At least six openly gay candidates are running for a seat in the Georgia House, a legislative chamber that's growing increasingly hostile to LGBT equality.
The candidates are hoping to bolster the number of gay lawmakers in the State Capitol, which shrank from three to two in November when veteran Rep. Simone Bell resigned. That left in place state Reps. Karla Drenner and Keisha Waites, who are fending off a trio of anti-gay bills with at least one more attack on gay marriage in the works.
Their ranks could be boosted as early as Tuesday when voters head to the polls to pick Bell's successor. Among the trio of candidates is Park Cannon, a 24-year-old queer woman.
A rundown on the LGBT candidates running for the state House in 2016:
Park Cannon, District 58
The queer health advocate was hand-picked by Bell to replace her in the district, which stretches from Midtown to Turner Field to East Point and includes a slice of DeKalb County. She's competing in the Jan. 19 special election against attorney Kwame Thompson and former state lawmaker Ralph Long.
Cannon raised the most cash in the race and picked up endorsements from LGBT groups, including Georgia Equality, Georgia Stonewall Democrats PAC and the Victory Fund.
“As an open member of the LGBTQ community, seeking to replace an open lesbian in the Georgia House, I fully recognize the historical significance of this race. And while I will work incredibly hard on issues of equality I will fight every day to bring more jobs, better transportation options, and fully fund our kids’ schools,” Cannon said.
UPDATE | Cannon placed first in the special election, but faces a Feb. 16 runoff.
Josh Noblitt, District 59
The gay pastor, social justice advocate and neighborhood activist wants to replace longtime gay-friendly state Rep. Margaret Kaiser, who isn't seeking another term so she can run for mayor. The district includes an eclectic swath of Atlanta, including Poncey-Highland, Little Five Points, Inman Park, Reynoldstown, Grant Park, Lakewood Heights and East Point. Noblitt says he feeds off that diversity.
“I have been involved in the community for a long time, in this particular south Atlanta neighborhood for 10 years. I have a good appreciation for the issues folks in this area face, having lived here myself, and I want to take those conversations and issues to the state level,” Noblitt said.
The Victory Fund endorsed Noblitt, who faces a May 24 Democratic primary. That vote is likely to decide the race in the heavily Democratic district.
Rafer Johnson, District 62
The community activist and Delta Air Lines attendant is seeking the District 62 seat being vacated by state Rep. Ladawn Blackett Jones. The district includes portions of College Park, Douglasville, East Point and unincorporated potions of Fulton and Douglas counties.
“Through my years of leadership in various organizations and community-led efforts, I have developed many of the skills necessary to find solutions, create strategic alliances and forge productive new paths. I plan to use my diverse talents and experience in the private sector, non-profits & public sector to support the citizens of District 62,” Johnson said.
The Victory Fund endorsed Johnson, who faces a crowded May 24 Democratic primary.
Valerie Vie, District 62
Family law attorney Valerie Vie cites education, increasing the minimum wage and cityhood as issues in the campaign, according to the Georgia Voice. She also opposes the controversial “religious freedom” legislation from state Sen. Josh McKoon. Via the Georgia Voice:
The political newcomer cites the bill’s supporters’ unwillingness to add a non-discrimination clause as an area of concern.
“I think when we’re not specific, any bill…that you have and there’s language that will assure that certain fears would not happen and you refuse to put in the language, you always have to look at the intent of the bill,” she tells Georgia Voice in an exclusive interview. “Because if this is a bill that’s genuinely for the good, if we do not want to put in language that assures certain things don’t happen, it just gives a look that is not as proprietary as we would need it to be.”
Vie, Johnson and other Democrats compete in the May 24 primary.
Marckeith DeJesus, District 56
The financial counselor faces an uphill challenge in trying to oust state Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, a veteran lawmaker who has served three different times in the state House. And when she last faced a gay challenger, in 2012, Thomas easily beat well-funded gay politico Ken Britt.
DeJesus told the Georgia Voice that he wants to focus on same-sex adoptions, HIV issues, a non-discrimination law and beating back bills like the one from McKoon:
DeJesus also had much to say when asked what differentiates him from his opponent, Rep. Thomas.
'“I’m an African-American gay man. She is an African-American heterosexual person that says she supports the LGBT community,” DeJesus says. “I have not seen one piece of legislation since she has come into office that has been passed or that she supported or she authored pertaining to LGBT persons or our community. It’s different to say that you support it then being a person who lives in it every single day.”
District 56 includes portions of Midtown, downtown and southeast Atlanta. The candidates will square off in the May 24 primary.
Bob Gibeling, District 54
The former marketing manager and native Atlantan confirmed to Project Q Atlanta that he's seeking a rematch in the District 54 race. Gibeling was among three candidates who ran for the open seat in 2014. Now, he wants to face off against that winner – now state Rep. Beth Beskin, an Atlanta Republican who easily defeated him two years ago.
Beskin raised more than three times as much cash as Gibeling did in 2014, some $180,000 to $44,000. But Beskin irked LGBT activists as she struggled with McKoon's “religious freedom” bill in 2015. And she has since so-sponsored the Pastor Protection Act, which some LGBT critics argue could undermine LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in 60 jurisdictions across Georgia.
“Don’t let my cooperative spirit mislead you. I’m not afraid to tackle tough issues like traffic calming to preserve our neighborhoods, advocating for women’s health and safety issues, working to pass a fair employment policy law in Georgia that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, support for public schools and being a champion for seniors,” Gibeling told the Georgia Voice in 2013.
District 54 includes portions of Buckhead and West Midtown. Gibeling, a Democrat, would face Beskin in the November election if there are no primary opponents.
Some 12 gay men have tried – and failed– to win a seat in the state legislature in the last decade.