University of Georgia law student Democrat Zachary Perry is challenging longtime Republican incumbent Bill Cowsert for the Georgia District 46 Senate seat.
This state congressional district encompasses all of Oconee County, along with portions of Clarke and Walton counties.
Cowsert has been in the state senate for 13 years. He also serves as the senate’s majority leader. When he is not working in that capacity, Cowsert works as a civil litigation attorney in Athens at Cowsert Health LLP.
He is particularly proud of several of his legislative efforts over the past two years, such as the continued expansion of broadband internet. He wants to continue those efforts, especially people looking to the web for telehealth, commerce and educational services.
“If you’re going to have to close schools and let kids learn remotely, they have to have accessibility,” Cowsert said. “It doesn’t do you any good to teach online if kids can’t get online, and it has to be broadband to download the video feeds.”
Cowsert elaborated that the legislature has codified various nursing home reforms and home delivery of alcohol.
“Now with COVID-19, you’re seeing a lot of grocery stores deliver to people’s homes. Many of them say, ‘If we’re going to be able to deliver groceries to your doorstep, why shouldn’t we be able to include beer, wine or other things we’re allowed to sell in the store?’”
He added that tax reform is another legislative priority of his.
“I’d love to be able to reduce the income tax further so people can retain more of their income and spend it where they see fit instead of where the government spends it,” he said.
Cowsert largely praised the Oconee area’s response to the pandemic, citing measures like testing, face masks and social distancing as helping “slow the spread” and not overwhelm local medical facilities.
“I think it’s important to recognize that all the efforts we’ve taken to combat COVID-19 at the local and state level, they don’t eradicate the disease,” he said. “That has to come from the medical field or a national initiative to find the vaccine.”
Cowsert commented on current events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think we’re at a volatile moment in history where a number of factors have converged at the same time to create this turmoil,” Cowsert said, citing people’s underlying frustrations with mistreatment by police and anxiety related to the pandemic and unemployment.
“I think that we are unfortunately seeing a time where we’re experiencing violent protests rather than peaceful protests, which are not productive,” he added. “You find that the most effective protests are where people exercise their freedom of speech in a peaceful, lawful manner, and it draws attention and sympathy to their concerns.”
He elaborated that he hopes this can be a healthy time to evaluate the relationship between law enforcement and the people they serve.
UGA law student Zachary Perry is in his third year of law school. He initially came to law school with the intention of addressing housing and other services for people with lower incomes. Perry himself worked in low-income jobs in the restaurant industry and outdoor recreation.
Perry wants to address gerrymandering, long lines at polling places and the affordable housing crisis.
“There’s the missing middle—your middle income or starter homes,” he said. “Those are the homes that are missing, that are not being built, and that makes it hard for people to move there.”
Perry also spoke about criminal justice reform. He does not agree with cutting budgets to programs like pre-trial, drug or veteran courts that tend to reduce recidivism.
“There’s a lot more we can do to keep our communities safe and save money at the same time,” he said. “These reforms save money and are more effective...the problems with the current system is you make career criminals out of somebody caught with a gram of weed.”
He mentioned cash-bail bond reform as another key area in criminal justice reform.
“Multiple studies show it isn’t even the most effective way that people show up for their court dates,” he said. “It’s more effective to send them a text the day before...or to get a sheriff’s deputy to drive and pick them up.”
Currently, 20,000 people are in Georgia jails before their court dates because they cannot afford to pay. He disagreed with proposed changes Cowsert made to a recent bill regarding the discretion judges have to ask for bail.
“This bill my opponent proposed would have taken discretion away and mandated bail would be used,” he said.
Perry also commented on Oconee’s response to the novel coronavirus, saying that the county should have put restrictions in place sooner.
“We just need to keep treating this like it’s serious because it is,” Perry said. “UGA’s cases were just reported at over 800...that’s likely a fraction of the number...going forward, we have to hunker down.”
When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, Perry suggested measures like holding police officers more accountable and moving money away from militarizing police.
“The system … capitalizes on pre-existing biases and economic conditions to essentially create a permanent undercast,” he said. “We spend millions and millions and millions on enforcing laws on low income people, and we spend next to nothing on laws that protect low income people.”