(Photos from left: Courtesy of Robbin Shipp for Labor Commissioner, Courtesy of Connie Stokes for Governor, Courtesy of Doreen Carter for Secretary of State, Courtesy of Liz Johnson for Insurance Commissioner, Courtesy of Valarie Wilson for State School Superintendent)
On Election Day, political observers around the nation will have Georgia on their minds. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, hopes to unseat incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal. The outcome of the race between Michelle Nunn, daughter of former congressman and senator Sam Nunn, and Republican opponent David Perdue is a key factor in whether Democrats will be able to maintain their fragile control of the U.S. Senate.
But there are five other reasons to keep an eye on Georgia: the ballot will for the first time feature five African-American women running for statewide office. Their fates are far from certain, but their mere presence will help decide if it's Deal or no Deal and whether Democrats can turn the red state blue.
"We are hopeful that the African-American community, which is key to the November election, is energized and excited by the historic nature of this ticket," said Robbin Shipp, who is running for labor commissioner. Even though women make up more than half of the population and minorities comprise roughly 48 percent of the state's population, "all of the constitutional offices in Georgia, from the top to the bottom, are held by white males," she adds, a wrong that she hopes the Georgia Five, as the women have been called, can help right.
Shipp's political appetite was first whetted when she was a student at Shaw University and volunteered on Rev. Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign. She managed Rep. Sanford Bishop's first congressional bid and when Barack Obama was running for office, Shipp and her friends like to joke, they made monthly donations "like he was a bill."
The longtime defense attorney also served two terms in the state's general assembly, but left public office soon after her father's sudden death to help her mother adjust to being on her own after 51 years of marriage. She now feels compelled to get back in the game after witnessing the number of Georgians living in poverty go up instead of down.
Thirty-three percent of children in the state are living in poverty, Shipp told BET.com, and its $5.15 per hour minimum wage is one of the nation's lowest.
"We have an incumbent labor commissioner who is on record as saying he doesn't believe that the minimum wage needs to be raised," she said. "That is a profound disconnect."
Shipp, who holds also master's and doctoral degrees, believes that as someone who's been "incredibly blessed" throughout her life, she is obliged to give back by fighting for progressive policies through elective office.
When Connie Stokes was a child, it would have been easier for her to believe Chicken Little's cries that the sky was falling than to imagine that she'd one day serve as a state senator and county commissioner or launch a bid to become Georgia's next lieutenant governor.
Stokes never knew her father, and after being abandoned by her mother, she was raised by a grandmother who had a sixth-grade education and worked as a maid and then in a factory. Because there was no money for babysitters, she had to go to the factory after school, which was kind of a drag, but taught her the value of hard work and the impact it had on their lives.
Even though she became a teen mom at 16, she held a part-time job in a bank and sold Tupperware and Avon while earning her diploma and ultimately earned undergraduate and master's degrees. She also built a lucrative career in real estate that landed her in the million-dollar club.
When her name showed up on "for sale "signs in yards all over town, Stokes became a familiar face. People were constantly asking her to serve on boards or some other community organization and eventually began encouraging her to run for office.
"I knew I was up against incredible odds because all the leadership and people in the community said, 'Oh, you can't beat an incumbent,' so I had to," said Stokes, who used the work ethic she learned from her grandmother to gain the edge.
"I'm running for lieutenant governor to [help] create jobs. I've traveled all over the state of Georgia and people really want to support their own families. They don't want to be on social programs or to get a hand out," Stokes told BET.com. "People want to have the opportunity to [experience] the pride that you feel when you can support your family, make a difference in the lives of your children and prepare for the future. That's what I want to help them do."
Incumbent secretary of state Brian Kemp has received a lot of unwanted attention in the past several weeks. His office appeared to be stalling on processing nearly half of the 85,000 new voter registration forms submitted by the New Georgia Project, until the group filed a lawsuit a few days before early voting was to begin.
Doreen Carter's commitment to ensuring that those voices, mostly minority, young or female, are heard is what motivated her to try to oust Kemp.
"We've seen different laws being put in place that deter minorities from voting and we know that voting is one of the most important things that anyone can do because the people we elect to office make decisions on our behalf," Carter said in an interview with BET.com. "I believe Georgia needs someone who is going to stand up for the people, especially when it comes to their voting rights."
Creating an inviting and nurturing business environment is also a top priority for the former Lithonia City Council member and current president of the Greater Lithonia Chamber of Commerce.
"I'm very passionate about growing businesses and helping create jobs," she said. "And I want to be able to help not just my local community but citizens around the entire state of Georgia."
Liz Johnson, who's on the ballot for insurance commissioner, began her career in the industry in 1973. Since then, she has served thousands of constituents in all aspects of their insurance needs. Still, she acknowledges, when they think of those needs, the office of insurance commissioner doesn't come immediately to mind.
"It's one of those positions that in general, not just here but across the country, a lot of people aren't familiar with because they don't deal with that office firsthand," Johnson said. "But it's an office that affects our daily living because of our various needs and the reasons why we even purchase insurance for when, not if, the unexpected happens, our economic security is protected. It's time to put Georgians first in every area of this office."
Johnson says it's time for a leader in the office, and she's the one to fill that job. If elected, she says she will work to ensure that Georgians have access to affordable health care and will also provide consumer protection against fraud and premium hikes.
"We continue to rate too low among other states in terms of health care and premium rates," Johnson said.
Faced with such choices as who will represent you in Congress, the governor's mansion or state legislature, school superintendent is another one of those offices that doesn't receive enough consideration. Truth be told, however, it is very important because the person in that role has a significant influence on your children's futures.
"One of the things I say as I travel the state and with the utmost respect for the other offices on the ticket, this is probably one of the most important races on our ballot because it is a race for our children," school superintendent candidate Valarie Wilson told BET.com. "It's about their future and the future of the state. You have to have a strong public education system in order to have a strong state economy and state. I say that everywhere I go in encouraging people to get out the vote because this is where you begin to make a difference about what you see happening in your local community."
For 12 years, Wilson, who lives in Decatur, Georgia, was a member on her local school board, which was one of the highest performing districts in the state. For seven of those years she was chair of the board, in addition to serving as president of the Georgia School Boards Association.
Currently executive director of the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, Inc., a grassroots campaign focused on an integrated approach to transportation, land use, green space and sustainable growth, she previously was director of the Fulton County human services department, managing a budget of $26 million and programs that serve the elderly, children and youth.
Wilson says this combination of experience sets her apart from the competition. She is "laser focused" on seeing children succeed, and the incumbent superintendent, John Barge, a Republican, agrees.
“Valarie Wilson is the only candidate in this race for state school superintendent who understands the real issues facing our public education system in Georgia,” Barge said in his endorsement of her candidacy.
Wilson is not surprised that she and four other African-American women are on the ballot. It is, she says, part of the state's natural progression.
"Speaking from the vantage point of education, when you look at what's happening in the school system, for the first time ever the largest number of children in our system are brown children," she said. "You see that happening and it tells you that what we have on our ticket, as it relates to the five women, is that it is reflective of what we see happening in our state. I think that speaks to Georgia and its growth and its diversity, and I'm excited about that because I think it's one of the things [the state] should be proud of."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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