Sonya Halpern

Sonya Halpern.

Occupation: Consultant, self-employed

Previous elected offices held: None.

Other community service experience: First African-American and first Georgian to chair the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts, a position to which she was appointed by President Barack Obama; Chair, The Children’s School; Vice Chair, Public Broadcasting Atlanta; Executive Committee member of YMCA of Metro Atlanta; Executive Committee member of South Arts; Founding Co-Chair, Electing Women Alliance Atlanta; Founding executive member of the Atlanta School for the Arts Foundation.

What is motivating you to run for this office?

I have spent the better part of the last 20 years working with community organizations and nonprofits throughout Senate District 39. In that time, I have come face to face with the myriad problems that arise from poor policy decisions at the state level, from lack of healthcare access to crippling poverty. I realized that the only way to create meaningful change is at the state level. I have spent decades fighting the symptoms of bad policy that leaves so many people behind — now I’m ready to tackle the issues head on.

What is the biggest issue facing the district and how will you address it?

The biggest issue facing the district is public education. In the decade following the Great Recession, public schools were not fully funded according to the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, leaving classrooms overcrowded and teachers under-resourced. After just one year of fully funding schools according to that formula, the budget was cut once again by $1 billion this year. We must spare no expense in educating the next generation of Georgians. I will address this crisis by restoring and increasing funding so our teachers can be paid what they deserve and students will have everything they need to learn.

What would be your policy priority in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic?

Expanding Medicaid would be the single most beneficial policy in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, as it would bring health care coverage to the hundreds of thousands of people for whom COVID-19 presents the greatest threat. It is also essential that we bolster funding for struggling hospitals across the state so that they can afford critical supplies. We must ensure that they are also prepared for vaccine distribution once it becomes available. Once the pandemic is in check, I will fight for policies which close the gaps that made this pandemic into one of the greatest crises of the 21st century.

What state law changes, if any, should follow as a result of this year’s protests about racism and police brutality?

The passage of new hate crimes legislation during the 2020 legislative session was a good start. However, there are still many changes we can and should make. The next step should be banning any excessive use of force, such as chokeholds and strangleholds. No-knock warrants should also be banned. Lastly, I would support prohibitions on hiring officers with records of misconduct and abuse.

Buckhead this year has seen an increase in gun crimes and street racing. What state law changes, if any, should be made to tackle these crime problems?

Crime is most often a byproduct of limited economic opportunities. People are drawn into a life of crime either by circumstance or by attraction to the lifestyle that comes with it. If we are going to reduce crime, we must ensure that there are viable paths for someone to earn a living. Increasing the minimum wage, increasing public education funding, and expanding workforce preparation programs will eliminate the appeal of criminal activity. As a Buckhead resident, I share the desire of all my neighbors to make our community a safe place to live.

Tax abatements granted by governments to developers in such hot real estate markets as Buckhead have been highly controversial. Should any changes be made in state law to the way abatements are delivered, and if so, what are they?

Tax abatements should be forbidden in areas which are already flourishing. Businesses and real estate developers are already highly incentivized to operate in such markets, and as a Buckhead resident, I have seen firsthand how our tax abatements have only served to make it more difficult to fund expanded public services, such as transportation and water/sewer infrastructure, which are necessary as areas like ours grow in both property and population. There is a place for tax abatements in low-demand areas, but they are not only not necessary in Buckhead but actively damaging.

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.