By Arielle Robinson
The Courier spoke last week with Terry Cummings, a Democrat running for Georgia House District 39.
Cummings ran against incumbent Rep. Erica Thomas in the 2020 primaries. Thomas is not seeking reelection this year.
The primary is Tuesday, May 24.
Briefly talk about your background. Who are you?
“I was born in New York and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey. My background is a little bit different from some other people in that I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood in a very diverse home. My mother’s father, my grandfather, actually taught at Howard University. He was a well-known professor and African historian. But my grandmother, his wife, grew up poor on food stamps.
“My mother and my aunts and uncles who you would have thought would have grown up privileged did not. My sisters and I were raised with education being important, but your title really is not, if that makes any sense, and it doesn’t make who you are.
“My uncles on both my parents’ side were basically all military. I have one uncle that’s a colonel, [my uncles] were in every branch — Air Force, Army, Marines. But my father, who was born with asthma, was rejected from the military. So he found his passion early, and that was music and he was a jazz drummer.
“My mother left Washington, DC, moved to New York, and was one of the first Black visiting nurses that used to go to people’s homes. My father didn’t have a college degree.
“I went to Rutgers University, Douglass College at the time, and was very active there. I was president of the Douglass Black Student Congress. While I was there, I pledged Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and I’ve been active in that sorority since.
“During my senior year in college, I interned with Senator Bill Bradley’s office in Washington, DC. While I didn’t quite have the taste for politics then, I did have a taste for the criminal justice system. I went and started working at DC Superior Court a year or so after graduating from college.
“I worked in various positions, eventually with a courtroom clerk, and then decided to go to law school. I actually went to law school at night while I worked full time during the day. After completing law school, I did a clerkship for a judge, the Honorable Harold Cushenberry.
“Then I competed and was accepted into the US Department of Justice’s Honors Attorney Program. The agency that I went to work with was the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I chose that agency because at the time, they were really recruiting.
“They were trying to get more Black attorneys to come to the agency to have more Black representation at the executive staff level. We were pretty much shipped out to prisons to work, which means you’re the only one, you’re out there, your support is in another state, pretty much. But it gives you the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibilities very early on in your career. And that’s just what happened with me.
“The first institution that I worked in was the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, I was their first attorney. The second federal prison that I worked in was right here in Atlanta, the United States Penitentiary.
“You really learn how to think very fast on your feet, you become an excellent communicator and listener, but at the same time, analyzing a situation and trying to resolve problems before they get out of control. Because in federal prisons, unlike some state prisons, nobody carries a weapon, least of all an attorney.
“But I still had to go through law enforcement training just like every other correctional officer, so my training and background I believe is unique in that perspective. It certainly gives me a unique perspective, being able to communicate with judges, wardens, prosecutors, the US Attorney’s Office, defense attorneys, the inmates, their families — and the correctional staff, from the doctors, to the pharmacists, to the computer people, to the case managers, to the unit managers.
“Really, you have to be able to communicate effectively with everyone, regardless of their background, their titles, or whatever. That would pretty much make or break you as far as your success in that environment, and I just excelled at it.
“I did not represent inmates, I was part of the executive staff and represented staff when they were sued and also had to deal with policies and provide legal advice. But one of the things that I am proudest of was that even though I did not give advice to inmates, I certainly was able to step in and resolve a lot of situations before they got out of hand and led to someone getting hurt.
“Is that always possible? No. But I did that and I did it successfully, quite often. You’re always kind of walking that tightrope of managing divergent interests, but I was always clear on who my client was — and that’s the taxpayers that pay all of our salaries and the staff that we’re working with in the prisons.
“That’s what I think that I would bring to the position within the Georgia House of Representatives. I have a particular skill set because of my legal background. I have the ability and the temperament to listen, and to try to find common ground with divergent interests, but at the same time, making it clear who I represent and whom I represent, and that never wavers.
“So I’m always very much aware of who my client is. At the same time, to me, my purpose is to be there to do the work of the people — to propose legislation, get legislation passed, and support legislation that is going to improve the lives of working families in District 39 and the state that I live in, which is Georgia.”
Why did you decide to run for this seat again?
“That is a good question because I’ve thought long and hard about it. I am not a politician by trade, and I really had to think, do I want to go through the process of putting myself out there to run for election again?
“But I do think that I have a unique background, and like I said, the skill set with me being an attorney, and having that ability to think — not better than anybody else, certainly — but to approach things differently and a little bit more strategically.
“I think that I could bring that to bear to be an effective representative. So after thinking about it a lot, talking with my husband and family and everything, I decided to throw my hat in the ring again.
“But I have to say, I already know most of the women that are running against me. I think that their hearts are in the right place, I think that we all want to see a better district and we all want to see substantive improvements, and this real work done. So I applaud everybody that is running and that has made that decision to put themselves out there because it’s not easy.”
Describe some community work you have done in Cobb that you think prepares you to become a state representative?
“I moved to Cobb County in 2015 and before that I lived in Henry County, but I moved to Cobb County essentially to be closer to my mother, who was in an assisted living facility and had Alzheimer’s at the time.
“One of the first things that I did when I came to Cobb was become involved in my neighborhood and my homeowners association, and I was part of the inaugural class for Cobb 101 Academy. That’s where you spend a number of weeks learning about the county and how it functions and the different entities. That was the first thing that I did.
“I did join the Mableton Improvement Coalition and I’m a Post Seat Holder with the Cobb Democrats. But before I moved to Cobb County, I had started through my sorority working on job fairs for ex-offenders and for people that have records. The reason why I started that is because I’ve seen firsthand, people get released from prison with very little or no resources to become integrated back into society.
“One of the biggest problems with recidivism is when you get released back into your community — especially if you have a felony conviction — it’s very hard to find a job. It’s almost impossible in Georgia to get released, you’ve done your time, and to get on with your life — there’s roadblock after roadblock after roadblock.
“One of the things I’ve noticed particularly, if you’re at the state level, I had no idea that somebody could be on probation for upwards of 15 years. I mean, I still can’t wrap my brain around that. The way Georgia laws stand, you can’t vote, it’s hard to do anything if you’re still on probation or parole, and certainly get a job.
“So one of the things that I started were job fairs not only for people getting released from prison, but people that were already out there and didn’t necessarily serve a long prison term, but because they have records that they haven’t been able to get expunged or sealed they can’t effectively get a decent job.
“I searched and I found the Georgia Justice Project, which actually works to get records expunged, and I pulled them into it along with a lot of other agencies. My approach with employers — contacting and contacting and contacting a lot of employers — was first asking, are you willing to consider hiring somebody with a record?
“So that made these job fairs unique, because you weren’t just coming if you had a record or if you’re just getting out, hoping that somebody might be there that might be of interest. The employers that were participating were committed to talking to and to possibly hiring somebody with that record regardless, and they knew what they were participating in.
“And then when I moved to Cobb I again met some people, at the time it was Mike Boyce and Mike Murphy, they’re Republicans, and kind of pitched my idea and they were very interested. And when the opportunity arose, when former DA Joyette Holmes was having a record expungement event for Cobb County, I kind of jumped in there and I coordinated the job fair portion of that.
“It was the first time I think that Cobb County not only had a record expungement event, but they had a job fair for returning citizens and for those people who still have records, because not everybody is going to qualify to have their record expunged. That was in 2020. With the current climate, I’m hopeful to be able to do that again.”
What are three top issues you see affecting residents within the 39th district and how would you go about fixing them as a legislator?
“Well, the first one, which is obvious and that’s impacting us now, is the whole thing with the redistricting and gerrymandering that has gone on because of it. We’ve had right here in Cobb County bills that put the majority of East Cobb into the Republican JoAnn Birrell with the Cobb County Commission’s district, and pretty much eliminated Jerica Richardson’s position.
“Then at the same time, you have Lucy McBath’s district that was redrawn and her position has basically gone back to Republican control, and now she’s in another district running against another Democrat. At the same time, you have Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose district has expanded into Powder Springs and Austell.
“We’re seeing the impact of [redistricting] now with these races. I think that through gerrymandering and how they drew the lines, majority Black districts lost their voting power because of it, so I think that’s a major issue. Today, we do have some lawsuits out there, one of them filed by a local community activist, but that’s something that I’m very interested in because of the impact.
“The second issue would be — which I think is on everybody’s list — affordable housing and livable wages. It was an issue back in 2020 and now, what we are seeing is not only a housing shortage, period, but the houses that are being built tend to be more expensive.
“And at the same time, Georgia is still not doing anything to raise the minimum wage for workers. So you really are facing lack of housing and lack of affordable housing — and that’s to buy or to rent — so I think that’s another major issue.
“Georgia used to have rent control, believe it or not, up until like the 80s and then the Georgia Legislature passed laws to ban it. My proposal and what I’m working with is a group to look at imposing rent control again. I grew up up north in New Jersey, where they have rent control and it can be effective.
“It’s time to revisit that as a way of getting a grip on housing. And then I think communities and counties have to be encouraged to get more creative in their housing options.
“With a lot of communities, particularly out here in Cobb County, there are various restrictions on what type of houses can be built and the structure of those houses that really have nothing to do with safety. It’s more for aesthetic purposes. And I think that if communities are incentivized to be more flexible so that we can get more creative with housing I think that that would go a long way to help.
“My third issue is expanding Medicaid. I just think that — especially in the United States — healthcare is a right, not a privilege. If your health is not straightened and you can’t get decent health for you and your family, not much else matters.
“If COVID has taught us nothing else, it shows that how the lack of affordable healthcare can have devastating and long term effects on families and businesses, and that’s across the board.
“The cost and availability of certain medications are driven by pharmaceutical companies and this is nothing new. I have friends that have small businesses or they’re self employed and what they have to pay for medication could be $400-$600 just for one prescription.
“So as the next representative for District 39, I will continue to work with any stakeholder or anybody that wants to expand Medicaid for all Georgians and to require adequate caps on costly medications and therapy.
“And I’ll make sure that everybody has fair access to those resources. It’s one thing to say you have access — yes, you only have access if you have the money. I’m talking about fair access, which means that shouldn’t be based on your financial situation.”
The incumbent for this seat sponsored a bill that would lead to Mableton becoming a city. Proponents of a Mableton cityhood say they would have more control over zoning and code enforcement. Do you support Mableton becoming a city and why or why not?
“Mableton used to be a city, it’s currently unincorporated, of course. Right now, if I had to vote today, I don’t know which way I would go. Because obviously, I enjoy the non-tax aspects, like a lot of people that are opposed to Mableton.
“At the same time, since I’ve been here in these short few years since 2015, I’ve seen Smyrna get closer and closer to Mableton, and now they’re right across the street from me where I live.
“What I would really like to see, in which I’m a little disappointed, is much more education from the people that are pushing cityhood. It was very hot and heavy a couple of years ago and now it’s basically been silent.
“I do applaud Representative Thomas for postponing the decision until the fall. My hope is that the reason why that was done is so that the citizens, the residents of Mableton and unincorporated Austell that will be impacted, will be able to get the education needed to make an educated vote when it does come.
“So I want to hear from the county officials who I know have been going out talking about cityhood in Lost Mountain, Vinings, and the other areas, but I also want to hear from the proponents, and I’d like to debate.
“I would like to see some people, perhaps from South Fulton and the problems that they ran into with their cityhood and where they’re at, the same thing with Brookhaven. We’ve seen [cityhood] done in other places, how are they faring? How are they doing?
“I really want to see much more education. My feeling is and my guess is maybe they’re waiting until after the primary, and that will start this summer. But until I see much more vigorous debate, discussion, and education, I don’t know how I would vote today, honestly.”
A leaked report from Politico revealed that SCOTUS supports overturning Roe v. Wade. This can pave the way for more states, like Georgia with its attempted heartbeat bill, to put much more restrictive measures on abortion. What is your view on the potential rollback of federally-protected abortion rights?
“I think it’s dangerous. Federal protection of certain rights is critical to ensure that states don’t start to impose their private views and prejudices on people. Once abortion rights are abolished, in my view it’s just a matter of time — because we’re already seeing the assault on gay and lesbian marriage, it can lead to the end of the Constitutional protections on even birth control and other areas, so I think it’s very dangerous.
“Right here in Georgia in the 11th circuit, there was a case and right now it’s been put on hold by the 11th circuit, it was a case to ban abortions in Georgia. The 11th circuit put the case on hold pending the Supreme Court decision.
“And so once [the SCOTUS decision] happens, it’s not a matter of if — it’s just a matter of when — that’s going to come down and strike Georgia.
“Luckily, from what I’ve seen as far as movement, a lot of organizations are already anticipating this happening and they’re already putting things in place to continue to help women.
“But the only way that we’re going to really resolve it if it comes to Georgia, which I predict it will if the Supreme Court opinion stands and is officially released — we have to turn Georgia blue, if we’re going to have any chance at all of protecting a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body in the privacy of her home with her family, as opposed to the state stepping in.
“And then like I said, other laws that could either eventually impact interracial marriage, all those laws were really put in place by the Supreme Court. So once you attack abortion and effectively get rid of it, everything else is fair game.”
You have plenty of legal experience, working within prisons and as an attorney. Having this experience, do you see any issues with how the criminal justice system operates with regard to how people of color and poor people are treated? If you see any issues, how can you as a legislator go about fixing them?
“I would like to join the effort to restore voting rights to felons. Right now, convicted felons have to complete their sentence — which includes payment of fines, probation, and parole — and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the extended probation of upward of 15 years, as I mentioned before.
“Georgia has the highest population on probation. And right now, over 200,000 citizens in Georgia can’t vote because of old Jim Crow racist policies. While this law preventing felons to vote is supposed to only apply to felons convicted of moral turpitude, that’s a very vague and broad term.
“Officials have taken it to mean that all felons are discredited from voting. The laws that were enacted during the Jim Crow era, obviously, they were put there to disenfranchise Black people and that’s what I think these voting blocks continue to do. I support and will participate in any movement to end that.
“The other thing that I would like to do — eventually, marijuana is going to be legal in Georgia. As soon as they figure it out, it’s going to happen. And what I want to ensure is that those individuals currently serving time for possession, or who currently have records for possession, that their records get expunged and those people get released.
“I don’t want to see what happened with the crack cocaine laws when they were finally changed, and crack cocaine became more on par with powder cocaine. [Initially] if you were convicted of possession or distribution of crack cocaine, you were basically going to get a life sentence. Whereas if you were convicted of possession or distribution of powder cocaine, your sentence was half that, it was much lighter.
“Crack cocaine is cheaper and [the initial laws] definitely impacted Blacks and minorities disproportionately. Well, what happened when they finally stopped that to bring crack cocaine on par with powder, they did nothing for those people that were sitting in prison languishing because of the unfair law.
“That’s what I don’t want to see happen here. I think that any move to legalize marijuana has to include those people who are currently serving time — and I’m not talking about big time distributors, I’m talking about smaller populations that are in there on possession and now they have some long probation where they can’t even get back on track because of that.
“Georgia’s incarceration rate is number four in the US, and we really need to address the problem of putting everybody in prison and that being the solution. I absolutely applaud the efforts of prison officials to reduce the prison population during the pandemic. We went from like 53,000 people in prison to about 46,000 by the end of 2020. Early release was also provided to hundreds of prisoners that were serving time for nonviolent offenses and I think we need to continue this effort.
“So while I support the building of new, safer prisons, I don’t want to expand the prison system and make it bigger. I absolutely think that prisons should be as safe as possible for inmates and for staff, but I’m in total disagreement with building more. You build it then there’s more incentives to put people in prison as opposed to finding alternative means.”
If you were to win, what is something new you can bring to the district that others running for this seat cannot?
“Well, I do have some background in landlord and tenant situations. And one of the things that I was proposing and I still propose and I would work on if elected is, number one exploring more alternative housing options for renters to have more options, but also proposing legislation that mandates that landlords must keep tenants’ property either in the home or that apartment or move it to a storage unit, instead of just throwing it out on the street.
“I just think that that is cruel, it’s demeaning, and it’s bad enough when you’re getting evicted. But then to have to contend with your items, or your children’s items, your family’s items, especially in the rain and bad weather — we can do better. I don’t think it would even be a substantial cost.
“Again, I’m already talking to and working with stakeholders to bring back some form of rent control to Georgia, which I think would help District 39 tremendously. I haven’t heard anybody else who’s running speak about that particular road, so I think that makes me unique, also.
“The other thing that I think that I definitely bring is the ability to work with divergent interests, and work across the aisle with shared interests to get the job done. And that’s not always going to be possible, especially in this climate. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to try — because the goal is to make things better for the residents of District 39 and the state.”
Anything else not mentioned here you feel is important for voters to know about you and/or your campaign?
“I’m also a big supporter of public education, and I think that a lot people of course say that — especially Republicans — but when you take 950 billion out of the public school budget, you can’t turn around and then say that you support public schools. An alternative would be to increase the cigarette excise tax or to reform and take a look at cutting wasteful tax credits that already cost us billions.
“But I think that until we do investments into public schools that are sustainable, and that public schools are not always the first to get cut when you’re trying to balance the budget — it’s just talk.
“If we really believe that our kids are the future, then every student in Georgia should have access to the best education possible with the resources to do it. My youngest sister has taught at the Fulton County School System for over 40 years, and I’ve seen her take money out of her pocket consistently to make sure her students have what they need.
“I don’t think you can think of too many other jobs where you’re getting paid and you still have to take money out your pocket to be able to do your job effectively, so that’s very important to me.
“And then gun control and the fact that we have constitutional carry, where you don’t even need a permit. As a former law enforcement officer, I can’t even wrap my head around that concept.
“I’m all about accountability, I want the police to be held accountable for when they make a mistake and don’t do their jobs. I think citizens should be held accountable. I think that owning a gun is a responsibility and it’s a privilege — I don’t think that it’s an absolute right.
“While I support the Second Amendment, I want people to have permits, I want people to get that background check. I don’t think that just because you’re walking means that you should have a gun.
“The only other thing that I would like to say is that if elected, I will always put the citizens that I represent and the people of Georgia before me. I will always be astutely aware of who my client is and who I’m working for and why I am there.
“I promise to work hard for my clients, which will be the residents of District 39. They can count on me to work diligently, in a respectful and honorable manner, but in a manner that’s going to get results. I will be representing their interests, not my own.”
To learn more about Cummings, visit her 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.