Four independent candidates running for city elections in Athens and Nelsonville during a forum last Thursday discussed the application of socialist principles to city government, among other issues.
The ideas aired at the event, held at the Athens Public Library, ranged from plausible to radical to pie-in-the-sky, though all four were clearly voicing positions well left of center.
The event was hosted by Athens for Bernie Sanders 2020, a group that seeks to promote leftist/progressive candidates locally as well as organize for Democratic presidential candidate Sanders.
Three of the candidates are running for Athens city government: Damon Krane, a democratic socialist, is challenging Mayor Steve Patterson, a Democrat. Socialist Ellie Hamrick and progressive Chris Monday are both running for at-large seat City Council seats. McCray Powell, also a socialist, is running for a seat on Nelsonville City Council.
All of the candidates discussed the importance of achieving broader representation in their respective local governments, something Krane asserted Athens has lacked since the presidency of George W. Bush.
“When I look at the current city government, I see three main problems: our current city government is undemocratic; our current city government is unrepresentative; and our current city government is either unwilling or unable to work to improve the lives of most city residents,” Krane said.
He noted that his opponent, Mayor Patterson, has never run a contested race for his position as mayor.
“If I wasn’t running against him this year, we’d have someone be mayor of the city for eight years without once having won a single competitive election for that office,” Krane said. “Again, no choice for voters means no democracy.”
Furthermore, he said, more often than not, Democratic candidates are shoe-ins for elected office in the city of Athens, forcing the city to accept their views and policies.
Hamrick echoed Krane’s sentiment, expressing dissatisfaction with the composition of Athens city government, which she said looks nothing like the people it represents.
“I am running for City Council because it is crystal clear to me that the status quo is untenable,” Hamrick said. “Despite constituting a majority of the city population, poor people, workers and renters have no representation in city government.”
Powell, the Nelsonville candidate, said he’s also alarmed by the nature of the Nelsonville City Council, which he charged has been mired in corruption and inefficiency for years. He said he’s running to give young people in Nelsonville representation in local government.
“I’m running for City Council in Nelsonville because I don’t see people like me – young, working and renting – on Nelsonville’s council,” Powell said.
Monday also said he’s troubled by the lack of representation of the working class in local government – but also called for people to engage themselves in politics.
“To be fair, it is hard to represent people who aren’t coming,” Monday said.
THE CANDIDATES ALSO discussed local issues, such as the high cost of rent in their communities.
Krane and Hamrick talked about “Operation Slumlord Smack Down,” which if implemented, would introduce a variety of changes to Athens code enforcement that tighten regulations and expectations for landlords.
Krane decried the current state of code enforcement as inadequate. He maintained that city code enforcement has only four inspectors, making it a “complaint-based” agency.
“Athens is an absolute paradise for predatory slumlords,” Krane declared. “Our city government won’t crack down on them. Our city government won’t even allocate the resources necessary for our code enforcement office to be able to enforce the housing code that’s on the books right now.”
In response to similar criticism regarding code enforcement that Krane leveled in March, Mayor Patterson referred to the 2018 annual report for city code enforcement, which states that Athens has one director, one administrative assistant, one part-time general secretary, two solid-waste, litter-control officers and four code officers, for a total of nine employees (ed. note: since then, the director of Code Enforcement has retired, leaving one of the inspectors doing double duty as acting director – the initial version of this article did not mention that). Patterson said that in addition to code officers, solid-waste officers and the director conduct housing inspections. He corrected an earlier statement, saying that as of that time, a total of seven individuals, including the director, were conducting code inspections.
Krane has disputed Patterson's points, and did again on Thursday, June 27, noting that city documents back up his claims that Athens has too few people inspecting rental housing.
In last Thursday's candidates forum, continuing on the landlord/code enforcement track, Hamrick asserted that the Athens city code for rental housing is weaker than the U.S. regulations covering state-subsidized Section 8 housing. If elected, she said she will fight to make sure Athens code is at least as strong as the Section 8 requirements.
Both Hamrick and Monday called for rent control. After moving back to Athens, Monday said he was shocked at the steep increase in rental costs while he was away for a few years.
“Something needs to change,” Monday said. “Rent control is the best place to start.”
Hamrick charged that landlords in Athens have a disproportionate amount of power, and speculated that one major local landlord in particular donates money to the Democratic Party in order to keep code enforcement on his side. She did not present any facts to back up that assertion.
She also cited the fact that two of her opponents for at-large seats, incumbent council members Sarah Grace and Peter Kotses, both own rental properties.
“Bosses, landlords and top university officials prosper, while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet,” Hamrick said.
SOME OF THE CANDIDATES discussed crime and policing issues, such as immigration and drug abuse.
Hamrick denounced police, and said one-third of the city budget goes to policing, an institution she said does not exist to serve the working class. She said if elected she will “take as much money from the police as possible at every opportunity.”
She noted that crime rates either have not changed or increased as a result of the failed war on drugs.
“If policing and prisons don’t keep us safer, then what do they do?” Hamrick said. “Their function is one of oppression and exploitation.”
She said she wants to decriminalize all illegal drugs, and to implement clean-needle exchanges, free Narcan (a brand name for Nalaxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose) and safe injection sites for heroin users.
Athens should be helping undocumented immigrants, and refuse cooperation with federal agencies that work to curb undocumented migration, she added.
“Athens should be a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and refuse cooperation with ICE and the Department of Homeland Security,” Hamrick said. “Moreover, all Athens residents should have the right to vote in local elections regardless of citizenship status.”
POWELL SAID HE WANTS TO introduce a TACO-like ordinance in Nelsonville. The Athens Cannabis Ordinance (TACO), is a successful local ballot initiative that de-penalized marijuana possession with zero fines.
Powell also said he wants to compel all emergency services in Nelsonville to carry Narcan/Nalaxone to protect the lives of heroin users.
“In Nelsonville, the police do not carry Narcan – they refuse to,” Powell said. “There is no recovering for someone who is dead.”
Powell also vowed to reduce Nelsonville’s “bloated” police budget in order to try and fix the city’s ongoing budget crisis.
New parking-enforcement policies in Athens also were discussed. The policies raise fees for parking in desirable uptown spots, creates different zones with different parking fees and time limits, and extends parking enforcement from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Sundays and holidays.
Krane described the new parking enforcement as “regressive taxation” – something that disproportionately hits lower-income residents.
He contrasted the city’s enforcement of parking with its lack of code enforcement for renters.
“City officials can’t ensure that three-quarters of city residents have a safe place to live, but get to the meter five minutes late, and you’ll lose an hour of your hard-earned wages,” he said.
Monday said he understands the logic of the new parking-enforcement program, but does not think the city should prioritize significant parking changes when more pressing matters need attention.
“A lot of the things the city government is doing makes sense and are fine things to be doing,” Monday said, “but there are other things we should be doing first.”
HAMRICK ALSO ADDRESSED environmental and water issues.
She and Powell both suggested canceling all water debt in Nelsonville
Hamrick cited the June 13 Athens NEWS article about how dozens of Nelsonville residents have no running water, saying those conditions are unacceptable.
“We need to cancel all water debt, and restore services to these people immediately,” Hamrick said. “Clean water is a human right.”
Hamrick also proposed banning fracking in Athens County, among other stronger environmental protections. She described the global environmental situation as dire and requiring immediate action.
“I don’t think we have time to waste, moderating our demands, pandering to people, we assume are to the right of us,” Hamrick said. “We literally have 10 years to make an actual revolution, to overthrow the government in 10 years.”
The candidates also discussed the local economies.
Krane, who is also president of the Athens Mobile Vending Association and owner of the Hot Potato food truck, is a proponent of increased mobile vending rights in Athens
He said Athens is renowned for its local food and beverage scene. However, local businesses are struggling to compete with corporate restaurant and coffee chains on Court Street and uptown.
“In addition to all the problems we face with landlords as residents, landlords of commercial property have been pricing local businesses out of the market,” Krane said. “We have landlords that are pricing would-be businesses out of the market, and city regulations that are preventing people from entering the market through mobile vending.”
Krane noted that Athens has a strong economic base for sustainable local food, with local and regional farmers supplying restaurants in Athens.
Hamrick, on the other hand, suggested she’s not a particular fan of small businesses.
“I know it’s popular to be pro-small business in Athens; people love our small businesses,” Hamrick said. “I think the principles of exploitation that describe our capitalist system are true in small businesses as well as large businesses.”
THE CANDIDATES ALSO discussed the political landscapes of Athens and Nelsonville.
Krane said the Democratic Party emerged on top after Republican political power in Athens faded away in the early 1990s, giving the Democrats sole control of the city.
“We tend to think of Athens as this Democratic stronghold,” Krane said. “But what is really is, is a Republican wasteland.”
Hamrick denounced the Democratic Party, from the local to national levels.
“It is pretty clear that the Democratic Party at all levels of government does exactly nothing for poor and working-class people, and isn’t going to,” Hamrick said. “It’s proved itself unreformable time and time again.”
Monday also expressed dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party.
“I think even a lot of Democrats are frustrated with the two-party system,” he said.
Powell said he feels like the American attitude toward socialism has changed from the historical resentment to ambivalence, something he has noticed while campaigning.
“Instead of the Cold War stereotypes, I am often met at the door with indifference and apathy,” Powell said.
He also described the economic conditions in Nelsonville as bleak, something to organize against and combat.
“These communities were betrayed by the mines the factories and the state,” Powell said. “And what we have to show for it is the pollution, poverty and despair those entities left behind.”