of understanding the realities for people on the west side,” Barrington-Ward said. “It’s time that people who live these narratives and don’t come from places of privilege have an opportunity to lead this city.”

Hillis did not address Ward’s criticisms of his record. But he told Project Q that he worked with stakeholders to clear funding for 900 affordable housing units in the district, introduced a bill temporarily stopping development to address housing affordability, and helped push the former Bowen Homes site toward a redevelopment plan that includes affordable housing.

“Other important accomplishments during my first term include getting the city’s largest site of blight demolished, introducing monumental raises for our firefighters, E911 dispatchers, and code enforcement officers, and passing numerous transportation and health safety legislation,” Hillis said.

“While we have accomplished so much, there is still more work to do. That is why I am running for reelection to represent the wonderful people of Northwest Atlanta,” he added.

Barrington-Ward was one of at least six LGBTQ people that Bottoms named to a task force on repurposing ACDC in 2019 after he pushed for years to close the jail. Barrington-Ward criticized Fulton Sheriff Pat Labat earlier this year for a proposal to buy the jail from the city to relieve overcrowding at the county jail.

He was also one of 15 people arrested with then-state Sen. Nikema Williams, who is now a member of Congress, during a 2018 voting rights protest at the State Capitol. In 2020, Barrington-Ward, Williams and LGBTQ activist Mary Hooks filed a federal lawsuit against a dozen officers from the Georgia Department of Public Safety over their arrests.

Qualifying for city races in Atlanta takes place in August. The election is Nov. 2.

This story is made possible by Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.


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