Democratic educator Mokah Jasmine Johnson is challenging incumbent Republican Houston Gaines for House District 117 in the Nov. 3 General Election. Voters in the Nations Church, Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts will vote in this race. Next week, The Oconee Enterprise will profile District 119 candidates Marcus Wiedower and Jonathan Wallace.
Gaines works with Cannon Financial Institute, a firm that does consulting and training in the financial services sector. He is a member of the Athens Rotary Club and has served on boards ranging from the Envision Athens Steering Committee to various K-12 and University of Georgia boards.
During his time in the state house, Gaines helped pass bills reducing legislators’ salaries, bolstering anti-human trafficking resources and lowering Georgians’ healthcare costs.
Now, Gaines’ focus is on initiatives such as paid leave for state employees.
During the pandemic, Gaines has participated in regional meetings with hospital leaders and other elected officials.
“I’ve worked with different parties and perspectives across the four districts,” Gaines said. “I feel like we’ve worked in tandem...because we have the same objective to keep our community safe and keep our businesses running.”
He acknowledged the economic challenges during the pandemic. For example, dozens of constituents have contacted his office seeking advice on unemployment benefits.
“Some of the stories we’ve heard are heartbreaking and challenging,” he said. “When someone calls my office about an unemployment holdup, I don’t let it go until that case is resolved.”
The pandemic has also impacted the FY2021 state budget, which Gaines voted for earlier this summer. The state legislature made headlines at the time for their purported $950 million cut to education spending in order to balance the budget. Gaines pointed out that Georgia received $550 million from the federal CARES ACT to help make up for the shortfall. He also explained school systems, like Oconee, have pulled from their reserves to balance the budget.
Gaines commented on concerns about racism in America, saying that people have to “first and foremost condemn racism in any form.”
“What I have to do is listen and learn and work to be an ally because I know that there are challenges...to address head on and to ensure we’re providing equal opportunities for everyone,” he said.
He also recommended peaceful demonstrations as ways to voice grievances over resorting to violent methods like rioting.
“Peaceful protests are the bedrock of our country, and we’ve got to work in unity to address these challenges,” he said.
Before her candidacy, Johnson worked in education for 10 years as an adult GED educator and as a leader of youth development workshops. She also helped co-found the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, an organization that promotes racial and social justice through education and activism.
Johnson decided to run for the District 117 seat because she was not satisfied with the state’s leadership
on issues like equity, justice and education.
If elected, Johnson said her No. 1 goal would be to find ways of providing economic relief to her constituents. This would include initiatives such as expanding Medicaid and making construction supplies more affordable.
“We have to create policies to make companies willing to invest in building affordable homes, so everybody has an affordable place to live,” she said. “At the same time, not everything is about making a profit.”
Johnson’s justice initiatives include restoring funding to accountability courts, ending cash bail and updating the anti-discrimination ordinance in Athens-Clarke County, as well as repealing the citizen’s arrest law related to the shooting of Brunswick resident Ahmaud Arbery.
“It’s also making sure that the mental health piece is being funded properly so people aren’t being incarcerated for health problems,” she added.
In terms of education, Johnson said she doesn’t want to see more cuts, and she wants educational improvements to be balanced across Clarke, Oconee, Barrow and Jackson counties.
Johnson elaborated on the current cultural conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s not that white lives don’t matter or other peoples’ lives don’t matter,” she said. “None of that matters until Black lives matter. We’re not saying no one else’s issues are important, but there’s a serious racial issue in America that’s caused a serious gap or rift.”
When asked about COVID-19, Johnson said Oconee County “should have closed as fast as Clarke County.”
“We’re so divided that we’re not putting each others’ lives as a priority,” she said. “If you know that you’re using Athens-Clarke hospitals and services, then you need to follow in Athens’ footsteps...COVID doesn’t discriminate, wherever you live.”