Bipartisan: Mesha Mainor
This is the first in the Bipartisan series, looking at how cross party politics works ... and doesn't ... in Georgia.
Last month, Tennessee legislators tried and failed to throw two Democrats out of their seats after floor protests for gun control crossed an invisible line. Montana State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender state lawmaker, found herself working from the hallways and cafeteria of the state house after Republicans barred her from the House floor for criticizing their move to outlaw gender-affirming healthcare for kids.
I look at that and wonder if the Georgia legislature could get to that point - if the tenor and mechanics of governance are making bipartisanship impossible as a practical matter.
So I decided to ask around.
SB 233 proposed to allow students in schools at the bottom 25 percent of performance to take $6,000 of public school money to pay for private education. The bill failed after raucous argument, with 16 Republican lawmakers voting with almost every Democrat to block it.
State Rep. Mesha Mainor is why that’s almost every Democrat. She fought for the bill, and has drawn a lot of attention lately for … heterodox … politics.
A few days later, I interviewed her, along with State Rep. Vance Smith, a Republican from Harris County just north of Columbus, Ga. who was one of the 16 against the voucher bill. I also spoke at length with State Rep. Kacey Carpenter, a Republican from Dalton and State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat from Tucker, both of whom have well-won reputations for working across party lines in the interest of their communities.
The voucher bill is a framing mechanism for a larger conversation about bipartisanship, and a window into how the very human relationships built by legislators are often as important — and sometimes more important — than fidelity to partisan expectations.
Given the unfolding horror in Washington D.C., with our congress about to fly us straight into the debt ceiling, I thought these interviews might be worth reading today.
This interview with Mesha Mainor is the second time we’ve spoken for publication, but will be the first in this series over the next month. She and I sat together after an event at the AUC campus, and my wife Sara Amis — a journalist and writing professor who has covered education with no small degree of creeping horror for Decaturish — joined us.
As always, this has been edited for clarity, length and the desire for everyone involved to sound as smart as we wish we were.
George Chidi: So, we're here on the AUC campus. You got legislation passed to consolidate the police departments here at their request. It's … interesting. While you were talking in the well, I was in the hall. And I was standing next to the (former) GBI Director, Vic Reynolds, And he and I are looking up at the screen. And he turns to me for a second and says, “I'm not even sure we liked that legislation.” The gist of what he was saying was that he was kind of astonished that it had even come up for a vote. He didn't think that it was a priority and then bang, there it is, it passes. Basically everybody votes for it. And that's the thing. It wasn't controversial legislation. It was just getting something done that might have otherwise not gotten done.
Mesha Mainor: Technically, the other representative for this district. Park Cannon, voted against the bill.
GC: I noticed that. Why do you think Park Cannon didn't vote for it?
MM: I think you would have to ask Park. You have to ask her why she feels like the safety of students on this campus is not important.
GC: So, you’re drawing a little heat. Let me just say it as flatly as I can. You've got guys like Josh McLaurin floating $1,000 checks for whoever wants to run against you. Is this the kind of attention that you expected?
MM: It's never been at this magnitude. I mean, this has become a story. I've never been a part of a story. So, we're in Holy Week. It was just Palm Sunday. And what I do know is the devil will try to get you off track. And for us to be talking about not caring about the minds of young Black children during Holy Week, and from Martin Luther King's jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. The quote – and I might get it a little wrong – is ‘I stand here still understanding that I am in between two negros. One Negro that has elevated himself and no longer understands the plight of the poor. And the other Negro that has been oppressed and suppressed for so long, they no longer have hope.’ And a cause for all of that is a white moderate Democrat. That's all I know.
GC: The thing that I'm thinking about as I'm watching all of the social media stuff go down and all of the people saying, ‘what is she doing and we're going to primary her’ and all the rest, is what cross-aisle bipartisanship looks like, in a political environment that is highly polarized.
MM: My freshman year coming in, every single person in leadership says it's all about relationships. I am a physical therapist. For the bulk of my career, I've worked with senior citizens. And when you're working with senior citizens, you listen to them, or at least you should be listening to them. Understanding what their needs are. And some of my patients in the past would say you're the only person that listens to me.
So, part of working in that environment is you've got to be able to listen. And you've got to understand what the person wants that you're talking to. And you also need to be able to relate what you want, in the language that the person you're speaking to can receive. I think a lot of people have a problem with relationship building. I think a lot of people do not know how to communicate with other demographics. I think a lot of people do not know that we're in a world that's just not all about us. You know, we cannot just make every issue about us.
And so, how have I managed to get things done? Let's be clear. I was selected for the Leadership Institute at UGA, the legislative leadership institute, my freshman year. It was Republicans and Democrats at that leadership institute; Black, white Republican, Democrat, different genders, you name it. A very diverse group. We had a wonderful time. We said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is how politics should be. And we're going to continue this.’
That didn't happen.
But what did happen with those relationships that I built there, I continued those relationships with those Republicans, and with those Democrats. Some of the Democrats, when we were there, they barely talked to me there. And they still barely talk to me now.
The first woman, Muslim legislator coming in, my good friend, Commissioner Khadijah (Abdur-Rahman, of Fulton County). She is a Muslim. The first woman Muslim on the commission. I think that's a huge deal. I wanted to get to know the legislator. I asked her to dinner multiple times in a row. And every time I tried to speak to her, she was dismissive. And now that this has come out, she's just blasting me on social media. She's never had a conversation. And what's really ironic is this is Holy Week. And I stood up and spoke out about Palestinians having the right to free speech. I voted against HB 30.
GC: … That would be the antisemitism bill …
MM: Correct. Not because I'm against Jewish persons, but I have many Muslim people in my community. I have many Jewish people in my community. But if one group says, this is way bigger than just this definition, this is a violation of my religious rights, by not being able to speak out for my beliefs, then I'm always going to vote for someone to be able to say something. Right? Which is ironic, because this whole debate is ‘I don't have a right to say anything.’ I don't have a right to vote the way I want to vote. I have no rights. And that's exactly what I'm opposite.
GC: My sense of the legislature over the years has been that most things that come through the legislature aren't actually especially controversial. Most votes are 95 percent. Everybody votes yes. Or no. Or it doesn't get out of committee. I bring that up to say that my sense of it is that most legislation is bipartisan. Is that fair? Is that reasonable to say?
MM: I would say that from the outside, yes. I would say being on the inside, some things just don't matter. So, it's not that it’s … this is not my opinion, this is my observation … some things just don't matter. And so why fight about it.
GC: This feels like a third rail, this specific thing, the voucher bill. Do you think the relationship building that you've done over the years took a hit because of the way this went down?
MM: Took a hit?
GC: Do you think you have damaged relationships?
MM: Damaged relationships with who?
GC: So, tell me just exactly that.
MM: No. The only people out here talking about me right now, were people that were already talking about me. (a little laughter.)
GC: Okay. That’s what I wanted to get at. Tell me about your district in the context of the voucher bill.
MM: Okay. I have the most charter schools in the entire state of Georgia. And I am a Democrat. This is one issue I don't agree with Democrats on at all. And so, Democrats are against charters, and I have the most charters in my schools. So, what am I supposed to tell every family in my district? No, you cannot go to that charter school? And we're going to close all the charter schools? No, nobody can do that.
The special needs services for children in my district are deplorable. I've brought parents to the state capitol to speak to Chairman (Mike) Dubnik. I've had them testify in meetings about the deplorable conditions. One parent had to get a job in the cafeteria at a school in Cobb County. Because that school has better special needs resources. And I don't know if you know, but the US Supreme Court just said that a child with hearing impairments -- how the school was teaching the child was unconstitutional. And I haven't had time because of you know, session, but I can't wait to go back to that group and let them know that the Supreme Court has said that this is unconstitutional. There are children that are four and five and six years old, that are completely hearing impaired and their teacher’s a TV. The Supreme Court said that's unacceptable. That only happens in a black neighborhood, which is why I voted for the special needs scholarship for children with disabilities last year.
GC: I'm asking this question about your district in part because I'm going to find a rural Republican who voted against the voucher bill and I'm going to ask him the same questions. My sense of it is that they're going to say, ‘well, our district looks like this. And so, I could not vote for this bill because of this.’ Which kind of gets to this point: that all politics is local.
MM: Well, you're also not supposed to say that something's deplorable, because that's not politically correct.
GC: Eh. I'm the last person in the world who should be talking about what is or is not politically correct. (laughter).
MM: As an elected official, I'm not supposed to say something is deplorable.
GC: Yeah, but if it's deplorable, what do you do?
MM: You don't say anything.
GC: That’s terrible. I would be a terrible state rep. (Sara starts laughing at me.) Yeah, my wife's laughing because …
Sara Amis: You were way more diplomatic as a Pine Lake city council member than I would have been.
GC: Before we go on, I want to come back to the legislation that got passed about the police department here. What did they ask for? Exactly? What does the legislation change?
MM: Yeah, they didn't ask for anything. This bill passed the House last year. It passed the Senate last year. The Senate made some changes. And when it came back to the house, I got the bill passed for the cannabis study committee. And for the disagree-agree vote, by the time it came back on Sine Die, hundreds of people wanted their bills done on just a yes or no vote and mine was one of the hundreds that just didn't pass.
So, I brought it back this year. This is something that the AUCC has been trying to do for 10 years. 10 years! It passed the House. It was the exact same language. It should have been easy-peasy. It passed the Senate committee. The change this year was when it got to the Senate floor. Senator (Bill) Cowsert put an amendment on it that impacted every public and private school in the state of Georgia, versus my bill which only impacted the AUCC. So, with that, every college president, every police chief on a college campus, every lobbyist supporting those groups, the chancellor, everybody was against it. What the changes did, did not impact the AUCC because they don't police out in the community, right? They're really just policing the other campuses.
GC: For the most part that’s true. They do some stuff at the edges here. And I've seen that because they own some residential property in the area immediately around here. Sometimes APD will defer to campus police if it's really close. [Editorial note: you should read my piece about Morehouse College’s dilapidated property off campus and how the college’s practices damaged nearby neighborhoods.]
MM: So, the law currently is 500 yards you can go beyond. The Cowsert amendment changed it to 200 yards. AUCC was fine with that. Georgia Tech is in my district; Georgia State students live in my district. And so, I was put in a situation where I let one group succeed, and then tear down another group? And so, the bill ended up going to a conference committee and I’ve never been to a conference committee. It was right during the school choice vote. I was going back and forth.
GC: (laughing) I saw you walking through the hall like you were on rails. Like, please don't make eye contact with me. I don't have time to stop.
MM: Yes. Yes, all at the same time. I was passing HB 800 for the Fulton Technology and Energy Authority. I was trying to get HB 142 passed. And I was supposed to speak in favor of SB 233. But I couldn't because I was just going back and forth too much.
GC: There was a whole group of people – mostly these young students from this student group – that were waiting for you to speak. They were in the hall, waiting for Mesha Mainor to say something.
MM: Yeah, so the Lord didn't make that happen because I had HB 142, and HB 800.
GC: So, let me ask this. Was there horse trading here? In the sense of saying ‘I'm going to work on this. I'm not just going to vote for it anyway. But I'm going to work on it. I'm going to whip votes on this bill. And in return, will you please give favorable consideration to this thing that's going on in my district?’
MM: So, I would say there were three bills at play. 233 was in the back of my mind. HB 800 was a local bill. I had people that were trying to kill that bill. So, there was definitely me going around in the Senate. It passed the house. On the Senate side, I was ‘can you sign this? Can you sign this? Can you sign this?’ And there was a whole argument, a loud argument, on the Senate side, I wasn't involved. But people were yelling at people for letting other people sign the bill.
GC: Which bill was that exactly?
MM: HB 800, which created a Student Advisory Committee for the Fulton Technology and Energy Authority. Right. Fifteen members can be on a state agency board that are from my district, because the bill is for my district. But it's Republicans and Democrats. And so I got enough Democrats and got enough Republicans to sign it. So that passed, right?
Now for 142, the people that I would consider allies that are Republicans, they were all for the Cowsert amendment, which was just so surprising to me. Right? They were adamant that the Cowsert amendment was going to be in 142.
When we went into the conference committee, I don't do well with just conversation that’s going nowhere, right? I said, ‘Look, I'm tired. I'm hungry. I haven't eaten.’ And at this point, we're going around in circles, we're not going anywhere. I can't let one group of students succeed, and another group of students die in the flames. I said table the bill. I am done. I was like, if Cowsert does this amendment – he's been trying to do this amendment, they said, since 2019 – he's going to bring it back next year. I said I'm not even going to bring it back anymore. Because every single time I'm going to be dealing with this. So, I'm done. I'm done. I'm done. I'm done. And I left.
And as soon as I left, I came back to the chamber and that's when (the voucher bill) SB 233 came up. I called our media service person. I said, I'm not speaking for 233. I'm done with the General Assembly for the day.
GC: You circulated this flyer, that’s started to circulate through social media, because on the second page of the flyer there's this picture of SATAN! (Dana Carvey-esque theatrical shouting). We're looking around at the capitol like … did you see the Satan flyer?
MM: Yeah, that's so funny. So … my office did not staple them in order. But I was trying to show the timeline of education in America. And that 1647 was how education started in America. It was through religious activities and witchcraft. It became more standardized if you will, because people wanted to teach religion and they needed their children to know how to read the Bible.
In retrospect, seeing how that one page can be taken out of perspective, I will never do that again.
GC: It was hilarious. I wanted to tell you. I don't want to dwell on it …
SA: We got where you were going, it’s just, you know, people get distracted.
GC: (just laughing like hell)
MM: Yeah, yeah, in retrospect …
SA: And I know that because I know a lot about education in general. And I knew that, you know, the beginning of education in America was religious instruction. So, I'm like, ‘oh, yeah.’ But anybody who doesn’t necessarily know that would zero in on … the Satan.
MM: Right. And I was supposed to speak …
GC: That’s part of the reason everyone is in the hall. Like, tell me she's going to explain this.
MM: Yeah, yes. I was going to go through the packet. Really quickly, you know, that would have been two seconds to say, ‘and this was how it started. And then it went here. And then it went there.’
SA: So, I write mostly about education, like DeKalb Board of Education, and City Schools of Decatur Board of Education to some extent, which is like on a different planet. I have, sort of, very granular questions about funding. So, first of all, why do you think the voucher bill failed?
MM: I think the voucher bill failed, because I – this is backstory – I have a piece of legislation that says schools are mandated to provide parents and guardians with the school’s report card, which would say what the composite ACT scores are, what the average SAT scores are. If they're a F or D school, whatever the data is that the state board has, that would be mandated to be given to every parent and guardian.
Some people said this is great. Accountability! … Let me get to this first, and then I'm going to say something else about relationships. My first year, I just went and tried to pass a bill, and all the people on my bill were Democrats, people I came in with, and I was just doing stuff, right? But now I understand the power structure. And so, I also understand that there's a majority party, I'm not going to be able to get anything passed unless this is something that they're okay with. Right?
So, I went to people on the majority party. What do you think about this? ‘I like it, it's accountability, and X, Y, Z’; those were the school voucher people. Then I went to other people – I know this now – and asked ‘what do you think about this? Well, let's see. Let's see.’ Then they came back to me. And they said, ‘well, my superintendents and principals don't want this to go to the parents. They don't want the parents to know the school data.’ Now … but that's exactly the problem. They don't know what's going on. No, I can't do this bill. Those are the people that voted against the school voucher bill.
And so, you have one group that’s on the majority side who think it's an issue of accountability. I'm about X, Y, and Z. And then there's a group that is voting based on what their superintendent, the school board, and the system wants, and not necessarily what might be best for their constituents.
SA: So, tying it to the school vouchers … I know that the bill said if it was below (failing), they could, you know, take the voucher and go somewhere else. Why do you say that?
So, this is just a fact, and this is also why people are very opposed to tying teacher pay to performance of students …
MM: … they shouldn't be …
SA: … because the biggest determinant of academic performance is socio-economic status, period, end of story. If you have a poor school district, if you have a poor feeder district, you're going to have lower grades. And that's just the way it is.
MM: Unless you have a parent that is in a poor neighborhood … who is going to just assume that everybody in a poor community does not know how to navigate a system? It’s absurd.
SA: It's not that they don't know how. Some people can't. They're working two or three jobs. They can't show up to all that stuff. This could benefit one parent. What about all the other kids, basically?
MM: Right! Right, right. I agree with that. Totally. And that is my seatmate, Vance Smith. That's what he said, ‘I want to help everybody,’ right? It's called a perspective.
So, I'm in school getting my doctorate and we're learning about worldviews. Sometimes you might use something from a constructivism worldview and interpretism worldview, or a pragmatism worldview. My worldview is if we have 100 kids that are doing terrible – they're doing terrible yesterday, they're doing terrible today – if we don't change anything, they're going to be doing terrible tomorrow.
Okay, 100 kids: terrible, terrible, terrible. If one child can take an opportunity. 100 people doing terrible (becomes) 99 people terrible 98 people doing terrible. I can't control the 100. The locals can, but if I can do anything to get two or three? I am all for that.
And I say that because my mom used someone else's address. I'm in the 100 category. If my mother didn't use someone else's address on the affluent Black side of town, would I really be here right now, fighting for school choice?
GC: Probably not. Likely not, likely not.
SA: How would vouchers not just pull money out of poor neighborhoods and poor school districts? I suspect that the rural Republicans are some of the ones from counties that are already depopulated. They are already having to close schools. People are having to drive farther to go to school, and they look at that voucher and say that just equals more schools closing.
MM: I have data out there. Two pieces of data. One looks at per pupil funding compared to test scores. The schools that have more per-pupil funding have the lowest test scores. Atlanta public schools gets about $16,000 per student. $1.6 million for these 100 students. The student gets the $6,000 and that person can take it to a private school. But the other $10,000 stays with Atlanta Public Schools. Let's just say one child now: each student in Atlanta Public Schools is $16,000. If they move, because the parents are just fed up and say ‘I'm moving to Douglas County,’ all the money leaves. If they go to a charter school, the money goes to the charter school. If they use the voucher $10,000 stays at the school, $6,000 goes with the child.
SA: Okay, so is that written in? Because QBE is based on attendance.
MM: it's written in. It’s capital costs and infrastructure, that $10,000.
SA: Okay. Well, how much of it is social services, because those schools need more, so they have more wraparound services, because their students need them.
MM: If a child were to use it, (schools) will have $10,000 left to use, because the child would not even be there.
GC: It's interesting. So, part of the reason why I'm skeptical, personally, is that my assumption is private schools will raise their tuition by $6,500 as soon as the thing goes through. That's the thing in my head. Private schools absolutely don’t want some of these kids.
MM: We're in the ESG [environmental and social governance], DEI [diversity equity and inclusion], reformative post-George Floyd era. Every company and organization's board of directors is trying to make sure that DEI and ESG governance is on point. Georgia has a mechanism for taxpayers to donate pretax dollars to private institutions.
GC: I saw that.
MM: Those pretax dollars that go to a private institution can only be used for need based scholarships. So, a lot of people when they think about – because we're in the city – when they think about private schools, they're immediately thinking about Padeia, Westminster, Pace, that cost $10,000 or $15,000. At one point, my daughter was enrolled in a Montessori school in Douglasville, and it was $8,000 a year. You get what I'm saying. And so, if this child uses $6,000 here, and they went to Douglas Montessori if they opt into that system – which I don't know why a school wouldn’t – they can give that child the $2,000 to cover the rest of the expenses.
Many black parents, if you look at the studies, are doing homeschool. Those numbers have increased significantly because they can't afford private school and they're sick and tired of their child going to a failing school. That $6,500 can go to the homeschool and $500 can be used for transportation, some things can be used for other costs. But the kids that come from families that do homeschool, I mean, some of these home schools are phenomenal.
GC: Yeah, I've seen that.
MM: I mean, they're getting into Ivy League schools.
GC: Some … suck. But why should they be different?
MM: Some suck. All pay. I hate the argument that poor parents don't know what to do. That's a terrible argument, and it's offensive. People are offended in my community by that statement. Just because you are poor, you don't know what someone's circumstances are, of why they're in that situation. But that doesn't mean they don't have any sense. And when it comes to somebody's baby, yes, some parents may not care. But there are a whole lot of parents in every single socioeconomic spectrum that care a whole lot about their kid, and will drive an hour away if they need to, to get their kid in a better situation.
GC: I've seen that too. So, all right: politically, do you think you're in any trouble?
MM: I think that if God wants me at the Capitol, I'll be at the Capitol. It won't be because I was primaried. I mean, going back to Holy Week, I am a believer that God is in control. I don't even know why I'm here. The Lord led me here. So, I'm going to do what I'm convicted to do while I'm here. And when I leave, guess what, I leave. This will not kill me. Right? I will still be a single parent. I will be having my doctorate by then. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, around a ton of celebrities. Fanfare and all of that? None of that does anything for me. I just think I'm in a totally different position than a lot of people.
I don't need the attention. I'm not here for attention. I'm here to help the school where their average SAT score is 384. When it could be 1600. The school where the average ACT score is 11.
GC: You’re making that number up. Which school has got an average SAT score …
MM: Look on my social media. My daughter made a 34 out of 36 on the ACT. Well, it's really not that amazing because so many people are doing that. Have you all seen Operation Varsity Blues on Netflix? Well, you should watch that Netflix special to get a little perspective on what is happening in the world. if you have a parent that's paying a million dollars to go to a school that my child can get into without a million dollars. that's some powerful stuff right there.
[Note: George Washington Carver High School in South Atlanta had 56 SAT test takers in 2022, with a mean English score of 397 and a mean math score of 370 … for an average of 383.5.]
And so, my concern is the child at Washington High School, Douglas High School, Mays High School: why don't they have that same ability. And if one of those kids from Washington High School can use a private school scholarship and end up like my daughter … because I had to navigate a system. I mean, I had to move to communities within District 56 and pay a whole heck of a lot of money for the better school. Nails not done (laughing) hair not done.
GC: Your hair is fine (emphatic).
MM: No designer bags.
GC: Oh, stop it.
MM: No, but that's because that is how I am going to make sure my child gets the best education she can. Other parents will do other things. It's just something I value. It's something my mom instilled in me when I was little. When I came home, I couldn't go outside and play until you did your homework. Period.
GC: Anything else on your mind about any other, any other stuff?
MM: I just think that this is a blessing, that since I couldn't pass a bill to let people know what their test scores were, Josh McLauren, gave me the opportunity … and Greg Bluestein and Patricia Murphy and Ty Tagami gave me the opportunity to let everybody in the world know what the data is in my district. That's a blessing. And guess what? Hopefully, I think something that's going to happen because nobody is going to want me to keep putting those numbers on blast.
I remain deeply distrustful of the school voucher movement. I’d be the first to admit that much of that is due to the cast of characters who are in favor of it - first among them Wes Cantrell. He’s on the board of a private school that seems to be a segregation academy: last year’s graduating class was all-white.
In addition, the math behind the voucher proposal seems a bit flaky. IIRC, the $6,000 per student is the average for all students, including high need students. The QBE formula provides $2,790 for a high school student without special needs. If that student transfers to a private school the $6,000 that follows them is all of their funding, plus a share of the funding for special needs students.
The saddest part of the interview was when the Representative said “ And so, if this child uses $6,000 here, and they went to Douglas Montessori if they opt into that system – which I don't know why a school wouldn’t – they can give that child the $2,000 to cover the rest of the expenses.”
The emerging data seems to show that private schools raise tuition when vouchers pass, so that the ‘good’ parents get a reduction in out-of-pocket costs while new students who depend on the vouchers are priced out by the new, higher tuition.
I may be wrong, but depending on people like Wes Cantrell to ‘do the right thing’ when they’re on the board of an all-white school may be a bit naive. I hope I’m wrong, but I grew up in segregated Georgia schools and this looks like an instant replay of the ‘60s.
If there were significant strings attached to the funding, such as caps on tuition increases if schools opt into the system, I might reconsider. Without that, the Representative’s argument falls far short of compelling.
Regarding the $16,000 per child in Atlanta Public Schools, last I looked, a significant portion of that goes to the public television channel operated by the schools system. It may have changed since then.