'Unhappy Taxpayer' Becomes One Of DeKalb's Newest Lawmakers
More women are running for elected office this fall. The number of female candidates for U.S. Congress has doubled since 2016.
In Georgia, DeKalb County activist Viola Davis launched a last minute campaign to unseat her longtime representative in last month's primary election — and she won.
GPB’s Stephen Fowler has been following the midterm elections, and he joined Rickey Bevington in the studio to talk about this race and the greater context of women running for office.
RICKEY BEVINGTON: So who is Viola Davis, and why are we talking about this race?
STEPHEN FOWLER: Viola Davis is the only African-American to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony, a hugely successful actress, and not this Viola Davis.
DeKalb County’s Viola Davis is a veteran, a registered nurse and soon to be state legislator. Her thing has been serving as a longtime advocate for changing DeKalb government. Here's what she told me that got it all started off:
“I had a number of problems that were not being addressed and simply put a banner on my home and some signs in my yard that said ‘unhappy taxpayer and voter.’”
She’s built different coalitions with people to get the county to close vacant landfills, have a moratorium on shutting off people's water after the county had billing problems, and stopping cell phone towers from being built on school properties. As far as running for office, she asked the incumbent, well liked Representative Ernest “Coach” Williams, to file a bill addressing medical errors in the health field, and told him she'd run if he did not file.
He told me he didn't file the bill because it is not his area of expertise, but, he didn't file. She ran, and she won.
BEVINGTON: Is she worried that holding a statewide elected office might limit her ability to get things done for DeKalb County?
FOWLER: Viola Davis says people voted for her because of the community work she's done and they hope it can continue, and sometimes that you need to be in a position of power to get things done. Here's what she told me:
“A number of people initially said that they did not want me as they say it to cross over to that side because they was afraid that it may change me. But after I explained to them some of the things I wanted to accomplish I think that they then felt comfortable with those backing me.”
She ran because she wanted to inspire other people who didn't have money or the same name as a famous actress to get involved with government, and she says she wants to help others hold people accountable. Her own name being Viola Davis will certainly help with that. So, when she goes to the state house she hopes that name recognition can help her focus on things like ethics and transparency to get things done.
BEVINGTON: This year, 63 women were in the Georgia legislature. That's about 26 percent. Heading into November's election what does the overall political landscape look like for women in our state?
FOWLER: Davis says this is the year of the woman, and part of that political landscape is what motivated her to get involved and get things done. She’s not alone. After last month's primary election there were 20 women that ran for U.S. Congress or Georgia statewide office. Nine of them won their primaries, and that number could jump as high as 11 after the runoff next month, and the number of first-time candidates is higher than normal.
It's a good time for women in Georgia politics. Democrat Stacey Abrams has made history as the first African-American woman in the nation to be a major party's nominee for governor. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance bottoms is the second female mayor in the city's history. All of that comes on the heels of Karen Handel being the state's first female Republican Congresswoman.
Jennifer Lawless is the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. She told a panel at the University of Chicago that more women running could lead to a bump in the number of women being elected:
“We've known since the 1980s that when women run for office they are just as likely as men to win their elections on both sides of the aisle and in primaries and general elections, so having more women seems like a positive thing.”
She adds that more men are running as well. So there won't be an overwhelming crush of women flooding Congress and local and state legislatures, but it's the first step in a larger process to shift the makeup of elected office.