The Alisha Thomas Storyby William Upski Wimsatt
Alisha Thomas doesn’t make things easy for herself.
She is a progressive black woman who won a seat in the Georgia state legislature at the age of 24.
And not only did she win. She won her seat against the backdrop of the 2002 Republican “sweep,” in which voters across the country went with the perceived party of patriotism. Especially in Georgia. Even popular centrist Democrats like Max Cleland and Ray Barnes lost their jobs.
On top of all that, she was elected not from Atlanta, but from Austell, Georgia, which is located in Cobb County.
For those of you who don’t know, Cobb County is the suburban district across the Chattahoochee River from Atlanta. Seventy percent white with a median income around $70,000— and the heart of Newt Gingrich’s former congressional district.
Cobb County is notorious for radical defenses of white flight, Christian evangelicals, and well-funded conservative political action committees (PACs). As recently as 1995, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote: “Cobb County has become a national center for hate activities ranging from neo-Nazi skinheads and KKK recruitment to anti-Semitic revisionism.”
Cobb County kept out MARTA (the Atlanta mass transit system) to insure that people who use public transportation (i.e. black people) would have no way to get there without driving. And if you do drive, you had better watch your black ass. Cobb County is where Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown), was ticketed for DWB (driving while black).
Cobb County is where county commissioners passed a resolution declaring the county officially opposed to “gay lifestyles,” resulting in the entire area being bypassed by the Atlanta Olympics. And to top it all off, last September the Cobb County Board of Education voted unanimously to encourage the teaching of alternative “theories of origin” to evolution in order to provide a “balanced education.”
Cobb County: You know the deal.
Or do you? As in most places in the New South, there is Old Cobb County and New Cobb County. Over the last 15 to 20 years, Atlanta’s economic boom has not only lured previously migrated African Americans back south, but also Fortune 500 companies with well-established diversity programs and a vested interest in not being portrayed as having moved their headquarters to Klantown, U.S.A. (Besides Coke, Home Depot is based in Cobb, as is NAPA Auto Parts). The many years Gingrich spent as Speaker of the House insured that Cobb County was cut huge, huge slabs of federal pork, with the ironic impact being an influx of technology and military-industrial corporations— IBM, Lockheed Martin, and GE Power Systems— that are required by law to adhere to some semblance of equal opportunity when it comes to hiring and contracting. The net effect has been that since 1990 the county has added more than 70,000 black residents.
Still, how does a 24-year-old progressive black woman win in the heart of the Confederacy in a district that is 70 percent white?
Does she have wings, claws, or bucks?
Alisha Thomas is originally from Miami. She first laid eyes on the Hotlanta metro area eight years ago when she arrived as a 17-year-old Spelman College freshman. She is a lifelong activist: she joined the NAACP at 15 and is remembered at Spelman mostly for reviving the college’s moribund NAACP chapter, which grew to a peak membership of 500 dues-paying members (nearly one quarter of the school!).
After graduation, Thomas worked for progressive organizations in the Atlanta area (such as the National Alliance for Justice, a nonprofit that tracks judicial nominations) before deciding to run for state representative.
On her first try, in November 2002, she was elected to the Georgia General Assembly, unexpectedly defeating a better funded Republican opponent by 2,144 votes.
“I moved to Austell after I graduated from college in 2000. I had only been there two years before I ran. I started getting involved in the community through the Austell Community Task force. They do a lot of service. People were very skeptical and disbelieving when I told them I was running in Cobb County and that I could actually win. I was 21 or 22, walking into a meeting saying I was running for State Rep. I know in the back of their heads people were probably thinking ‘that’s cute.’”
And as a youth organizer from the nonprofit sector, she was able to put together a team of low-cost volunteers who engaged in an unprecedented retail political campaign. Her campaign manager was a 21-year-old college student named Rashad Taylor, also a member of the NAACP— from Morehouse. For Alisha Thomas’s team, the campaign was an extraordinary trial by fire.
“We were out at 5:30 a.m.,” recalls campaign worker Ebony Barley, part of the young team that formed around Alisha’s campaign. “Alisha’s campaign was so exciting. We had maps all over her house targeting precincts. Her mom and dad came up from Florida. Her dad was cooking. I organized about 20-some volunteers. I had sent out an email to recruit people to do GOTV. We learned how to strategically target certain districts, how to hang door-knockers. And also what time black folks are gonna vote. Polls close at 7 o’clock. Black folks vote at 6:45. They have to pick up their kids, go to the grocery store. Georgia has laws that allow people to vote up to five days before election day. But it’s not publicized. There’s so much stuff we’re not supposed to know. And most white progressive tactics don’t necessarily work. Yelling ‘Tell Bush to get out of my Bush!’ Black folks don’t want to hear that.”
Thomas’s win is also a vindication of the training and networking resources provided by mainline civil rights organizations like the NAACP. The NAACP comes in for a lot of heat, but Thomas would never have won without the networks and skills provided by the prehistoric African-American uplift organization.
Leading up to the election, Thomas and her volunteers— drawn from her contacts in Atlanta’s progressive community, the NAACP, students from AU (the Atlanta University Complex which includes Spelman, Morehouse, Clark, and Morris Brown), her family, and numerous young people from Austell— went door-to-door, introducing the candidate and handing out 60,000 leaflets with her home phone number printed on them along with an invitation to call anytime to ask questions.
Did a lot of people call?
No, not really. But it distinguished her as accessible when a nervous electorate was looking for politicians to be more responsive in our increasingly uncertain age. For Thomas, putting her phone number out there wasn’t a campaign gimmick. This is who she is.
“My home phone or my cell phone are on everything I send out,” she says. “When I was running, I got anywhere from 20 to 30 calls a day. And I returned all those calls. It’s just all to be accessible to my constituents. Nowadays I usually get an average of five calls a week from constituents. I do monthly town hall meetings. So sometimes I get more calls when we do those. Still, I have 130,000 people in my district. I think the reason I don’t get more calls is that people are so used to having their elected officials be inaccessible. People feel like they’re bothering me by calling me. Also, people feel so disconnected from the political process that they don’t realize how important it is to tell me their views.”
Last February, her legendary openness got her embroiled in the ongoing controversy over Georgia’s state flag, which had been stripped of the Confederate battle emblem. A Cobb County chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans invited Thomas to come before the group and explain her opposition to the emblem’s re-instatement, and she (bravely or foolishly, take your pick) accepted the invitation, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “They’re my constituents. I will gladly come to their meeting.” She left the meeting soon after arriving, saying that the members were verbally abusing her.
When Alisha Thomas talks, you have to pinch yourself to remember you’re talking to a politician. She shatters all the stereotypes of how a politician is supposed to be. It’s like what’s wrong with this picture? She takes her job seriously. Means what she says. Tells the truth. Has compassion for all people. Sticks up for what she believes in. Represents her constituents. Where’s the catch?
“About 75 percent of my calls are from people who need help on specific issues,” she continues. “People know I’m very passionate about young people in the adult prison system. So I get calls from parents whose kids are in the system. I got a call recently from a parent whose young son was incarcerated. She called me to tell me about how he was being treated. A lot of the kids get raped in there and they don’t even get proper counseling. It was hard to take that call because you know as a legislator that it isn’t in your power to take that person out of that particular situation. All I could do was connect her with some other parents in the same situation. They have a group Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice. So at least they can support one another.
“I got another call last week. I was on the phone for probably two hours talking to a parent whose son has autism. He was very upset about how the proposed changes in Medicaid and PeachCare (a state program that provides medical care for children) would harm his child. Of course that has a huge impact on the way I will vote. You have to listen to your constituents first and foremost. Despite what the party leadership says, or anyone else, the people who put you there are the ones you’re there to represent.”
When you ask Thomas questions about her views, she often manages to bring the conversation back around to her constituents. We ask her: What will it take to build a progressive governing majority in the U.S.? “I think genuine public service is what people want. When I come to people’s doors and listen to them, people see that I’m someone they can talk to. I was speaking at a college the other day and this woman stood up and said she can’t afford a car and she has to walk seven or eight miles to work every day. She said, ‘How can we continuously elect these politicians who are so out of touch and who don’t understand the struggles we go through?’ My response was ‘unelect them!’ I told her, ‘You need to find out who your politicians are, call them up, and tell them what you need; if they don’t respond to you then you need to unelect them. Support someone else. Or if there’s no one else to support then you need to run.’ We need more young progressive people to run for office.”
And so it begins.
Alisha’s campaign manager Rashad Taylor, now 22, is running a school board campaign for another young person, and they’re in the process of forming a PAC. “Rashad and I,” says Thomas “have a passion for training more young progressives to run.”
*with assistance from Gary Dauphin (www.africana.com)
This essay is excerpted from HOW TO GET STUPID WHITE MEN OUT OF OFFICE the anti-politics, un-boring guide to power, edited by Adrienne Brown and William Upski Wimsatt, due out in March from Soft Skull.
Wimsatt’s underground classics, Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons, are also available from Soft Skull. He lives in Brooklyn.
ContributorWilliam Upski Wimsatt
Wimsatt is a social entrepreneur, author, political activist, and former graffiti artist.