Georgia Today: The 30-Day Congressman
Kwanza Hall is Georgia’s newest congressman, even if he is serving for just a month. On Georgia Today, host Steve Fennessy talks with Rep. Hall about his legislative priorities and what it's like following in the footsteps of his predecessor — the late civil rights icon, John Lewis.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Dec. 18th, 2020.
Kwanza Hall: We have a lot of things on the plate in front of us. And I just want to be a unifier, a person who can help us get some things done on behalf of the least of these, as Congressman Lewis would.
Steve Fennessy: Today, our guest is Kwanza Hall, a congressman whose term of office is precisely one month. Why so short? Hall was elected to serve out the remainder of John Lewis's term after the civil rights icon died in July of cancer. Hall’s well known in Atlanta. He was a three-term City Council member and ran in 2017 unsuccessfully for mayor.
Today, he talks about what it's like to represent Georgia's 5th Congressional District, even as the clock ticks until the day he must turn the seat over to Nikema Williams, who voters chose in November to succeed Lewis in the next Congress.
Congressman Hall. Are you ready to go?
Kwanza Hall: Yes, I am.
Steve Fennessy: So how does it feel to be called “Congressman?”
Kwanza Hall: You know, I hit the ground running so fast I haven't even really thought about it. And frankly and honestly, all the time I was elected, many people would confuse council and Congress. So they always said that about me, especially like in the neighborhood. “This is our congressman. This is our congressman.” So I've always kind of been called “congressman.” its interchanged with "councilman."
Steve Fennessy: Well, from their lips to the voters’ ears, I guess, right?
Kwanza Hall: Yeah, but it was a true promotion. I didn't expect it. And I'm humbled and feel very privileged to be here. Definitely didn’t plan to be running for Congress in this year and after having had COVID. But, you know, a lot of things aligned and I'm thankful to be here.
Steve Fennessy: How are you feeling?
Kwanza Hall: I'm much better. I mean, I don't have the heavy lingering part that many people talk about. When I sat at home by myself with COVID and, you know, struggling through that for about three weeks, hard three weeks, right? And, you know, right before Congressman Lewis passed away, that was the moment that I think, you know, God was spending some time with me and getting my attention because there was no one who could help me in that moment. There was no one who could solve or, you know, the ailment. There's no doctor. There was no medicine I could take. I just had to endure.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Kwanza Hall: And then, you know, I got a call or two about Congressman Lewis's position coming up. I was like — I almost slammed the phone down. And somebody called me up asking me to run for office, like, are you serious? And then a week or so later, they announced that there was going to be another special election as well to complete John Lewis’ term. And I was like, really?
Newscast: Today it is the people of Atlanta's turn to say goodbye to the man who represented them in Congress for more than three decades. The funeral is being held in Atlanta's famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr. once preached.
Kwanza Hall: When I was watching the funeral I had a moment when I reflected upon how much people such as Congressman Lewis, my father and many, many others had given to make it possible for me to have the life that I have. It was almost like I got a sign that I wasn't really done, I hadn't completed my assignment. There was more work for me to do, especially in light of what had happened in June and July with the protests.
Protestors: [CHANTING] George Floyd, say his name! George Floyd, say his name!
Kwanza Hall: Then I got the signal that there's justice work that needs to be done right now.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's go back in time and talk a little bit about how — about the road that led you here. You’re in Congressman John Lewis’ 5th District, of course. When did you first meet John Lewis? What's your earliest memory of him?
Kwanza Hall: Earliest memory? Probably, you know, in our neighborhood and my dad’s stopping by and we're in the car and he's going by to see his friend John and or they were at our house. He and his wife, Lillian, were at our house. My dad had — my mom and dad had parties and social events all the time.
So many times, you know, the kind of organizers and social justice, civil rights people would be over there. And I think it was one or two occasions like that that I kind of remember. And they lived up the street. And then there is a picture that it was in the video that I had with my campaign, which is me on my dad’s shoulders with Congressman Lewis at a voter education retreat that they sponsored through the Voter Education Project. They worked together on stuff, that was what we saw as kids. They were definitely comrades and good friends and soldiers in something, this social justice stuff. And all of those people beat them up. Police beat them up and they were fighting for justice, and that was what we grew up in the shadows and in earshot of those kinds of conversations around the table as kids under the table or pulling their hair or doing something like that.
Steve Fennessy: I’d like to talk more about Congressman Lewis. Last year, not long before his cancer diagnosis was announced, he talked with GPB about how he wants to be remembered.
John Lewis: It is my hope and my prayer that what I've tried to do would inspire another generation of young people — and people not so young — to stand up, to speak up, and to speak out. To be brave, bold and courageous, to make our planet better for all of us and for those that are yet to be born.
Steve Fennessy: What do you think when you hear that?
Kwanza Hall: Well, first I got a little chill because I hadn't heard his voice in a while. And it feels like an exact overlay and template that I'm embodying. I'm doing my little part to take the baton that he was suggesting he's handing off to inspire the next generation of young and not so young people, just to empower people.
John Lewis: It's amazing to me when I go back to rural Alabama, where I grew up, I've traveled through the state of Georgia, other parts in the South. I feel like we're more than lucky. We are blessed to see all of these smart young people on the move and many of the people that are not so young. They're moving with change. They want to help the South redeem. They want to make the South a better place.
Kwanza Hall: It felt like his spirit had just hit me. And I really know that he sacrificed so much for us. He was a man of principle. He was a giving, caring, kind, gentle spirit and he never had a want. And as soon as I just kind of let go and tried to just be free and live, like, kind of the way that I saw Congressman Lewis being as a person, things just work out. And I didn't understand, but when I walked around Congress and I had to go through all the things to get, you know, sworn in and navigate the first week of figuring out how to make that time the most effective — that precious time the most effective, time on behalf of the citizens and the continuance of the legacy that Congressman Lewis left us and inspired me to run, to hold the mantle for and to pass off to another young leader is an awesome, awesome feeling, but also an awesome responsibility.
Steve Fennessy: With his term so short, Kwanza Hall doesn't get a congressional office. That means doing business in some odd places, like the cafeteria. That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm speaking with Democratic Congressman Kwanza Hall. On Dec. 1st, Hall won a runoff to fill out the remaining term of John Lewis, who died over the summer. Hall, who's serving just a month, was sworn in Dec. 3rd by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Kwanza Hall: When those results were communicated to the speaker's office, then the process for the swearing-in could begin. Got communication with the speaker's office; they said, “How soon can you be here?” I said, “I'll be there tonight.” So that was Wednesday night, I flew up. Get there first thing in the morning, 9, 9 o'clock to the Capitol. And I have to go through getting my briefing, my badge, my paperwork needs to be completed or, you know, being in the system. There's about four or five offices that we had to engage with and get through to the process. Then went to the floor of Congress in Capitol Hill. I come in and I'm standing there, we pledge allegiance.
U.S. Representatives: I pledge to the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Kwanza Hall: And then the speaker opens it.
Nancy Pelosi: Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that you take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office to what you are about to enter, so help you God? Congratulations. You are now a member of the 116th Congress.
Kwanza Hall: She allowed the senior gentleman from the Democratic side, from Georgia, Sanford Bishop, to speak, who welcomed me.
Sanford Bishop: His election means that the people of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia in Atlanta will be represented and have a voice during this lame duck session of the 116th Congress as we debate and hopefully enact, among other things, the FY 2021 Appropriations Bill funding the operations of the federal government, and much needed COVID-19 relief.
Kwanza Hall: And then also we had a senior representative from the Republican side of Georgia, Rob Woodall, to speak as well.
Rob Woodall: I wonder how many of my colleagues would put in the kind of time and effort that we all put in to get reelected, to provide a voice not for two years, not even for 12 months, but for the remainder of a cycle. It speaks to the character of Mr. Hall and it speaks to his commitment to the 5th District of Georgia that he put himself out there and committed himself, as he did throughout that campaign cycle, to be that voice.
Kwanza Hall: And then I got 90 seconds to speak to address the body as well.
Kwanza Hall: Madam Speaker, to my colleagues from Georgia, other colleagues in the House, I'm Kwanza Hall and I'm so thankful to be here today.
Kwanza Hall: New Congress members never get that much time because usually you're coming in with a class of 50 or 100 people.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Kwanza Hall: Or, you know, 70 people or so. They're like, wow, you got to whole 90 seconds. We roll right up there and I just spoke from my heart in 90 seconds. How much can you say in 90 seconds?
Kwanza Hall: We have a lot of things on the plate in front of us. And I just want to be a unifier, a person who can help us get some things done on behalf of the least of these, as Congressman Lewis would. So thank you all for having me. Thank you to my mother, my father, who's not with us, to the congressmen who've come before me, Wyche Fowler and Ambassador Andrew Young. Thank you, Speaker at you.
Nancy Pelosi: Thank you very much, gentleman from Georgia...
Kwanza Hall: By about two hours later, we were voting.
Steve Fennessy: And even though you're there for just a month, do you get benefits once you're out, like — will you get a pension as a former congressman?
Kwanza Hall: No, I didn't even sign up for the benefit package because once it was started. it would even be enough time of service. So there's not — no packages like that or no special perks. So, I mean, you can — one thing that is: I'm a congressman for life and I can come back to the floor and not vote, but I can be on the floor and I can listen and move around Capitol Hill. And then the other thing is you have access to the gym if you want to pay for it. There's nothing else. I mean, it's not like if you served six years, then you get your pension and benefits, but you have to serve for six years.
Steve Fennessy: So in terms of like, do you get health benefits?
Kwanza Hall: No, nothing like that.
Steve Fennessy: Is Congress paying for your staff?
Kwanza Hall: Yes. So we do have staff for about a month. I mean, if you choose to hire staff and I have staff in Atlanta and staff in D.C., it's taking a minute to get everybody onboarded. But we're focused on just a couple of things dealing with, you know, the legislative process and then deliver my talking points related to issues that matter to me or matter to constituents. And on the other side, the district office, I have a few members of Congressman Lewis' staff who have transitioned and to help to ease the transition for Nikema Williams as well. And then there's people in the office focused on dealing with the constituent issues for the 700,000-person district.
But here's another challenge with constituent service. The big areas are immigration and FDA and IRS and Disability Affairs and Veterans Affairs, you know, stimulus-related stuff. So those are where the big questions are and concerns are. There's outgoing agency heads. There's an outgoing administration. So we're kind of in limbo in terms of who really is going to be responsible for some of these longer life cycles of constituent concerns.
But we are capturing them all and then we're going to share them with the various potential current owners and future owners. And of course, we'll hand them off to Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams as well.
Steve Fennessy: So you don't get an office, is that right?
Kwanza Hall: No. There's a working space where the party members are. And so — and there's very few of them there. So I could use that space. But I've been welcomed by Sanford Bishop as they worked out of his office one day. And then Whip Clyburn allowed me to use his working space — he has two spaces. So one of them is near the floor. And so you can kind of hang out there and get some work done. It's a big space in our little space. And then I also worked in the Democratic Caucus Chair space. There's like different — different anterooms that pretty much are like very nice offices. We took a little space in the cafeteria, which is probably one of the best places to me to operate from because we were central to everything.
Steve Fennessy: All roads go through the cafeteria.
Kwanza Hall: They sure do. And in COVID times, of course, there's stringent social distancing at the Capitol. There's a maximum telework mandate. So they’re trying to get everyone to telework and not be around the building. And with the challenges that we have with voting, you just don't know exactly, you know, when things are going to go. So generally, they say, whether it be the speaker or majority leader, be prepared for a flexible schedule.
So you just kind of leave your schedule open and you get a text message on the app. And it's an app message that says, OK, voting will begin at 4:30. And voting happens in waves. So you don't all go to the floor to vote together. You don't want everyone in the room. At the same time, we would exceed the social distancing requirement. So it's a very different process, slightly slower.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Kwanza Hall: The window opens up longer for voting, which has given me a little more time to be prepared for giving my one-minute address that I can do every day. So I try to speak every day to put my items on the record.
Speaker: The gentleman from Georgia is recognized for one minute.
Kwanza Hall: Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss the public health pandemic that ravages our nation. As COVID-19…
Kwanza Hall: I rise today to speak about wealth and Black homes and businesses. According to the Brookings Institute, the net worth of a typical white….
Kwanza Hall: Mr. Speaker, I rise today to draw the chamber's attention to critical needs for Georgia's 5th Congressional District.
Kwanza Hall: The longer we go, the more time I have to present things to the body and to the public.
Steve Fennessy: How can you get those through? I mean, you're — not only are you a freshman congressman, but you're a freshman congressman who's only going to be there for — until Jan. 3rd. So how does that — how much sway do you have?
Kwanza Hall: Don't have necessarily a lot of sway, but you have to put good ideas on the table. You must do that when you have the opportunity. I'm using every power that I have to move the agenda forward, that I know that — what I believe Congressman Lewis would stand for.
And the first one is a piece of legislation, the John Lewis Prompt and Accurate Reporting of Elections Act. John Lewis PAREA is what it’s called. And this calls on any state of municipal government that receives federal funds to be required to report and be complete with their early vote counts and mail-in absentee early votes before the final election.
Steve Fennessy: I just want to make sure I understand the legislation. You're saying that your legislation would require those electoral bodies to tabulate the early voting results, but not disclose them in advance of an election?
Kwanza Hall: Yes, and not to delay in the reporting of them. So at least to have them tabulated and complete before the actual election day. So we don't have kind of the things that happened around the country happening again with everyone holding these vote counts until weeks after the election. I do have another piece of legislation that speaks to not disenfranchising reentering citizens who are coming out of the penal system and allowing for them to participate in the voting and election process sooner rather than later. And so that's one that's out there.
And then I'll also introduce a bill that will hold police accountable for misconduct, which will offer a constitutional amendment to close the exception in the 13th Amendment allowing forced labor for those accused of a crime. And then there's legislation that I signed onto related to reparations, related to health care. About five on health care, two on housing, two on law enforcement.
So I got — you know, I signed onto quite a number of bills. I think it looks like it's like 14, 15 bills I’ve signed on. It’s a significant body of work that I've had a chance to be a part of and I'm thankful and enjoying that there's a clock that's counting down because it forces a high degree of urgency.
Steve Fennessy: I'm curious what it's like to walk around those halls in the position that you're in and seeing the running into congressmen and congresswomen from all over. Is there anyone that you've struck up a relationship with?
Kwanza Hall: Buddy Carter, Republican. And I bumped into each other. We have mutual friends. And he stayed in my council district whenever he came up as a state elected official before he became a congressman. But then he signed on to the — you know, so you're talking to someone and you see them in the news. And he signed on for the lawsuit that came out of Texas.
Newscast: Texas lawsuit against Georgia and other battleground states have the support of over 100 Republican members of Congress, including Georgia Congressman Buddy Carter and Rick Allen. Grade TV spoke with Congressman Carter about why he supported that lawsuit against his own state.
Buddy Carter: Whether you're Republican, Democrat, or an independent, you want the same thing. We all want the same thing. We want honest, fair, transparent elections.
Kwanza Hall: So it's kind of interesting to see who's where. But still, it doesn't stop me from having a conversation with a person.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Kwanza Hall: Right? You know, having at least a human to human interaction. And then, you know, seeing Stenny Hoyer and Marcia Fudge, he and I were at the cafeteria and then the news came out that she was about to be the HUD Secretary.
Newscast: We begin with big news for Ohio's 11th District and its congresswoman, Marcia Fudge.
Newscast: NBC News reports Congresswoman Fudge is headed to the incoming Biden administration as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Kwanza Hall: We're talking at that moment. All in all, I felt welcomed. I feel there's an urgency and people seem to be pretty ecstatic that I hit the ground running and doing things like giving my speeches every day and that I am contributing and trying to be helpful. I'm on time. I'm not, you know, dilly-dallying around and, you know, just really about it. That's what I feel back from everyone. They thought I might — you know, sometimes you get a new person, they kind of sit timidly and don't know what to do or how to don't make moves and especially would it be in such a short period. But I'm like, every second I get I'm going to use it, you know, for the purposes that I said I was coming here for.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Kwanza Hall, who represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District for two more weeks. Even though we asked him what his political plans were going forward — after all, there is a mayoral election in Atlanta next year — Hall said that all his energy is focused on the job he has now. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Sean Powers. Eva Rothenberg is our intern. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg