By Rebecca Gaunt
Attorney, writer and film producer Sam Hensley, Jr. is running as a Democrat in the special election for Georgia House District 34 (HD-34), which includes Kennesaw and a portion of Marietta.
Hensley, who now lives in Marietta, was born and raised in Cobb County. He attended North Cobb High School, where he played multiple sports and graduated with honors. He went on to Duke University, where he majored in political science and studied creative writing. After graduating magna cum laude, he was awarded the Woodruff Scholarship to the University of Georgia School of Law, where he graduated cum laude in 1986.
His wife, Ashleyanne, serves as the director of the School of The Georgia Ballet. Hensley chairs the Board of Trustees of the Georgia Ballet, which was founded by his mother Iris Antley Hensley.
“I believe that study after study demonstrates that participation in the arts dramatically improves academic achievement in students throughout all grade levels and socio-economic backgrounds,” Hensley told the Courier.
A solicitor in the municipal courts of Kennesaw, Acworth and Powder Springs, he is also the assistant city attorney for Kennesaw. Additionally, he represents the Cobb County Business License Division and the License Review Boards of both Cobb County and the City of Kennesaw.
An internship with former Sen. Sam Nunn and a campaign manager position for his father, Sam Hensley, Sr., who was elected to both the Georgia House and Senate, helped him to develop his political acumen. Hensley credits his time as legal counsel for the West Cobb delegation in the Georgia House as how he “developed a deep understanding of the state legislative process.”
He served for many years on the Board of Trustees of WellStar Kennestone Hospital, including a term as chairman.
Hensley was nominated for 1988 Georgia Author of the Year for his first novel “Family Portrait.” He also wrote and produced the films “Cruiser” and “All You Need.” He said working on those films and other projects currently in production aided him in developing “a strong appreciation for the film and television industry in Georgia, one of the most active such industries in the world, bringing billions of dollars of revenue to our state every year.
The Courier sent Hensley questions, which he answered via email.
How do you feel about the state’s COVID-19 response? What went well and what could have been done differently?
I think the speed at which the vaccines were developed and made available to the public, and the apparent effectiveness of those vaccines, provided a great example of what can be accomplished in a dedicated partnership between government and private industry. Unfortunately, those efforts were too often undercut by politicizing such measures as wearing masks and social distancing and casting them as intolerable infringements on personal freedom. Instead, we should have heeded the advice of medical experts and turned those measures into a unifying, bipartisan, patriotic defense against a common enemy.
What are your views on public education?
I believe that public education is the cornerstone of our civic life in a democratic republic. My family has a long history in public education, primarily through my late grandfather, Shuler Antley, who was the superintendent of Marietta City Schools and the principal at Marietta High School for many years. My siblings and I have attended both public and private schools. My oldest daughter attended the Walker School in Marietta, while my youngest child will be attending public school. So I have personal acquaintance of the advantages and disadvantages of both educational paths. We need to rededicate ourselves to making our public schools safe and inspiring temples of knowledge. Standardized testing provides an important gauge on the progress of students, but we should also give our teachers more freedom to utilize teaching methods that are most effective with their particular students. Teachers need to have the resources to address the special needs of disadvantaged students, while not being forced to shortchange the opportunities for students who excel. And parents have to be a major part of this equation, as they need to prepare their children for learning before they ever enter pre-K or kindergarten and to support teachers and administration in their efforts to perform this challenging but monumentally important work.
Do you support school vouchers?
Our emphasis in education should continue to be focused on strengthening and improving our public schools. The most recent studies I have seen suggest that students using vouchers are underperforming academically compared to same grade-level public school students, especially in math. And while there are many excellent private schools in Cobb County and throughout Georgia, the quality of education at these schools is uneven and often loosely regulated. I certainly understand the factors that lead many parents to place their children in private schools, including exposure to violent crime, high teacher turnover, and disciplinary problems in the classroom that take too much teacher attention away from students who are striving to learn. But we should be working to solve these problems in our public schools rather than abandoning them to the privatization of education.
Where do you stand on environmental issues? Do you think local government responded appropriately with regard to the ethylene oxide issues at the Sterigenics facility and Georgia Power coal ash pits along the Chattahoochee River?
Due to ethical considerations, I am unable to address the issues of ethylene oxide and coal ash pits. As a general proposition, I am a strong environmentalist and preservationist, while recognizing that the efforts to protect our environment can have significant economic impacts that must be considered. In my work as an attorney in the field of eminent domain, I work diligently with public utility clients to minimize the environmental impact of facilities such as electric transmission lines and natural gas pipelines. And I support efforts in Cobb County and throughout the state to preserve green space and parks, which are amenities that make our communities more healthy and enjoyable and also serve to attract businesses to our area.
What is your stance on climate change?
As with any such issue, I rely on the scientists and researchers who have dedicated their professional careers to studying such phenomena. There is a veritable Mount Everest of evidence that the planet is warming to levels not seen in perhaps millions of years and that human industrial, transportation, and other activities contribute significantly to that change. Climate scientists have been warning us about the effects of this trend for decades. The central question is, How do we choose to respond to this situation? I look at the totality of circumstances that we must consider. In order to reverse or arrest the increase in global temperatures and limit the harmful effects of climate change on the human population, we must wean ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels, which are a finite resource anyway. We need to see our oil companies continue to transition into energy companies that help develop comprehensive alternative sources of energy. Those sources must include solar, which the State of Georgia is already working hard to exploit, wind, thermal, tidal, and even perhaps a renewed focus on nuclear. The right combination of those alternative sources depends greatly on conditions in any particular location. From an economic standpoint, I understand the concern about a loss of jobs in the petroleum sector. But I believe even greater job opportunities can be found in the emerging alternative energy market. This transition is inevitable and we should embrace it, both from a private industry and governmental standpoint. No matter what your views on climate change may be, supporting alternative energy will make our environment cleaner in the short run and reduce our dependence on foreign oil sources, which I see as a national security issue. There really is no downside to it.
Are you in support of SB 202, the Georgia voting law passed this year?
SB 202 is not the monstrosity that some in the media have portrayed it to be, but there are some troubling aspects to the bill that may have the overall effect of reducing voter participation. The election in 2020, from all indications, was free and fair, with record participation by our eligible citizens and no evidence of fraud or error or foreign interference that would have affected the outcome. This was the result of a bipartisan effort, including by many Republican elections officials, with many of those being Trump supporters. It was an amazing achievement in a state as large as Georgia and a country as large as the United States. Unfortunately, instead of this being a cause for celebration, too many people called the legitimacy of the election into question on the basis of no credible evidence whatsoever. Multiple courts across the country dismissed challenges to the election, but I feel that at least some parts of SB 202 arose out of lingering distrust of our electoral system that is undeserved.
In 2019, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) sponsored HB 481, the anti-abortion bill, also referred to as Heartbeat bill and LIFE act. Did you support the bill and why/why not?
I did not support that bill because in too many cases it would outlaw a woman’s right to choose before she even knew she was pregnant. I also felt it was unconstitutional based on Supreme Court precedent, and court challenges to HB 481 proved that to be the case. It is possible in my view to be both anti-abortion, in the sense that I admire and want to support women who make the brave choice to give birth to a child in what are often incredibly difficult situations, and pro-choice, in that ultimately that decision is best left to those women, in consultation with their doctors and any family members they wish to involve in that decision. You can argue that Roe v. Wade was fashioned out of judicial whole cloth, but it is a compromise that seems to have served those competing positions well for almost 50 years. And I will add that the best way to reduce the number of abortions in this country is to provide women with the health care and child care services necessary to make having that child a real option. We shouldn’t just defend a fetus and then leave the child to the mother’s own devices. We are far too wealthy and compassionate a country for that.
Where are your views on the Second Amendment?
I support any citizen’s rights to own firearms for personal and home protection and for activities such as sports shooting and hunting. My concern is the ability of private citizens to obtain military-style assault weapons, which are designed specifically for inflicting mass human casualties. I think almost all of us would agree that there are limits on “the right to bear arms,” just as there are limits on free speech (such as libel laws, for example). Nuclear bombs and grenade launchers are “arms”, but I don’t know anyone who advocates for the freedom of private citizens to own them.
My brother-in-law was in the Army infantry and served two tours in Iraq, and if everyone who owned an assault weapon had the training and discipline that he acquired in the military, I would be far less concerned about it. But these weapons are too often being acquired by people bent on doing harm to innocent civilians, and I think it is incumbent upon us to put reasonable, effective limitations on such gun ownership. This is not a slippery slope to gun confiscation as some would have us believe. It is an attempt to curtail the mass casualty incidents by firearms that happen almost exclusively in our country.
What should Georgia do with regard to transportation policy?
Transportation, as part of the overall issue of infrastructure in our state and country, is one of my areas of emphasis. My father was a civil engineer who worked with leaders such as Ernest Barrett to design and implement the first comprehensive road and water and sewer systems in Cobb County. We have to take a comprehensive approach to transportation that includes not just roads and the technology, such as sensors and synchronized traffic control devices, that make them safer and more efficient to travel on. We have to also incorporate mass transit and more opportunities for remote workplaces, which the pandemic has proven to be quite effective in reducing traffic congestion and the attendant pollution from automobiles.
What is your response to the BLM movement and calls for police reform?
I work with our brave law enforcement officers frequently in my position as an Assistant Solicitor in the Municipal Courts of Kennesaw, Acworth, and Powder Springs, and I understand the challenges they face every day. I also understand the anguish that our citizens of color feel when unnecessary violence is inflicted on civilians by those police officers who may step outside the boundaries of the law in performing their duties. I think the BLM movement has always been a strong undercurrent in our society, even when it wasn’t an open protest boiling to the surface, due to the centuries of enslavement or and discrimination against black and other minority populations. However, I think “Defund the Police” is a most unfortunate slogan, because it disregards the necessity of a well-trained, community-sensitive, professional police force to protect our neighborhoods. I understand the intent behind that slogan, which is to advocate for more resources for social workers and programs for those people who find themselves in confrontations with the police due to drug abuse, mental health issues, and other causes. The problem is we often ask too much of our police officers, whose primary responsibility is keeping the peace. They are not social workers or medical professionals, and while we can probably do more to better equip them to deal with these situations in the field, they need our support in providing the preventative and follow-up services to reduce such confrontations.
Rep. Ginny Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) sponsored HB 401, to make it illegal for medical professionals to provide hormone and other treatments to transgendered people under 18. There were also bills to prevent trans youth from participating in school sports. Is this legislation you would support in office?
I am uncomfortable whenever we try to dictate medical decisions with legislation that may be based on bias or incomplete or erroneous information rather than science. As far as trans youth participating in school sports, the question as I see it is, Do these students who identify as a different gender possess an unfair advantage in athletic competitions due to their physical gender at birth? I would like to hear more about the medical science on this question before taking action to prohibit it completely.
What can Georgia do to improve healthcare? Do you support Medicaid expansion?
I support any proposal that addresses the two major problems with health care in Georgia and across the country: coverage and cost. We have the best doctors and the best medical technology in the world, yet we pay far too much for our health care compared to almost every other developed country in the world, and our outcomes are no better and sometimes worse. And the health care we provide does not cover everyone because so many can’t afford health insurance, let alone out-of-pocket expenses for all but the most routine exams and procedures. Medicaid expansion is certainly one option, but I think it will require some type of universal system to provide at least a basic level of health care for all of our citizens, while leaving people free to supplement that with private health insurance.
Disability waiver waitlists are a major issue for the disability community in Georgia. Waitlists have thousands of people competing for a handful of slots and some people wait years to get one. During last year’s budget cuts, activists had to lobby to prevent all new waivers from being cut. What can be done to improve the situation for struggling families?
I have a client in my law practice whose son suffered a traumatic brain injury in an automobile wreck in which he was a passenger. They had such difficulty getting a disability waiver in Georgia that they moved to Kentucky to get the medical and rehabilitation care he needed. Solving this problem is going to require the resolve of the General Assembly to make health care, including access to disability care, a high priority. This dilemma currently results largely from fallen tax revenues during the pandemic. But going forward we have to embrace a comprehensive approach to health care in Georgia.
What topics are important to you that we haven’t addressed? What are your biggest goals for this office?
My goal for being granted the honor and privilege of serving Cobb County and Georgia as one of our State Representatives is to support any proposal, no matter whether it is sponsored by Democrats or Republicans, that benefits the hard-working middle class of our great community and State.
The seat was vacated last month by Bert Reeves, who accepted a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Gov. Brian Kemp has set the election for June 15. All candidates will be on one ballot regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the top two will advance to a runoff.
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.