Candidate profile: Luisa Wakeman, Democratic candidate for Georgia House District 43

Luisa Wakeman stands at lecturnLuisa Wakeman at a candidate forum in 2018 (photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

Democratic Party candidate for District 43 of the Georgia House of Representatives Luisa Wakeman answered questions from the Courier this week about her campaign and who she is.

Wakeman, a flight attendant and registered nurse, is running to unseat incumbent Republican Sharon Cooper. Cooper has held her house seat since 1997.

This is Wakeman’s second run against Cooper.

The 2018 general election saw Cooper defeating Wakeman, but only by 792 votes.

In the June 9, 2020, primary, Wakeman received more votes in her primary than Cooper did in the Republican primary. The former received 6,767 votes and the latter received 6,095 votes.

June’s primary was the first time Wakeman received more votes in a primary than her opponent.

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Can you talk about your background? Who are you?

Wakeman: My husband Jon and I have lived in East Cobb for over 20 years. We raised our two kids here. This is home. I have been a flight attendant with Delta Air Lines for almost three decades. I’m also a Registered Nurse. Our family was particularly hard hit by the Great Recession. So I went back to school, got a second degree in nursing from Kennesaw State, and then began working in the cardiac care unit at St. Joseph’s as a second job to help out. I would say that’s who I am. When there’s a need, whether it be from my family or my community, I step up to help out.

What has made you want to run again?

Wakeman: In 2018, I was a first-time candidate with no political experience running against someone who was first elected in 1997. But we still came within just 800 votes of winning. I learned so much through that experience that I knew we could come back even stronger this time. And frankly, the need for change is even greater than it was just two years ago. It’s certainly hard work, but I think it’s important work. That’s why I’m stepping up to finish what we started last election.

What political issues are most important to you in this day and age?

Wakeman: Of course economic recovery is front of mind. Public schools are so important to the fabric of East Cobb as well. I think it’s critical that we restore the $1 billion in education cuts from this year’s budget.

But my opponent and I are both Registered Nurses.

She also chairs the committee that handles Georgia’s healthcare system and is on the Governor’s COVID Task Force. So healthcare is going to be something we both talk a lot about. And really it’s a question of whether you want more of the same or think we can do better.

I would argue that we can do better. We’ve mishandled this pandemic in many ways. We rank 50th in the nation in maternal mortality rates. We’re one of just 13 states that hasn’t taken federal money to expand Medicaid. There was a draconian abortion bill passed a year ago. And I would say just in general that insurance and drug companies have way too much power here.

My opponent has had more than two decades to fix things and hasn’t. Let’s try something different.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 and the loss of jobs and as a result, loss of healthcare, some Democrats have been calling for options beyond Medicaid, such as single-payer healthcare and Medicare-for-all. How do you feel about healthcare options beyond Medicaid, like Medicare-for-all or single-payer healthcare?

Wakeman: In Georgia we need to first focus on bringing back our federal tax dollars to our state to lower the number of uninsured. We are at a point where people are losing their jobs, and with that they are losing their health insurance. It should be a priority to make sure more people can go see the doctor when they’re sick. Expanding Medicaid is the step we need to take to start addressing some our healthcare needs.

How do you feel about local and federal government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? Would you do anything differently about the pandemic response when elected?

Wakeman: Governor Kemp really let us down. The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is a short drive from the State Capital. Georgia’s leaders had easy access to the best information and seemingly didn’t take advantage of it. I think we quite clearly re-opened too soon. I also don’t understand why the state decided it was its job to override local leaders who had enacted mask mandates. None of these decisions were easy and of course some challenges were unavoidable – but to be at or near the top of cases and deaths per capita week after week has been terrible to see.

If elected, yes I would vote to institute protocols that protect Georgians working on the frontlines and people with pre-existing conditions. But so much of this is people making decisions for themselves about what the acceptable level of risk is. In that case, the government needs to provide better data to people and more testing with a faster turnaround so that they can be more informed in making these decisions. We also need to lead by example and do what we can to establish a prevailing culture of putting safety first.

Can you expand on your position on public schools and paying for college from your website? How specifically would you reinvigorate the HOPE program?

Wakeman: So many East Cobb residents got through college via HOPE. Many more have kids now and want them to have access to it. We need to reimagine and reinvest in this signature program.

I would like to alter the formula to include greater allowances for two-year colleges and technical training.

We need to stop sending the message that it’s four-year university or bust for everyone. You can save some money by adding more means testing components.

But ultimately yes we need to find more money in the state budget and make a greater investment here — there’s no way around that. But this should be a priority and I’m ok with it being a bigger budget line item.

Would tuition-free public universities ever be something you may support?

Wakeman: The student debt crisis is out of hand. We have to do more in this space. But as much as I’d like to see tuition-free schools I haven’t seen a financial model yet where that makes sense or would be practical.

Can you talk about your concern over budget cuts to public education?

Wakeman: The General Assembly just cut $1 billion from its education budget. It’s part of a larger pattern of not putting schools first. I get that we were looking at a shortfall. But there are other places we could have found the money.

For example, we could have raised hundreds of millions of dollars by simply increasing our cigarette tax to the national average. We made cuts to K-12 instead.

And when the Governor was elected he made two promises: An income tax cut and a $5,000 teacher pay raise. He delivered the tax cut, which equates to about $42 a year in the pocket of the average Georgian — which I think could have been structured better. But he went back on his promise to teachers who are still waiting on their modest raise. We need to shift our priorities and be a state that puts our children and educators first.

Can you expand upon your environmental position? With recent events such as what has occurred in California and Oregon in mind, how specifically do you plan to address the ethylene oxide emissions and ash ponds next to the Chattahoochee in Cobb? Do you support the Green New Deal?

Wakeman: It’s incumbent on the state to do more on climate and the environment, since Washington seems so unwilling to. We’ve seen that Georgia companies self-regulating hurts our community. This was clear with Sterigenics and the release of Ethylene Oxide gases in a residential area as well as Georgia Power burying coal ash in unlined pits next to the Chattahoochee river. Those are things that must be immediately addressed with steps also taken to avoid the next iteration.

More broadly, to your question, we need leaders at every level, from local to federal, who listen to climate scientists and act on their advice.

As for the Green New Deal, I think it’s an important aspirational document. While I don’t agree with every line, I see its significance as a marker of intent and is something that I hope we can build on and take parts of without staking out black-and-white for and against position along party lines.

On your website, you talk about issues pertaining to voting rights. What do you think of mail-in voting that is widespread now because of the pandemic? What could be ways to improve upon mail-in voting?

Wakeman: Mail-in voting has become an important form of advancing public health. The more we can de-crowd precincts on Election Day, the better.

The best that can be done on this, and my campaign has spent a lot of time and money here, is to get clear information to people on the process and how it works.

I don’t think the Secretary of State has done a great job facilitating that. It shouldn’t be down to the individual campaigns to take such an active lead on this when there is a state agency charged with doing it, but that’s where we are right now.

What’s your position on guns and campus carry here in Georgia?

Wakeman: I’m opposed to guns on campus and in favor of common sense gun laws. In fact, one of the big reasons I’m in this race has to do with this subject. In 2017,

I was volunteering with Moms Demand Action, a nonprofit that focuses on these issues. I went to the state capital and talked to my representative — now my opponent — I asked her to support a school safety bill. She told me flatly that she’d already traded her vote.

This was a bill affecting the safety of my children, everyone’s kids, and she was just sort of flippant about the fact that her vote could be traded. That negative experience is largely what turned me from a volunteer to a candidate.

How do you think you differ best from your Republican opponent?

Wakeman: Transparency and accessibility are words that get thrown around a lot in politics. But I think they apply here. If you look at some of my opponent’s disclosures, less than 1% of the hundreds of thousands she has raised have come from individuals living in our district.

The lion’s share is from outside groups, most often from the healthcare industry that she’s supposed to be regulating. When you have a 99:1 ratio like that, it’s hard to say that you’re going to put your constituents ahead of those donors. I’m running to do the opposite. I’m going to have an open door, hear all opinions, and vote as East Cobb would want me to.

In your primary this year, the difference between the number of people who voted for you and your opponent have been closer than they’ve ever been. On a larger scale, across Cobb County, more traditionally Republican seats are now beginning to be challenged, with Democrats receiving many votes in traditionally red places. What do you think has changed in your district and perhaps county-wide that has caused traditionally Republican seats to be more contested?

Wakeman: Well I think certainly demographics play a part in it.

Cobb is getting younger, more diverse, and more progressive generally. But as it pertains to 2020, I think you have a lot of people that you might classify as political moderates saying, yes I traditionally vote Republican, but am I this Republican? For many, the answer to that question is no. They’re looking at how extreme and divisive things have gotten and saying this is a bridge too far.

What do you think of police brutality and the protests surrounding it?

Wakeman: I think the country is having a long overdue conversation about race and criminal justice. I hope that it’s more than just a conversation, that it’s productive and that we see tangible change. Specific to police brutality, I think people rightly want to see some reforms made. We should review the way we are training our officers. We should make sure body cameras are requisite everywhere. And just generally that accountability is higher so that we can isolate those acting improperly and handle it justly — while also being supportive of those doing their duty and keeping us all safe.

What do you want voters to know most about you and your campaign?

Wakeman: I’m running a grassroots campaign. I’m part of this community. You will see me at the grocery store, walking my dog and volunteering at local events that have nothing to do with this campaign. I know that politics isn’t top of mind for most people who live here. That’s why they want someone who will prioritize the safety and success of their families and businesses. That’s what I will do for you at the state Capitol.

Any last thoughts you feel the public should know?

Wakeman: As a Registered Nurse, I can’t leave an opportunity to ask you to remember the 3 Ws. Wash your hands, watch your distance and please wear a mask. Your mindfulness is the most loving thing you can do at this time for everyone you are around. We are a generous community and at this time your actions have impact. Also, please vote for Luisa Wakeman!

Arielle Robinson is an undergrad at Kennesaw State University. She is the president of the university’s Society of Professional Journalists and an editor at the KSU Sentinel. She enjoys music, reading poetry and non-fiction books and collecting books and records.

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