Life of service guides ‘salty unionist’ to state Capitol

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James Parker Sheffield became obsessed with politics and Atlanta’s role in it at the ripe old age of 8. Some 33 years later, he rolls up his sleeves under the Gold Dome for state Rep. Renitta Shannon.

Sheffield, now 41, caught the political bug when Atlanta hosted the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

“My dad worked at the host hotel as a bellhop,” Sheffield told Project Q Atlanta. “He brought home memorabilia, and the event was all over the local news. I was immediately obsessed and became the 8-year-old Democrat version of Alex P. Keaton.”

“I still have one of the convention posters on my wall,” he added.

Two decades after working his first legislative session in 2001, the out queer transman and LGBTQ equality workhorse has seen a lot of change in Georgia. Still, his job as legislative aide for Shannon – a Decatur Democrat and one of seven LGBTQ lawmakers at the state capitol this year – shows there’s still plenty of work to do, he said.

“The Georgia General Assembly isn’t typically known for being affirming to marginalized groups, but progressive legislators under the Gold Dome have definitely started to change that,” Sheffield said.

“Rep. Shannon is a great example of someone actively reshaping the antiquated ideas of who should be at the table,” he added. “It’s refreshing and inspiring to work with someone who shows up every day willing to lose her job to say what needs to be said.”

State Rep. Renitta Shannon and legislative aide James Parker Sheffield. (Photo courtesy James Sheffield)

Battling on

Shannon uses that voice on issues from LGBTQ people of color impacted by coronavirus to police reform. She joined other LGBTQ legislators in elections bill protests this year and “no justice, no peace” protests last summer. She is also a passionate voting rights defender during the current legislative session.

Redistricting is another battle Shannon and her fellow lawmakers face this year. It’s an issue every LGBTQ person should watch closely, Sheffield said.

“Gerrymandering set Georgia up to allow Republican control of the General Assembly, regardless of what party wins statewide,” he said. “We have opportunities come from the feds, like Medicaid expansion, only to be blocked by our legislators at home.”

“We need to fight like hell during redistricting and flip both chambers in 2022,” Sheffield added.

National wins for the Democrats encourage Sheffield, but he warned against voters letting down their guard.

“Sending Democrats to DC has been very exciting, but it was the battle, not the war,” Sheffield asserted.

For the little guy

Before he became Shannon’s legislative aide, Sheffield had an eye toward equality as a 12-year veteran of Atlanta Pride, three as its executive director, and former operations director at the Rush Center.

Always a supporter for workers’ rights, Sheffield parlayed his exit from the Rush Center into vocal advocacy for unionizing its remaining staff before they all lost their jobs entirely. He ultimately adopted unions as a personal core cause.

It’s all in a day’s work for the self-described “salty unionist and gig-work survivalist.” So is engaging in politics, which is something everyone can and should do beyond each election cycle, Sheffield said.

“Learn the names of your elected officials and follow their social media feeds,” he suggested. “Most will even give you their personal contact information – use it!”

“Following political organizations can be great for surface information, but routinely interacting with your legislators will exponentially increase your knowledge base, comfort in discussing issues, and opportunities for election work,” he added.

And true to form, Sheffield added a shout-out to workers. Have the courage of your convictions and experience, he said.

“Don’t be intimidated by politics,” Sheffield said. “It’s unlikely you’re any less qualified than the next person.”

In fact, it’s the opposite.

“Your background as a server, bartender, bus driver, front desk clerk, retail worker, drag queen, or Lyft/Uber driver probably makes you more informed, not less, on the realities of bad policymaking,” he said.

This story is made possible by a grant from the Election SOS Rapid Response Fund.

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