By Arielle Robinson
Last week, former Georgia State Sen. Vincent Fort talked with the Courier about his political values and his background. Fort is running to unseat longtime US House District 13 incumbent Rep. David Scott.
Scott, who made history as the first Black person to chair the House Agriculture Committee, faces three Democratic challengers.
Back in January, according to Politico, Democratic officials in Congress anonymously stated concerns about Scott’s ability to continue to lead the committee, citing health due to his age. In the article, Scott denied those concerns, and attributed the allegations to others seeking the chairmanship.
While Scott has become known for moderate politics, Fort during his time as senator for the 39th district and after is recognized for championing progressive causes.
Among those causes are authoring the toughest laws in the country against predatory lending at the time, sponsoring a bill to create a hate crimes law for Georgia, and supporting the Green New Deal and Medicare for all.
During an Atlanta mayoral run in 2017, Fort received endorsements from US Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America.
In this race, some endorsements Fort has received are from Blue America, Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, and Progressive Democrats of America.
Fort describes himself as a “legislator-activist” who often shows up to and supports local protests over housing, racism, and other social issues. He has even been arrested in the past for participating in Occupy Atlanta protests along with sit-ins at the state capitol to expand Medicaid.
Talk about your background. Who are you and why did you first decide to become involved in politics?
Fort: “I’m first and foremost an activist. Before I was elected, before I went to college, I was an activist working on issues of civil rights. And so I’m first and foremost an activist, a progressive activist. In addition, I’m an academic. I taught college at Morehouse, Morris Brown, and other colleges. And I’m a former elected official, I served 21 years in the state legislature. So in order to understand why I’m running, you have to understand that all three of those things blend together, as an activist who wants to fight racism, make the community better, and make our communities more socially, economically, and politically just. It’s all based in that I come out of an activist background.”
You describe yourself as a progressive. That has been thrown around a lot today among Democrats, but what does this mean to you?
“Well, it means that you want social change to improve the conditions of the 99 percent, and that you have tactics and strategies that would achieve that. There are people in this race that are calling themselves progressives and aren’t really progressives. It is the flavor of the month for them. I was doing progressive stuff before it was cool.
“For example, the single-payer healthcare system is something that I’ve advocated and believed in for 40 or 50 years. We’re the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have a single-payer healthcare system. In this district, it’s an absolutely critical thing. Why? Because one, many zip codes in this district suffered disproportionately from COVID.
“And now we just had a hospital in the southern part of the area close down in East Point. So [single payer is] absolutely critical. To be honest with you, I didn’t think [the ER closing] got enough attention. That’s cataclysmic. A hospital closing is just a cataclysmic event.
“I’ve been a progressive for a long time — before it was cool, before a lot of people heard of Bernie Sanders, I was doing progressive things. That’s who I am. Some other people in this race call themselves progressive as kind of a flavor of the month, but they’re not progressive. They think that it will get them attention.”
What are three top issues you see affecting residents within the district and how would you aim to fix them?
“One is we’ve got to get good paying union jobs. So job training and apprenticeship programs in this area are absolutely critical, particularly for youth of color. That’s why it’s so horrible that the Job Corps training center that’s supposed to have gone up [didn’t]. David Scott said it was going to go up and they announced that in 2018 and this was pre-pandemic.
“You know what it is [currently]? Fifty acres of a big field — swamp, unfinished buildings. It is just a mess for a community where there’s high unemployment amongst people of color — particularly youth of color — to have that disaster on the corner of Roosevelt Highway and Washington Road. Job Corps is a federal program. He’s the congressman that’s supposed to be making sure it gets done and it looks like it’s been bombed out.
“Two is healthcare. As I told you before, COVID has revealed the weaknesses of our healthcare system, and then with the closing of the South Fulton County hospital even more so. We need a healthcare system where everyone is guaranteed healthcare as a human right.
“And the third issue — it’s hard to confine it to three — but the third issue is having someone who is present in the district and cares about the district. David Scott has been missing in action. As a matter of fact, I’ve challenged him to six debates and have not heard back from him. But he’s been missing in action. He does a health fair or a job fair once a year, or whenever, but no one’s seen him. He’s not present. It makes you think, does he really care about the people he serves? When you hear about him being named one of the 25 most corrupt congressmembers in America, it makes you understand who he cares about. He doesn’t care about the people, he cares about himself.
“So a $15 minimum wage, job training, and apprenticeship programs — especially for African American youth — guaranteed healthcare through a single-payer healthcare system, and then three, we need someone who’s present and in the district. And then I’m going to slip in a fourth — voting rights is absolutely critical. Everything else that we do is based on our right to vote.”
Back in February, you were at a press conference local civil rights groups held that denounced gerrymandering. You said that Republicans are accelerating voter suppression tactics in a way you’ve never seen before. In what ways do you see voter suppression tactics accelerating and what can you do as a congressman to fight it?
“One, I was there at the beginning of the Republican voter suppression efforts in 2003 and 2004. Two, I said they had accelerated — with tactics like exact match absentee ballots, where there has to be an exact match between the signature they have on file and the signature you put in place. Three, what just came out recently is that now you have to opt in to register to vote automatically. [Editor’s note: this was true at the time Fort made the statement, but the automatic opt in has since been restored.] It’s cut the amount of voter registration by 50 percent. So those are just a few [ways voter suppression tactics have escalated].
“The solution is passing the Democratic voter legislation in Congress. None of these things could have been implemented if there had been preclearance. In the 1965 Civil Rights Act, it said in areas where voter discrimination had occurred and when you change voting laws, you have to get it pre-cleared with the Justice Department. That’s just one example of the things that need to be done.”
You say you believe in decriminalizing marijuana. Why do you believe in doing so?
“In 2017, there had been a local ordinance introduced [in Atlanta] to decriminalize marijuana, but it had stalled. I kind of made it a public issue and guess what? It passed [due to] advocacy in the community and at City Hall.
“The reason we need decriminalization is one — it is racist. Studies have shown that Black people and white people use marijuana at just about the same amount. But it is Black people who — for example, in Fulton County — are overwhelmingly the ones arrested for having marijuana.
“The criminalization of marijuana has been to a great extent the criminalization of Black people — and many young Black people. The marijuana laws are applied unequally and so decriminalization would stop that. That’s why I pushed it in Atlanta. That’s why I would advocate in Congress for it.”
What is a piece of legislation you’ve sponsored/co-sponsored/supported that you’re most proud of in your time as a state senator?
“The most important legislation that I introduced and had passed was the anti-predatory lending legislation. The reason why is that in the Atlanta area, in the 13th district, and other nearby areas, predatory lending was a very, very, very serious problem. The banks and Wall Street ripped off people, and ultimately, the bad mortgages that they created resulted in the Great Recession of 2008. Trying to stop predatory lending was probably the most important piece of legislation.”
Can you expand on your position on free 2-year college and apprenticeship programs? Why do you believe these should be free?
“Every child, every young person, every person ought to go as far as their talents and ambition warrant, and two-year free college would begin the process. I’m really interested in what they’re doing in New Mexico, they’re doing tuition-free college. I think every child ought to have not just college, but also apprenticeship programs, trades, whether it be carpentry or electricity or whatever other skill sets [available to them].”
How do you feel about issues of criminal justice reform and how do you think you can act upon it in Congress?
“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform. I’ve supported the elimination of no-knock warrants and prohibiting racial profiling and introduced legislation on that. As a legislator-activist, I’ve been in the community supporting criminal justice reform efforts. Probably the most important thing, along with others, is that I pushed the city of Atlanta to create a civilian review board for the police.”
The incumbent has been in his position for around two decades. You have also spent a good number of years in politics. What is something new you can offer to this role?
“What I would offer that is different is somebody who is present, someone who is not missing in action, like David Scott. I’m bringing someone who’s not corrupt to the representation of the district. I’m not going to spend [around] $700,000 of campaign money on my family and business. I’m going to bring policies that show that I care about people.
“For example, David Scott defends payday lenders and other predatory lenders. One thing you will never see me doing is defending people who steal the paycheck of working folks. I will never vote to support an unjust war like he did with Iraq. I will never vote for tax cuts for the rich like he did. I will never vote or support legislation that would allow car dealers to charge higher interest rates to African Americans like he does. The difference will be huge. I will never endorse or donate money to a Republican who’s running against a Democrat like David Scott has.”
How much money has your campaign raised so far?
“March 31 was the deadline. If you add the money I’ve raised since, along with the money that I raised by March 31, it’s over $100,000.”
How are you reaching out to voters to get your message heard?
“We knock on doors, we make phone calls, we do robocalls. We’re going to be using other ways as well. We talk to people at their door, on their porches, we’re doing a lot of grassroots voter contact.”
Is there anything else important not mentioned here that you would like to make sure voters know about you and/or your campaign?
“I’m not taking any corporate PAC money, I’m not taking money from polluters. Also, I just think people need to know that some people will say anything to get elected. It’s just absolutely critical that people understand that when you get me, you’re getting someone who is different from the incumbent.
“You’re going to get someone who’s there for you and someone you don’t have to worry about when they go to Washington that they’re going to work against the issues that are important to people. I’m interested in making the lives better of the people I serve — not my life better. Unfortunately, David Scott has been more concerned with making his life better rather than being concerned about making the lives of his constituents better.”
To learn more about Fort and his campaign, visit his website.
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.