The Sonya Halpern Interview

Buckhead's new state senator and I eat vegan burgers in Vine City and talk shop.

When Vincent Fort served in the state senate, I found myself barging into his office at random moments to commiserate. Fort was arguably the most progressive – the most aggressively progressive – Georgia legislator in living memory. I count him a friend. Nikema Williams too, who succeeded him before taking John Lewis’ seat in Congress this year.

The Atlanta district they represented is now served by State Senator Sonya Halpern. She is fundamentally different from her predecessors in some ways: Halpern’s a corporate leader with a little money, where Fort and Williams made their political bones in the street. She and I are graduates of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, home of the Fighting White Guys, my friend Audie Cornish and football futility, a school that’s about as Atlanta as a snowstorm. But Halpern’s focus on inequality as the most serious problem facing Atlanta, the state and the country is much the same as those who came before her, befitting her district.

We met at Local Green in Vine City. Vegan place – I’m omnivorous – but it has fabulous food with really great rosemary fries. It’s a vignette for the district; a little bougie in a good way, dropped into a community with vibrant street life that’s still wrestling with the economic dislocation of the pandemic. We talked about crime, politics, Buckhead, rappers behaving badly and a lot more.

This interview is edited for length and to make me sound like less of an idiot.

“[W]hen you’re talking about domestic violence, that is after the fact when police are called. I think we underestimate the stresses that people already had and got added to.”

George Chidi: So, tell me about your first six months in office?

Sonya Halpern: So, I love it. I’ll tell you why. I love it for all the big reasons and the silly reasons. I love getting my hands dirty and rolling up my sleeves and digging in. I actually love relationship building. So, trying to get to know colleagues has been harder because of COVID. We didn’t have nearly the kinds of social gatherings that we might have. It’s harder to get to know colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I’ve managed to make some relationships anyway with people I could call in the off-season ... I’ve had a really successful first legislative session and was able to get a few things done. I’m especially proud of that. And then you have the things like SB 202.

But I go into it eyes wide open. There are things where you’ll have bipartisan support. And there are many things in the Senate. I was told this as a newbie ‘you’re going to find that the media likes to report that most things are contentious.’ But there’s a lot of bipartisan stuff. But it’s not going to be stuff like voting rights. There are certain issues where you know it’s going to fall on party lines. That is what it is. Having relationships means that you can talk to the other person and understand and try to convince them to vote your way, or at least understand why they’re voting the way they’re voting. Which I think is just useful generally, because it helps you strategize on the next thing you have to talk about that may not be as contentious.

GC: Did you get the committee assignments you wanted?

SH: Yes, I did. ... I think two or three of my committee assignments were the ones I asked for.

GC: That means the Lieutenant Governor looked at you and said ‘yeah, you can play.’

SH: My four are education and youth, health and human services, and then I’ve got banking and financial institutions and then state institutions and property.

GC: The health one is interesting to me today, because of what I’m working on. Crime is super complicated and complex – anyone who says there’s an easy answer is wrong. That said, domestic violence went up by 35 percent, and a lot of that is a mental health problem and a resources problem. It’s not a cop problem.

SH: Let’s be clear: police are called after the fact, right? And there’s ways that police can be preventative also. That’s where it’s a numbers game and great investigation. But when you’re talking about domestic violence, that is after the fact when police are called. I think we underestimate the stresses that people already had and got added to.

And add to that ... I'm already struggling to find a job or keep a job. And now jobs are kind of going away. I don't have safety nets. Most Americans and certainly Georgians and especially Georgians in my district – because my district is literally, maybe the most social economically diverse in the state, and country, by the way – you've got people with no safety net, all of the sudden don't have hours and can't work, and literally are kind of stuck at home, because their children are home, because their children can't go to school.

And the thing that I will say, too, is all along, even by the time we got to last July, August, September, when people would ask the question, should our kids be in school or shouldn't they be home for COVID? And I'm like, the only people saying that kids should be home, are the people who don't have kids at home. And I'm not saying just send them back to school. I'm just saying, like, gotta find a way to do it safely. You got to find a way to do protocols, because it's one thing to ask the parent to find childcare options for two weeks. It's another thing to be like day after day, month, after month after month, I need you at work physically, and where am I going to put my children? ... It almost doesn't matter the age of the kids. If you got to get up and go out the door to a job and leave children at home, or you can't go find somebody, you can't do that forever, ever, ever.

We talk about our village – and it does take a village. But our villages are a lot more disjointed than they used to be, even growing up in neighborhoods where you can really count on a neighbor and you know your neighbors. That's exactly what I think is driving this.

GC: So, evictions, hypothetically, were stayed, but only for nonpayment. If you were in lease violation, you could still be evicted. And there were 9,000 evictions that took place in the city of Atlanta last year. So, we had a bunch of folks who were really afraid of having some lease violation, because they've got somebody sleeping on their couch who isn't supposed to be there. Or they're smoking weed. Or they get into a fight. They're limiting the amount of police interaction they want to have, because they're afraid of a lease violation which might emerge and they're not paying their rent. It all comes back to this housing insecurity issue, which I think drove some of the violence. Is there a state role here?

SH: Right? I mean, these are great questions. And I don't know, right here today, that I can say, ‘yes, this is exactly what the state should be doing, can be doing’ in that regard. Right? Because I actually want to give a thoughtful answer. ... I do think that the housing piece is it, but because domestic violence, kind of always exists and kind of always stays somewhat under the radar. ... I think that we can understand that domestic violence is a lot more prevalent than we might otherwise because of the general tone and tenor, all around us.

GC: Everybody’s pissed. (laughing).

SH: Right. Just like the bully behavior that you see all around us, like – rage – is just unusual. There's a lack of emotional control and emotional health generally. When you have a job and it’s part of how you see yourself ... and then you can't do that? It's going to change how you feel about yourself. The housing insecurity is a big one.

GC: We’ve had a 7 percent increase in rental prices over the last year.   

SH: Yeah. Which is, which is huge. The rate of inflation? When jobs are stagnant, I mean, even right now, the housing market is explosive. It's really unbelievable. And that big chasm between people with money – who have money – and the people who don't, really don’t. That growing distance between haves and have nots, the lack of federal funding is a major problem. But we have got to grow the middle class, again.

“All of these inequalities we're now really seeing because we’ve ripped the band aid off, because of COVID.”

GC: This is the thing that's been killing me through all of us. We've known there's an inequality problem. For years. You probably read the same Bloomberg report I did, four years ago. Biggest inequality in the United States. Lowest income mobility in the United States.

SH: Four percent. Did you know if you were born in the bottom quintile, 4% will make it out of the poverty in their lifetime, like the idea that your zip code literally determines your entire trajectory for the rest of your life. (Editor’s note: yep, she read the same report I did.)

GC: So, you know, this, and I know this, and the policy guys know this, but I keep looking for movement in a meaningful way toward getting at it. And I'm not seeing it. Everybody's talking a good game. But I'm looking for the answers. It's like, ‘fine, we're really going to go nail down what's going on with housing.’ Or ‘we're definitely going to get the job thing,’ or ‘the education thing’ or ‘the training thing’ or something. And it's all incremental.

SH: But I think it's because a lot of times we silo these issues. So when we talk about health, we don't understand how it actually links to everything else. We’re talking about income or economics, and we don't actually link it back to everything else. And the same thing with education. I do think part of the problem is, it's an umbrella problem. All of these inequalities we're now really seeing because we’ve ripped the band aid off, because of COVID. We're starting to be willing to talk about intersectionality more than we ever did before. And if you're always just saying, “Oh, well, what's the one little thing I can do over here?” Then you're doing Band Aid stuff, as opposed to really grappling with the whole issue and saying, how do we start over? And if we were to start over, what would that look like? Big, creative, innovative ideas.

GC: It's part of the reason that I'm irritated with Buckhead. Legitimately, I'm trying not to be irritated with Buckhead. They deserve better from me. (laughter) But the fact that there's a subset – it's not the whole group, it's just this tiny group – but they're loud. And they're saying ‘we're going to separate because we think crime is terrible and look at all these crimes and crimes ... and their crime is lower than everybody else's in town.

SH: It is. But it does no good to say that out loud. The reality is – and you know I represent Buckhead ...

GC: I’m not going to ask you to trash Buckhead.

SH: ... And I’m not. But the thing is that, well, Buckhead deserves the same kind of attention and transparency and communication as every other part of my district. And so with the crime thing is not enough to say ‘well, it’s worse here so I need to focus here, right?’ The truth is, it’s bad throughout. And we actually have to just deal with the fact that Buckhead does deserve to feel safe walking out of their door, as does Midtown Atlanta, as does the West Side. My entire district, everybody deserves to feel like they can go get gas and come back home.

“If you look in other cities around the country, you can do anything as a black person that you can't necessarily do in other cities across the country.”

GC: Yes, I agree. I think that the equality problem is driving the problem in Buckhead. I spent some time with gang investigators in South Fulton. And what they were telling me is that some of the kids are driving up to Buckhead to go and pull robberies, because that's where the money is.

SH: And that's the interesting thing, because if Buckhead were to successfully leave the city of Atlanta, there is no walling off (Atlanta). The crime is still going to be there, it's still going to come there. Because that's where the perceived money is.

GC: They would also lose their ability to influence the rest of the city. Like right now. They've got skin in the game, and people have to listen to them, particularly if you’re running for mayor.

SH: Exactly. Buckhead actually has an outsized impact, I think on this mayor’s race, versus prior years.

GC: Should I ask you who you like for mayor right now?

SH: (emphatically) No! You should not ask. (laughter)

GC: (laughter) Okay. Let’s talk about Black Mecca. I worry about the connection between the music industry and violent crime, and how that Black Mecca narrative drives that ... this idea that Atlanta is the place if you are an up-and-coming Black person, you need to come here because we're going to make you great. And then we get 5,000 rappers, 4,990 of whom should not be rapping.

SH: So, the thing about the black Mecca is that it really is still true. If you look in other cities around the country, you can do anything as a black person that you can't necessarily do in other cities across the country. You really can come here and start a business. You really can come here and be in a company and rise into management level? C-suite-ish. You can be on big, important boards here. You've got all kinds of businesses that really do come to this area because they see that they need diversity. And we really do have the workforce. We've got these great HBCUs. I mean, it really is still a special place.

But that doesn't mean that there's not room for our own improvement. And I think that's what you’re kind of speaking to. The Hollywood kind of entertainment scene that has really, really developed over the last 10 years. It's, like, good for the city in some ways. The thing is that if you don't have enough of the counterbalance, it seems to take more weight. And that’s becomes what Atlanta is seen as. All of the reality TV shows that are filmed here. I watch some of them myself.

“The Black movers and shakers of Atlanta are known for allow us to be able to successfully do those other battles between the business community and the Black political power.”

GC: You’re a better person than I.

SH: I mean, they're great, but you want to counterbalance that. Yeah. And I think that what we need to do a better job of is really profiling that counterbalance. I think we're getting too much of that kind of media ... entertainment .... always in our face, and less of ‘here's what's happening,’ ... even with the tech thing and Black tech.

GC: It's funny hearing the mass communications major saying ‘maybe we should tone down the media stuff a little, just a bit.’

SH: Because it's super enticing, right? To young people who are just starting out? I can be anything – and you can be and you should be able to be anything – but some of those images and what that means for us as a people? You know, I moved here 23 years ago. I'm not a native, but I've been here long enough to really understand and know the Atlanta Way and what it looks like, and why it’s important to preserve some of it. The Black movers and shakers of Atlanta are known for allowing us to be able to successfully do those other battles between the business community and the Black political power.

GC: My most serious complaint with sort of the power structure of Black Atlanta and the power structure of the business community here, is that when you start looking at the executive ranks in some of the larger businesses, it’s not nearly as diverse as the city itself. It isn't nearly as reflective of Black talent, because there's a lot of Black talent. Like, when you look at the startup scene – and man, I'm a Georgia Tech MBA, and I care about this. You'll see Black startups, and they're doing okay. But then you’ll see (for lack of a better word) white startups, where none of the founders are Black and none of the money is Black and you can’t find a single Black person in the building. And I'm hating that. I don't know how to fix that.

SH: We're still – with very few exceptions – I find that there's a Black world and a white world. I don't know where so much the opportunities are where there's as much of that crossover intersection. I mean, I don't know.

GC: I don't either.

SH: How do we create that crossover blend, because it's all relationships.

GC: It is. It's all relationships. That's the thing I've told people when they come here. You may be talented, you may not be. You may be educated, you may not be. But if you can't find a tribe, you're going to fail. It belies the openness of Atlanta as an economic center. If you're not good at networking, when you get here, you’re going to get hurt. It's interesting that entertainment does seem to be one of the few places where you see crossover. Or maybe that's the place to bridge and I don't know, but we do need a crossover, and we're not getting it. And I fear it's getting worse.

SH: We’re also a huge market for former athletes. There's got to be a way also to get their help, as an opportunity to build a bridge. The one thing that I would like to see more of, generally, in the city –  because if I have one complaint, it's always the same people, the usual suspects.

“We all have the ability to, you know, create the world that we want to see, which sounds silly. We vote every – let's call it two years. But every day, we get to vote with our own volunteerism for the communities that we want to live in.”

GC: What are your legislative priorities next session?

SH: That's a great question. And some of that I am working through now. So let me just say, I ran on equity, access, and opportunity for everybody. Those really are the things I’m most interested in. The challenge with those things is that it crosses across every sector, right? So, it's zooming in. For me, if I have to think of literally what is the foundation, it is economic equality. It is the starting point. Because if you're able to support yourself and your family, then you can start to figure out some of the rest.

I don't have any bills drawn up yet. But that's a space that I'm really, really interested in and doing some research around minority business and entrepreneurship, that kind of thing. What are the levers that I can push legislatively, or not? You know, we've got a lot of money coming down from the American Rescue Plan, and I am also trying to do some work and have kinds of conversations about some of the things I think we should be using that money for, because it is transformational dollars and we would be squandering the opportunity if we don't do something.

GC: I'm worried about how much the crime issue right now is swamping all the other stuff. Like, in order to get the inequality things that you and I are talking about, there's a whole bunch of other things that have to get to.

SH: We have to multitask. Every single one of us. Whether you're just elected, whether you are just a leader in the community, we all have the ability to make change. And we all have the ability to, you know, create the world that we want to see, which sounds silly. We vote every – let's call it two years. But every day, we get to vote with our own volunteerism for the communities that we want to live in. The reality is we can multitask. Yeah, we got to deal with crime. And we got to deal with these other things too. But if you let one thing dominate the entire conversation, then we're missing the mark.

This is really no offense against the professionals in media, but the thing is that, you know, we do get our digest of what used to be from different media sources, and the media does tend to want to focus in on one issue at a time. So that kind of siloing effect tends to happen.

GC: I'm doing what I'm doing today because I think the media is failing, specifically on this issue, giving people context. I’m sincerely worried that it's going to look really easy for political figures running for office right now to demagogue their way with the crime thing.

SH: Yeah, but you’ve got to offer some solutions. My personal view is that we do need to make more investments in our police department. I actually think we need more. Because it is a numbers game. So, we do need to increase officers. And, of course, simultaneously, we got to deal with the root issues. ... Most people don't go out and just choose and decide, ‘This is my profession; I want to be a criminal’ and commit crime. You find yourself doing those things because you can't find a way to make it otherwise. So, we give people the opportunity to make it otherwise. We’ve got to give people the options.

I just recently did an interview with the president of Atlanta Technical College, and the President of CEFCO, which is the construction education foundation of Georgia. And we were talking very specifically about this idea of this technical school and trades. Because everybody's not going to go to college and everybody doesn't have to and trades are an option. And how can we get more people engaged in doing that?

GC: Oh, for sure. If you're if you're any good in construction, you're employable here. It's a cyclical business; don't get me wrong. But I've seen people quite literally pull themselves out of homelessness.

SH: Absolutely. It's not even just construction. If you look at the trends in this country, for every five people in a trade that are retiring – and that includes pipe fitters, and electricians, plumbers, not just construction – there is only one person replacing them. We have a dearth of people who are able to do these jobs. It's a huge opportunity for people to learn these trades, and be employable for the entire rest of the time that they want to be working and support a family and be able to continue to succeed.