January 7, 2020
Q. What made you decide to pursue a career in public service? Did you always know it was something you wanted to do?
I’ve always found public service to be meaningful, because I get to help people and solve problems. I love that. Public policy problems are among the most interesting and challenging puzzles any of us can try to solve. While I understand that some people are turned off by politics, I find it to be a place where you can make change, improve lives, and shape the future.
My interest in serving in public office arose after my military service. Not long after moving from the Army to the private sector, I recognized that I wanted to make a broader impact through work than I could through practicing law alone. Now, I feel like I have the best of both worlds because I serve in public office, but I also get to practice law—where I devote a significant amount of time to pro bono work.
Q. You’ve been a vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and led the effort to pass legislation that ensures rape kits in Georgia are processed in a timely manner. Your work on this issue eventually landed on the Samantha Bee show. Can you tell us about how this legislation came to pass? Why do you think it received the media attention it did?
It wasn’t easy, but it had to happen. Too many victims had been denied justice for too long.
In 2015, I was aware of the national backlog of untested sexual assault kits. I suspected it was a problem in Georgia and I started to do my homework. It did not take long to confirm that sexual assault kits were sitting on shelves in hospitals and police stations across Georgia. I learned as much as I could, and I coordinated with experts, advocates, law enforcement agencies, care providers, and survivors to figure out how the problem could be fixed and then to draft a proposed law.
After I filed the first draft of the bill in the Georgia House of Representatives, a news story broke about a single hospital that identified thousands of untested sexual assault kits sitting on shelves. The victims had wanted police and prosecutors to pursue their cases, but nothing happened. It was a travesty. The news story helped give context to the issue and to the importance of the legislation.
Later, the bill passed the House unanimously. Everyone understood there was a problem and they knew I had done the work to draft a bill that was supported by all of the stakeholders. Unfortunately, when the bill went to the Senate, it was blocked. The reasons put forth were inane, and my colleagues in the House from both parties recognized that—and so did the media. I refused to back down and kept the focus on the policy and the survivors who had been denied justice. The Speaker of the House, David Ralston, took an interest in the bill, and he worked hard to help me pass it. The final passage itself was dramatic– at midnight on the last day of the session.
Since then, all of the kits have been tested, serial rapists have been identified, and criminal cases have been filed.
Q. In a world that is becoming more and more divided along partisan lines, what lessons can we take from your bipartisan success story?
There are a few lessons that can be drawn, all of which are fairly basic tenets of leadership. First, do your homework and become a subject matter expert. I did that, and when the bill was blocked, I was able to show fairly easily that the opposition was wrong. Second, take the time to educate people about what you’re trying to do and why it’s important. At the beginning of the session, I had scores of conversations with my colleagues about the issue and the policy proposal. Every person with whom I spoke co-sponsored the bill. Third, some issues lend themselves to bipartisanship. This was one of them. I asked House Republicans to co-sponsor the bill, and they were more than willing to do so.
When the bill was blocked in the Senate, I stayed laser focused on the policy—not partisanship. I never got nasty and I did not make it a partisan fight. I kept the focus on the people we were trying to help and why the bill was important. My House Republican colleagues noticed this, and it gave them the space to continue supporting the legislation.
Finally, when the bill passed, I shared credit. In particular, I thanked Speaker Ralston and everyone who voted for the bipartisan legislation. And I also thanked everyone who had advocated for the bill—especially survivors of sexual assault.
Since then, the Speaker and I have worked with our colleagues to ensure appropriate funding to test all of the kits. When the testing was completed in 2018, we held a press conference. Speaker Ralston opened the press conference and discussed the state’s actions in setting the policy and funding the testing. He then let me make the announcement that all of the kits had been tested. It was incredibly generous of him to do that, and it shows that you can build real relationships across party lines to bring about important change.
Q. What other issues are you currently working on in the Georgia House? And what issues are important for you as we look to the 2020 election?
I introduced a bill in the House in 2019 to authorize benefit corporations in Georgia. A benefit corporation, also known as a B Corp., is a corporate structure that lets a for-profit business have purposes other than maximizing profits. It passed the House in 2019, and I’m hoping we can pass it in the Senate in 2020.
For the last year, I’ve been working with our state’s experts on a comprehensive overhaul of our sexual assault laws. We’ve made progress addressing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits, but more legislative changes are needed.
In addition, I am pushing to ban private prisons in Georgia. I filed legislation last year because, quite simply, profit should not be a motive to incarcerate people.
Q. You were named a French-American Foundation Young Leader in 2012. What were some highlights of your experience as a Young Leader? How has it impacted you since?
I absolutely loved my experience as a Young Leader. I made lasting friendships and I was inspired by the great work that other Young Leaders were doing. The list of highlights is long, but they included our visit to Normandy. As a veteran, I found it very moving to visit that hallowed ground. Throughout the program, I compared political notes with Édouard Philippe, who, as mayor of Le Havre, was a fantastic host to all of us throughout the visit. It’s been wonderful to follow his career since then.
I was so inspired by the program that I offered to host in Atlanta in 2013. Since then, I’ve stayed in touch with other Young Leaders and I’ve nominated rising stars to the program.
In terms of impact, the program has made me a better leader. I learned, and continue to learn, from fellow Young Leaders. We help each other, we motivate each other, and we want to make a difference.