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Kwanza Hall on a month in Washington

By Maggie Lee

Former City Councilman and Atlanta Board of Education member Kwanza Hall went to Washington, D.C. last week, after winning a special election runoff to fill the last month of the term of the late Atlanta Congressman John Lewis.

SaportaReport spoke to Hall Tuesday evening, as Congress was trying to work out a COVID-19 aid bill.

This is an edited Q and A.  Click here for the full version.

SaportaReport: What have you been up to in Washington, what’s going on there?

Kwanza Hall: You would think that this period would be uneventful, that the election was not even relevant, but it’s actually turned out to be the most consequential last month or so of the last century, from what I’ve heard from historians or from people who’ve been around Congress, primarily because of the level of debt that the country is carrying, because of the pandemic that we’re in, the need for a full budget — or at least enough of a budget to get us into the next year and into the time when the new administration can handle things and come up with a new strategy and vision for the country.

And then we’ve got social unrest happening, and we’ve got cannabis legalization on the table … the military budget is $700-plus billion dollars.

We’ve heard some little surprises around the stimulus. There was a conflict on the number from $908 billion to $916 billion, really more like the $908 billion. But there’s tension around … dollars for states, dollars for people, dollars for business, big business versus small business. So there’s a push and pull and we’re trying to find a center point that gets everybody happy. The House is led by Democrats. The Senate is led by Republicans…

SR: The two bills you filed about voting rights, can you talk about those a little bit?

KH: Well, [late Congressman] John Lewis was a friend, neighbor, mentor and icon in the Civil Rights Movement. He and my father worked in the Civil Rights Movement together. So it was only fitting that I continue the legacy that’s in my DNA.

One piece of legislation is the John Lewis Prompt and Accurate Reporting of Elections Act, which just calls on any state or local government that receives federal funds to be required to … record their early and absentee voting in advance of the final Election Day so we don’t have what happened in the national elections this year.

And then the other piece of legislation focuses on the disenfranchisement of individuals who are returning from the justice system, who’ve been incarcerated and are coming back and really don’t have their right to vote.

So those are two pieces of legislation, I think, are … continuing the voting rights legacy that District Five has. It’s something that even if I don’t get full support, it’s something I can hand off to [Representative-elect] Nikema Williams, and it keeps the fire burning in the 5th District.

SR: And you have some more bills coming up?

KH: One is related to expungement. I’ve got another related to — and we’re trying to still work through it — but there’s another related to jails and the treatment of individuals in jails. And then there’s another specifically about forced labor, and basically like indentured servitude and slavery.

So [I’m] really trying to call attention to items that usually aren’t on the radar screen. We talk about how bad things are, but no one really does anything. And for this short period of time, I committed to myself and to the voters that I would raise the conversation on matters that usually aren’t spoken about …

I’ve signed on to things I believe in [list here] … but they’re in the same body of work that Congressman Lewis also spoke to and fought for and I’m just continuing the legacy, picking up the baton, passing it on, on the pieces of legislation that he was supportive of; and then legislation I’m kind of proud of.

SR: Since it’s a short term, is it fair to say you’re not going to have time to pass legislation probably? Much less with a Republican Senate. So is it fair to say though, that you’re using this office to lift up the same body of work or continue the work that Congressman Lewis did and bring these issues to the forefront?

KH: We’ve been without any representative since July 17. There’s no one voting on behalf of District Five. You want to vote … [the choices are] yay, nay, present or zero vote. So that’s number one. We deserve a vote. And so I’m there to vote on behalf of and on the wishes of the district.

Number two, there is the power of the office and of the body to place items on the [House] floor, on the record, to introduce legislation, to raise the conversation, to engage with other leaders to put ideas on the table, that may not have ever been thought about. People are too busy or maybe they didn’t hear from our perspective, or our vantage point, or it just happens to be the right day.

And I, as an [Atlanta City] Council member, I did that a lot. There are a lot of pieces of legislation, as simple as food trucks. And it took a long time to get that passed. As simple as valet parking on the streets, as simple as decriminalization of possession of less than an ounce of cannabis. So someone has to start it.

SR: There’s a there’s a couple of elections coming up. I’m thinking of the city mayor, I’m thinking of the next election for the for the District Five seat, are we are we going to see you running for office again?

KH: Well, I was sitting at home enjoying getting started as a business man and it seems like every time my business doesn’t jump off, [laughs] I’m pulled back into politics.

But in this particular case, seriously, it was a personal obligation to the relationship that I had to Congressman Lewis. And that was why I ran and I felt, after thinking about it, I was uniquely prepared at this time, at this moment in our country’s history, in my personal time and life as well. I turn 50 next year, it was perfect timing for me to step in this role and to do the things I’m doing right now, it gets bigger and better every day in terms of the activity.

But I’m not necessarily inclined to have to run again. But what I will commit to you is that I’m committed to Atlanta, I’m committed to District Five and committed to Georgia.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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