In the ultra-tight runoff election scheduled for January 5th, a progressive Democrat has the chance to break the GOP’s years-long lock on policy-making, a hegemony that has left the environment polluted, working people gouged by big corporations, many Black communities robbed of opportunity, and lawmakers increasingly unresponsive to the demands of their constituents.
Oh, and there will also be two US Senate elections on January 5th as well.
It’d be an understatement to say that the race for a spot on the Georgia Public Service Commission hasn’t received the same level of attention as the Ossoff-Perdue and Warnock-Loeffler showdowns, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. In fact, it’s the sort of down-ballot position that has an outsized impact on people’s lives but has been largely ignored by Democrats over the last few decades. Thanks to the energetic campaign of activist, nonprofit leader, and Obama administration vet Daniel Blackman, that’s now changing. (It also doesn’t hurt that instead of appearing 13th or 14th on the ballot, it was just below the Senate races this year.)
Georgia’s Public Service Commission oversees all utilities, from power production to broadband internet. Its members play a huge role in setting environmental policy and helps determine the utility rates paid by millions of people in the state. Their decisions have wide-reaching implications, with racial justice, environmental pollution, and economic opportunity all directly impacted.
One quick example: Georgia is the only state in the country building new nuclear power plants. Republicans continue to green-light the projects, which accrue huge cost overruns which in turn get passed to Georgia consumers. They continue to invest in these projects, funneling money to the privately held Georgia Power monopoly, gouging people on their monthly energy bills instead of investing in the solar and wind power that would help the environment and save people money.
“Folks in Georgia have been footing the bill for a long time, not just on nuclear, but on our coal ash cleanup [another $525 million], and its really been a burden on folks,” Blackman says. “That people are struggling COVID-19 has amplified that a thousandfold.”
Those struggles, Blackman says, have created an awareness of the commission where it hadn’t existed before — being stuck at home without broadband internet, seeing your neighbors’ lights go off, and watching your bills rise during a money crunch tends to create some outrage. The urban-rural divide in the state is stark, too. While the Atlanta area, where activists and organizers have built an army of progressive voters, is filled with rich industries like entertainment and tech, more outlying counties have been devastated.
As Blackman notes, 79 different counties — or half the state — do not have a single OBGYN. There are 60 without a pediatrician, while nine counties have no doctors at all. The reasons are somewhat complicated and very intertwined, but the lack of economic opportunity that comes with a significant lack of access to broadband — 70% of the more than half a million homes and businesses without it are in the rural part of the state — is a huge part of it.
“Those communities have been left behind,” he says. “And it’s Black and brown communities specifically. About 88% of Georgia’s prison population reads at a third-grade level. So if we don’t connect those communities in those counties, those kids have no options, and they can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t compete. Those kids end up falling into a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration. If you want to prevent that, you’ve got to educate them and allow them to keep up with technology.”
Blackman has been working in environmental and community advocacy for two decades. He graduated from college, married his girlfriend, and then based on a friendship with one of his professors, found himself recruited into a new coalition of promising young leaders. His new mentors couldn’t have been more distinguished; they included former Mayor Maynard Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, and the future Mayor Shirley Jackson.
That opportunity turned into a career. Blackman began working for nonprofits and in the civil rights community. He was always invested in the environment and trying to connect Black voters with that movement, which led to what he recalls as a frank conversation with former Vice President Al Gore around the time An Inconvenient Truth was released.
When you get your bill at the end of the month, you should know someone fought for you before you gotta waste time calling the energy company yourself.@BlackmanDNA's running for Public Service Commission to negotiate on behalf of Georgians, not Georgia Power. Vote. 1/5/20. pic.twitter.com/7zdGZ4kY2V
— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@sunrisemvmt) December 18, 2020
“I remember he wanted me to get some black ministers and send students from the historically black colleges [to the event],” Blackman recalls. “He asked me a question and I remember saying to him, and this was awkward, but I said ‘with all due respect, Mr. Vice President, I think it reaches some people, but I don’t think it’s gonna resonate with my community.”
Naturally, Gore wanted to understand why.
“I said ‘you movie is about polar ice caps melting and polar bears and sea levels rising, but [the environmental issue that] folks in our community are concerned about is their kids with asthma,” he recalls. “We don’t really see ourselves in what’s produced.”
Blackman agreed to help promote the movie to the Black community so that he could help overcome that disconnect. Connecting climate, pocketbook economics, and the Black community has long been a focus for Blackman.
After helping then-Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, he was appointed to several White House initiatives. Blackman participated in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign as well as President Obama’s high-profile My Brother’s Keeper initiative. That was a formative experience, as was his trip to the Vatican for a papal climate change summit in 2015.
“It was surreal — it was every culture, every background, and to witness that and to have the Pope acknowledge us while we were there,” Blackman says, still marveling years later. “And to see the fact that 125 environmental regulations have been dismantled by the Trump administration, it’s heartbreaking because I had a front-row seat to a lot of great things that happened. It transformed my life and helped propel me to where I am today.”
Having one Democrat sitting on a five-person commission won’t significantly alter the balance during the commission’s internal debates. Black is well aware of this obvious limitation. But he also comes out of movement politics, where outside forces push hard to force lawmakers and legislators into enacting (or not enacting) policy. His goal is to use a spot on the commission to sound the alarm and ensure that the civil rights, economic opportunity, and gross environmental abuses that often come out of the Public Service Commission are made public and, when possible, reversed.
“We started off our campaign by committing to not take any money from the fossil fuel industry, their executives, anyone or any entity regulated by the Public Service Commission,” he says. “We’re not going to have these backroom meetings that are off-the-record; we’re going to make sure it’s all transparent, that everyone knows what’s happening. We’re going to have town halls and regional meetings around the state — most people don’t know about the Public Service Commission, because they don’t ever leave their offices. We’ll be out-voted in some areas, but we’ll be taking utility companies to task by making sure that whatever they do or fail to do you, that it’s put in front of the people.”
Winning this election is a stepping stone towards both better politics and better policies. All too often, as we’ve seen over the last decade, Democrats have either ignored these offices or failed to do anything with power to help people’s lives. If Blackman can win here, it’ll wake the party up to the importance of these kinds of races and, with success, show people that government actually can do something for them. In a neck-and-neck race, every little bit of help is crucial.