On Wednesday night, the Athens Political Union and UGA Young Democrats hosted a debate between Mayor Nancy Denson and Tim Denson, the two candidates for mayor of Athens. Denson and Denson share the same name, a fact often joked about, but the debate was used by the candidates to differentiate themselves from one another.
Incumbent Mayor Nancy Denson is a long-time fixture and trusted name in Athens politics. Denson has held elective office in Athens for 34 years, starting as the town’s first female city council member, then as Tax Commissioner and finally as mayor. Besides name recognition, Denson’s head start on the competition includes a lengthy list of endorsements that includes former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes and former UGA President Michael Adams.
32-year-old challenger Tim Denson is an outsider to establishment politics, but he has been politically active in left-wing causes for some time. A self-described “community activist,” Denson led the Occupy Athens movement. He has been involved with various other groups like the Economic Justice Coalition and Citizens for a Better Athens, which opposed the Wal-Mart development east of downtown. Denson now works in retail at a Barnes & Noble booksellers.
From the outset, it was clear the candidates had a conflict of visions about Athens and the role of government.
Mr. Denson stated he would provide “a 21st century vision” for the town to contrast with “more of the same” from Nancy. A handbill his staff provided laid out some of his proposals: the halving of the Athens poverty rate by 2025, guaranteed access to affordable child care “for all children,” the expansion and unification of the Athens-Clarke County and UGA bus systems and a raft of new task forces and government campaigns. Those, according to the handbill, are only his “primary” goals.
Mayor Denson was more pragmatic. To Mr. Denson’s costly proposals, the former tax commissioner responded that good governance “comes down to dollars.” Because of this, Denson said, Athens must “set priorities” about what to fund. She would prioritize job growth first, citing her success in bringing the Caterpillar plant to Athens.
Mr. Denson, for his part, acknowledged that his plan is ambitious. He countered that conversations with local residents and stakeholders demonstrated a need for change.
The candidates parted ways on many policy specifics.
Mayor Denson said that Tim Denson’s plan to unify the county’s two bus systems is unworkable given their different revenue streams. She claimed that lowering bus fares, another of Mr. Denson’s proposals, would cost the county an additional $2 million. Tim averred that reform could be accomplished for as little as $80,000.
On jobs, Tim Denson said he wanted to entice businesses from out of town, but that more resources should be devoted to create jobs organically in Athens. He praised the work of local tech incubator Four Athens, but proposed the creation of a $100,000 government body that would serve a similar purpose. Mayor Denson emphasized the work she has done to make Athens friendlier to business and said that was the end of the mayor’s role in the matter.
The debate shifted to matters of state policy. Differences were apparent there as well. Tim Denson indicated he would adopt an adversarial line toward state authorities, especially on state immigration policy that he regards as “hateful.” He also expressed tepid opposition to the state Safe Carry Protection Act, which would allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry in churches (with the church’s consent) and most government buildings. “You have shootings where you have guns,” Tim said. “No guns, no shootings.” Nancy replied that “bad guys will get guns without authorization” and expressed support for the Second Amendment, although she would not comment on the bill before the state legislature. On matters of state policy, she said the mayor has more to gain from working with state lawmakers than taking stands on matters beyond her control.
Although differences between the candidates were stark, there was one area of state policy where they agreed. Tim Denson has been vocal about his support of marijuana decriminalization. “For the first time,” Mayor Denson also announced her support of decriminalization in small amounts.
The debate ended with brief closing statements from both candidates. Tim Denson reiterated his desire for a “21st century” vision for the city’s future. He said it is time for Athens to vote in a mayor “from the working class,” a reference to his impoverished background. Mayor Denson’s closing statement ended the debate. She stated that she has lived on both sides of the track, but became successful through hard work and constructive action. “By the time I was 32 years old,” she said, “I had already made contributions to my community — I wasn’t just coming up with ideas about what I wanted to do in the future.”
As the Young Democrats sponsored the debate in lieu of their weekly meeting, opinion in the room of roughly 200 people inclined toward Mr. Denson’s overtly progressive politics. Tim also seemed to draw a larger crowd of supporters, although a contingent of Mayor Denson’s supporters were present. The mayoral election, which will be held May 20, will determine whether that turnout is representative.
As the debate shows, the mayoral election will feature more than a difference of opinion about bookkeeping. The addition of the youthful Tim Denson, who is running far to the left of the incumbent, gives voters a distinct choice for the future of their city.
—M. Blake Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
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