Elizabeth Webster is a Democratic candidate for Georgia state House District 35 in the June 9 primary. She is one of three Democrats hoping to run against Republican incumbent Ed Setzler in the November election.
The Courier recently had a videoconferenced conversation with Webster, and began by asking her to tell a little about her background.
“I have been a resident in Kennesaw since 1995. I raised my daughter here. She went to Kennesaw Elementary, Awtrey Middle and North Cobb High School, and she went to Kennesaw State University,” she said.
“She recently graduated from Mercer law school,” Webster said. “If you can’t tell, I’m a proud mama.”
“My background is in public health,” she said. “I have a doctorate in public health epidemiology. I also have earned a Master’s of Science from Georgia Tech in public policy, as well as an MBA from Kennesaw State University. So I’m also, along with my daughter, a KSU alumnus.”
Webster said she grew up in Queens, but has been in Cobb County for her entire adult life.
“This is my home and I love it here,” she said. “I want to represent the people that I’ve gotten to know in the quarter of a century that I’ve been here.”
“I know their their ups and downs, their challenges. They’re part of my extended family and I feel that their voices need to be heard,” Webster said.
Why she is running
Asked why she is running, Webster said there are a couple of reasons.
“One is, of course, HB 481. That was a catalyst that I think could not be ignored,” she said.
“It not only just turns back the hands of times for woman’s health care in America, but it denies a woman a right to privacy,” she said. “It denies a woman self determination.”
“The bill itself goes against science,” she said. “Most major medical associations and medical professionals have argued that this bill not only goes against medical advice and denies women an important part of their health care, but it actually will threaten women’s lives.”
“The author of this bill has said that it’s meant to protect women,” she said. “But what it does is force women to engage in unsafe access to abortion and potentially kill women. I think we are all well versed in how women died from the the so-called back alley abortions, and we don’t want to go back to that time.”
“Additionally, I’m running because, quite frankly, our leadership here is not reflective of who we have become in Cobb County,” she said.
“With the expansion of Kennesaw State University, demographics have evolved, and we’re a much more diverse population. We’re diverse economically, we’re diverse culturally, we’re diverse ethnically, racially,” she said. “We’re we’re just a much more diverse population here in our community in Acworth and Kennesaw.”
“And we don’t have leadership that reflects that,” she said. “We don’t have leadership that’s engaged.”
“I’ve been here for 25 years, and I’ve never seen our current representative in our district,” she said “To my recollection, I’ve not seen him invite the community in to speak to him in a town hall, and that’s not okay.”
“So I’m running because I think there are voices that are not being heard,” she said. “There are voices that need to be heard.”
“Our representatives, no matter what party you represent, should represent all the constituents, should represent everyone in the community,” she said. “We should be representing the young, the old, the black, the white, the Latino, the Asian.”
“We should be representing cisgender, we should be representing LGBTQ, we should be representing everyone,” she said. “We should be representing the low-resource families as well as those who have resources. We should be representing those who are engaged in public education and those who are engaged in private education and homeschooling.”
“But that’s not happening right now. So we mean to have someone that has the background, the knowledge and the skill-set, who is able to come in and balance those agendas so that we can have a healthy and prosperous community,” Webster said.
Webster was asked her position on the reopening of the controversial Sterigenics facility near Atlanta Road on the outskirts of Smyrna.
The Sterigenics plant became a focus of community concern in Smyrna and surrounding areas after an article jointly published by Georgia Health News and WebMD reported that three census tracts, two in the Smyrna area and one in Covington, had unacceptable levels of cancer risk by EPA standards, due to elevated amounts of ethylene oxide in the air.
During a period of voluntary shutdown for the testing of new equipment intended to address the emissions safety concerns, the county ordered Sterigenics to stay closed for review of its certificate of occupancy and fire protection standards.
Pressure from the FDA caused the county to allow the facility to reopen on a limited basis, and a federal court expanded that to give Sterigenics the full ability to operate their plant pending a final legal decision.
“I think that relates to issues of environmental justice,” Webster said.
She said many of the environmental issues we’re dealing with today are the result of placing polluting industries near minority and low-income communities.
“We’ve allowed companies to pollute in communities that perhaps did not look like our community: low resource communities, black communities, Latino communities.”
“And what we didn’t stop to recognize is that pollution doesn’t stay within a bubble,” she said. “It impacts all of us.”
“We need to look at it from an environmental justice perspective,” she said. “We need to ensure that our EPA regulations are enforced,” Webster said.
“In this recent administration, a lot of our EPA regulations were loosened and companies were allowed to pollute with with very few ramifications,” she said.
“We need to strengthen the EPA, both at the federal level and the local level,” Webster said.
“I understand the issue of wanting to balance business interests with community health interests,” she said. “But when your business interest is at the detriment of community health, we need to ask why.”
“What are you doing? And why aren’t you engaging in technologies that could help to improve the way you do business? Is it because switching over to a cleaner technology is not cost effective?” she asked.
“What are we doing to support those companies to ensure that they have the resources to switch over to a cleaner technology? If it’s just, ‘Hey, we’re just polluting at will because that’s what we’ve decided to do’, well, then we need to address those behaviors and enforce the laws that will stop that type of behavior,” Webster said.
The Courier asked Webster her position on the rights of tenants.
The topic of tenant rights and evictions has been in the news due to the economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We live in a state that favors landlords,” Webster said. “Property ownership as a whole, in the south and in Georgia is considered sacrosanct.”
“Particularly during this COVID-19 crisis we’ve had people out of work who have perhaps have not been able to meet their rent,” she said.
“I think you want to respect a property owner’s right to their property, which is why we have protections such as adverse possession, and you want to make sure that you give landowners every respect that they deserve,” she said. “But at the same time, you have a competing interest called a tenant, who has various rights.”
She said she would like to see the rights of tenants strengthened.
“Once you open your doors to your dwelling to be rented, the landlord is obligated to ensure that those premises are safe, functioning and healthy to a certain degree,” she said. “I think we need stronger laws to ensure that when you move in as a tenant, you are guaranteed those rights and when the landlord is in violation of them, it isn’t an issue of ‘suck it up’.”
“Georgia as a whole offers very little protections in terms of tenant rights, employee rights, labor rights,” she said.
Webster said that even civil rights enforcement often defaults to the federal level, and when federal oversight is weakened, the individual at the state level has very few protections.
“It’s a fine balance,” she said. “You want to respect the landlord and their property, but at the same time when you make a decision to open up your property to dwellers, you need to ensure their safety.”
Criminal Justice System
The Courier asked Webster her thoughts on the criminal justice system.
“I think what we need to do is go in and make the components of the system work better,” she said.
She said that the first thing she would do is address the role of the district attorneys.
“I think people, as a whole, don’t realize the power that the district attorney has in the criminal justice system,” she said. “The district attorney, with a signature, can literally stop the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“We won’t prosecute children for childhood behaviors, we won’t prosecute for various types of crimes, which would dictate how the police interact in the community, it’ll dictate who is being prosecuted and for what,” she said. “So that is an exceedingly powerful position that has very little checks and balances on it. So I think that’s an area that needs to be examined and massaged a little bit to see why we are not leveraging that position to enact immediate reforms, particularly at the school level.”
“I’m profoundly disturbed at the racial disparities in discipline here in Cobb County. So that that’s first and foremost, I think.”
She said she favors legalization of marijuana.
“The fact that we have people serving long term prison sentences for possession of minuscule amounts of marijuana is ridiculous,” Webster said.
“I think we need to get rid of for-profit prisons, because it obligates the state to fill those prisons.” she said.
“If the state is obligated to fill the prisons, then we now need to mobilize the police to arrest people to fill the prisons,” she said. “So it just keeps going on and on and on.”
She said that Cobb County has been the site of “egregious abuses” of prisoners.
The targeting of low resource black and Latino communities should stop, she said.
“I want to see county level, state level and federal tracking of police interactions, and also of the police who are disciplined,” said Webster.
She said in most professions that have a significant impact on life, such as physicians, lawyers, and engineers, the professionals are licensed and tracked by some sort of governing board.
But, she said, police are tracked in a way that’s “all very internal and cloistered about who does what, where and when, but it’s not tracked.”
“I feel that police should be as tracked as much as a physician, a lawyer, an engineer, any other profession. It’s an important profession in our society. And I think we need to hold them to those standards,” she said.
“So those are some of the steps that I would take,” she said.
“I would look at the district attorney’s position and leverage their authority to limit some of the negative impacts of the criminal justice system,” she said. “I would want a tracking system for the police. I would want to address the humanitarian violations of our prison system. I would want to get rid of for-profit prisons, and I would want to legalize marijuana.”
The Courier asked Webster if there were any issues we had not covered that she wanted to address.
“I think one of the most important issues is health care,” she said.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic, and I think it’s highlighted not only the inequities of the healthcare system, but our failure to properly prepare.”
She said that the U.S. health care system is divided into two parts: public health and clinical medical care.
“They run parallel with each other but they work together, and they should be working hand in hand.”
“Our public health system addresses population health,” she said.
She gave as examples the fluoridation of water to reduce cavities, campaigns against smoking, and healthy eating charts.
“The other half that people frequently don’t see is the tracking of disease. That’s where the epidemiologists, the disease detectives, come in.”
“We provide forecasts, and we say, ‘Based on what we’ve been seeing, this is what we think is going to happen’,” said Webster.
She said that everyone from the World Health Organization to local health agencies expected a pandemic to happen at some point.
“I think the previous administration did their best to address that,” she said. “They installed the public health team in the White House and handled Several epidemics while they were in there.”
“During the current administration, that was all removed, and the public health warnings were not heeded,” she said.
“I think the our public health system is fantastic. I think our healthcare system works the best as it can work. I think it needs to work better. And the way it needs to work better is that we need to stop making profit from people’s illnesses,” she said. “That should not be a thing, to be honest with you.”
“We should not be looking for a way to make money off of sick people, because it goes against the interests of society,” she said. “When you’re sick and you’re not healthy, guess what you can’t do? You can’t work. You can’t be productive. You can’t contribute to the overall well-being of society.”
“We have a health care model that is currently based on limiting care to those who can afford it,” she said.
“What we need to do is expand health care here in Georgia, ideally through Medicaid, but we need to expand it to ensure that everyone is covered.”
“Because what we found in this pandemic is disease doesn’t stay put. It doesn’t just stay with those who can afford it, or stay with those who can’t afford it,” she said. “Disease does not discriminate against anybody for any reason. It just makes you sick. And, and we’ve literally seen how disease can shut down society.”
“The world has been shut down by a virus that you can’t even see with the naked eye,” she said. “If that doesn’t scream how much we need universal health care, I honestly don’t know what does.”
The Courier asked Webster if she had any closing thoughts she’d like to tell voters.
“This is a working-class community,” she said. “The average income here is about $65,000 to $69,000 a year. These are working-class people.”
“They get up every morning and they go to work. So we want to make sure that we have an infrastructure that supports them in terms of transportation … public transportation.”
“I want to make sure that I’m pushing an agenda that makes it easier for them to live well.”
“I want to make sure their interests are represented and uplift all of their voices,” she said.
“With my background in public policy, with my background in business, with my background in health, I can do that for them,” she said.
“I think in many ways we’ve seen community members lose a degree of hope: ‘I’m not being heard’, ‘I can’t find a job’,” she said.
“I had a neighbor who passed away from cancer, because she was told her insurance wouldn’t cover her anymore.”
“I’m going to create an environment where as long as you’re willing to put in the work, you can go out there and get it done,” Webster said.
“I will make sure opportunity is available to you, I will make sure that if you’re willing to make it happen, I’m going to provide those opportunities to make it happen for you,” she said.
“I want to give everybody a chance to have a great American story,” she said. “I have a unique American story that you can’t find anyplace else other than in America, where you start with little, but you put in that effort and you can have more.”
“I was provided opportunity. So I want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed,” she said. “And for me, I think that’s everything.”
For more information on Elizabeth Webster’s campaign visit her campaign Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ElectElizabethHD35/