“I’m running for Georgia Public Service Commission, a job you probably never heard of and may not think is important. I’m here to tell you that it is important, especially to fight climate change.”Daniel Blackman
The nation has Georgia on its mind as the political focus shifts away from a contest between outgoing President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden to two Senate runoffs which will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate. But there is another race that may have more impact on the lives of regular Georgians: Daniel Blackman is in a runoff for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission for District 4.
The commission’s goal is “to exercise its authority and influence to ensure that customers receive safe, reliable and reasonably priced telecommunications, electric and natural gas services from financially viable and technically competent companies.”
The problem with that … large swathes of rural Georgia do not enjoy such services. Many of these communities are impoverished with predominantly Black and Brown populations. Many also include undocumented populations who don’t always feel safe publicly advocating for the changes their families need.
The other problem, according to Blackman, is that the commission’s five seats are all held by Republicans.
A Democrat from Forsyth, Blackman points out that although Black Georgians represent nearly one-third of the population, they have long been underserved when it comes to political representation at the state level. In the past 14 years, no Black candidate has been elected to serve on the Public Service Commission. Before that, David Burgess, originally appointed to the commission by Democrat Governor Roy Barnes, was reelected in 2000 but lost six years later in a runoff.
In many ways, Blackman has been preparing to run for office for much of his young adult life.
Blackman grew up as a “military brat” to parents who emigrated from Barbados. The family started its military life in Boston where Blackman was born, then moved to Italy and eventually landed in Columbus, Georgia, in 1988.
A Clark Atlanta University graduate, Blackman became a civil rights activist at the age of 19. And he quickly drew the attention of Atlanta’s Black political luminaries, who searched for young leaders to groom for future political careers. Blackman’s mentors included former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, minister and activist C.T. Vivian, the late Congressman John Lewis, and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — whose election in 2002 Blackman called “landscape changing.”
Blackman spent 2 1/2 years under the tutelage of Jesse Hill, an Atlanta civil rights activist who was president of the largest Black-owned insurance company in the nation. Hill boasts many storied achievements including being the first Black president of a metropolitan chamber of commerce and a member of the board of directors for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Blackman compared the time he spent working with Hill to attending “civil rights university.”
But it was a visit Blackman made with Rev. Gerald Durley, himself a civil rights icon, to Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta in 2007 that truly started his trajectory toward a career in public service. There Blackman met a young senator from Illinois who was running for the presidency: Senator Barack Obama. Blackman was recruited into the Obama campaign to work on outreach with young citizens to increase voter participation and foster political engagement. He was later appointed to work on Obama White House initiatives like “My Brother’s Keeper,” “Every Kid in a Park,” and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move,” all of which focused on improving the health, learning opportunities, and future success of young people. He also worked with then Vice President Joe Biden on the “It’s On Us” campaign to reduce sexual violence on college campuses.
Then in 2015, Blackman had an experience that refocused his own political lens. He was one of three members of Atlanta’s Black community leadership selected to attend Pope Francis’ “Climate Convergence,” a global meeting prior to the release of the Pope’s groundbreaking encyclical about the world’s climate crisis. There Blackman met members of the Black Diaspora from the Caribbean and South American countries who were highly engaged on this subject, and he realized it was a space not well occupied by Black folks in the United States.
Back at home, Blackman started reflecting on past conversations with C.T. Vivian and John Lewis. These discussions had taken place during the five years after Hurricane Katrina and explored the connection of climate to health, food scarcity and social justice issues.
He realized that, at their core, many social justice issues are climate issues. “Hotter cities equal greater violence,” he explains. And too often, poor communities are “food deserts” where the risk of instability is already heightened, crowded with fast-food chains but lacking places to obtain fresh food.
“No kid, and no community, should be left behind because of their zip code,” Blackman proclaims. “I’m tired of seeing kids in the parking lots of Wendy’s and Chik-fil-As and Burger King because they don’t have access to wireless broadband and high-speed internet at home.”
For Blackman, having a seat on the Public Utilities Service Commission is “about so much more than just electrical and gas rates.” He is concerned about issues like broadband access in rural communities, utility investment in alternative resources, climate science and utility regulation.
Blackman believes public utility rates should be indexed to income because people on fixed incomes cannot absorb rate hikes with the same ease as their wealthier counterparts. Utility bills make up a higher level of their relative income and become a form of regressive tax policy. “In the state of Georgia, 18% of our paychecks go toward our utility bills, whereas nationally, about 5% of an individual’s paycheck goes towards their utilities,” Blackman says.
“High-poverty areas have older houses,” he also points out. Older houses are energy leakers, requiring owners to use more resources for heating and cooling and thus pay higher utility bills. Blackman mentioned one town outside of Albany where 8 out of every 10 homes had the power turned off because people could not afford to pay their bills. He supports weatherization programs to retrofit and insulate older homes to make them more energy efficient and economical.
Blackman wants to see the ratio of renewable resources increased in Georgia. Right now, renewable resources account for 8% of Georgia’s energy mix, while natural gas and coal make up 41% and 25%, respectively. “See we don’t have enough solar, and we don’t have enough wind and biofuels and I believe that when we change the narrative, we can change the investment,” he explains.
Blackman also wants to educate citizens on how to understand their energy bill. This knowledge will enable residents to talk more easily with regulators, empowering them to have a greater impact in their own communities.
As it has done in so many areas, COVID also has changed the public utility landscape, shifting the urgency to broadband and Wi-Fi so people can have access to schooling and medical care. In the internet age, the COVID crisis shows how unprepared Georgia is from a technological standpoint. Long-term investment is needed in rural Georgia so seniors can have telehealth visits and order medications, and students don’t need to go to local fast-food restaurants to find Wi-Fi to do their schoolwork. “The state won’t survive” without such investment, Blackman says. He believes public-private partnerships are needed and must be based on racial and social equity.
Blackman points out that such partnerships have already been set in motion at Michigan State University through the Institute of Public Utilities (IPU), a two-year program for community colleges and Black universities. IPU teaches people how to advocate for programs based in climate action and expand public knowledge on how utility issues combine to contribute to the rampant inequity in society.
Meanwhile, Blackman says voters must focus on downballot races like his as well as the top of the ticket to make real change happen at local levels.
“At the end of the day, we (Democrats) have to win statewide in Georgia,” he concludes before hanging up his phone to go to Augusta for a campaign event with Jon Ossoff, one of the two Democratic Senate runoff candidates.
It was likely to be a family road trip with his wife, Jeanelle, a Spelman College graduate who serves as his campaign’s digital content manager, and his three sons who film onstage moments for Instagram and Snapchat as their contribution to his electoral bid.
The Blackmans planned to join Ossoff at a car rally at a drive-in. “The old is the new ‘new,’” he laughs.
His mentors — Mayors Jackson and Franklin, Rep. John Lewis, and pastors C.T. Vivian and Gerald Durley — could likely relate.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Blackman’s website and Facebook page.
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