Steve Henson vs. Reality Television

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing and suitI snatch Coke Zero out of State Sen. Steve Henson’s fridge when I visit the capitol, and he hasn’t thrown me out of his office yet, which I find oddly gratifying. I generally drop in when something dumb is happening in DeKalb – a corruption issue here, an incorporation issue there – to offer the day’s intelligence and to solicit advice.

The 41st senate district contains most of Tucker and Northlake, along with a tendril of territory in Gwinnett along Highway 29 north of Lilburn and a bit of central and south DeKalb covering Pine Lake and Stone Mountain south to Redan Road. It’s an interesting, eclectic district with wide variations in race and class – an increasingly rare political phenomenon in Georgia.

I suppose it helps that I’m an actual voting constituent of his and not a glad-handing lobbyist.

Of course, why a glad-handing lobbyist would have much to do with the senate minority leader in a legislature full of Republicans escapes me. It would be like trying to sell championship rings to the Oakland A’s.

One might notice, however, that Georgia’s legislature has managed to avoid many of the worst political impulses of conservative states.

No, we don’t have Medicaid expansion.  We also don’t have “fetal heartbeat” anti-abortion laws that are almost certainly unconstitutional. High-profile nonsense like Josh McKoon’s English-only bill, or “religious liberty” legislation allowing discrimination against the LGBT community and non-Christians, or a bill changing the criteria for reporting and investigating campus rapes never quite seems to make it all the way out of the chamber.

Other equally noxious – if lower profile – legislation often emerges in a committee only to be garroted in the dark like guard #3 in a James Bond film, forgotten and unmourned.

My former boss at the AJC once told me that the mark of a great editor wasn’t about what made the paper; it was about keeping the other hundred stupid things flying across his desk out of the paper. I suspect the same is true of politics.

Everything about Georgia politics, with the Tea Party road shows and the Confederate flag rallies, should have been leading us down the same road as North Carolina, with open legislative hostility to the Constitution and voting rights, “bathroom” bills and lost business opportunities.

Instead, we’re still in the mix for Amazon, we have a Superbowl coming next year and we largely avoid stupid headlines, Casey Cagle notwithstanding. Some of that can be attributed to Republican leadership that isn’t completely suicidal. Some of that can – and should – be attributed to a quiet voice in the chamber, calling people to their better angels.

In the roiling cauldron of weird that is DeKalb politics, Henson shows up to community gatherings, neighborhood barbecues, Democratic Party meetings, homeowners association meetings and the rest of the deadly-boring pothole politics of it all and solves problems, quietly.

Henson has been a great editor.

I bring all of this up because Henson has primary opposition this year. Sabrina McKenzie is a former reality show star and vanity candidate against an opponent that started this cycle with 25 years of local goodwill built around his name and about $213,000 in his campaign fund. I was inclined to ignore her. 

big-rich-atlanta-sabrina-mckenzieBut she’s annoying.

McKenzie was on a short-lived reality TV show, “Big Rich Atlanta” on the Style Network, now known as the Esquire Network. She distinguished herself by slapping the hell out of another participant, shouting “Bitch!? You call me a bitch?! Imma show you one!”

Such is the state of American politics that I don’t actually find this immediately disqualifying.

Her lawsuit against Henson and State Rep. Billy Mitchell, however, firmly casts her into the crazy pile.

In a pro se filing (read: a filing no actual lawyer would touch) McKenzie accuses Henson of “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress” and “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress,” and Mitchell of somehow illegally offering money and a “seat in democratic party,” describing it as “extortion” and accusing him of sexual harassment.

Someone also apparently ran over her mailbox and has been stealing her signs. It must be him, of course. I can say that it wasn’t me, though seeing her signs polluting the rights of way are annoying. I’ve asked Mitchell for comment, and when he stops laughing I’m sure he’ll get back to me.

No, I have a problem with her actual politics. McKenzie, styled as the “dancing pastor” after performing as a backup dancer for TLC and noted humanitarian Bobby Brown, is a Christian fundamentalist running as a Democrat. Her social media history radiates anti-gay and anti-trans bias, with tweets from 2015 and 2016 attacking the LGBT community. In 2012 she circulated a petition asking Barack Obama to prohibit gay marriage. Two years ago she lobbied for an unconstitutional school prayer bill, and attributes violence in school to its absence. She’s made anti-abortion political commentary.

Responding to questions about gay rights, McKenzie has said “I love homosexuals … everybody deserves equity in the law,” but assiduously avoided saying that gay marriage should be legal.

I picked up on some of this when she helped former State Rep. Randal Mangham’s failed campaign for a county commission seat a couple of years ago. (I ran for that seat too and got smoked like a sausage.) Mangham’s support for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage in Georgia paved the way for massive legislative losses by Democrats in 2004, something long-time party leaders haven’t forgotten.

But McKenzie has been showing up to events like the Woman’s March and other demonstrations, elbowing her way to the front of the rank and file with a bullhorn in her hand for pictures. Leaders of the Woman’s March have expelled her from organizational activities because of this behavior. She’s circulating pictures showing her with John Lewis … even though Lewis has endorsed Henson. She claimed former school board chairman Melvin Johnson’s endorsement, which he denies.

Meanwhile, her public appearances have been described as “awkward.” She hijacked a gathering in Smoke Rise a couple of weeks ago, to take 10 minutes with a captive audience to tout her virtues – and to attack Henson and the quality of the local schools – not realizing Henson’s newlywed wife was in the audience to rebut her afterward. She hosted a meeting with supporters of the Greenhaven incorporation movement to “hear both sides” of an issue – three weeks before the primary, despite at least three years of legislative arguments and community meetings so far, for an issue that has become radioactive to about three-quarters of the district and most of the Democrats in office.

It is not incidental that McKenzie – a photogenic African American woman – places her photo on her campaign signs. She’s a black woman running against a white man in a district that is about 50 percent black. The primary electorate is almost certainly majority black, since half of white voters in the district vote Republican.

Like Mangham, McKenzie is trying to buy an election with lawn signs and billboards, which might be worth 10 points in an election. She hasn’t yet filed a campaign finance disclosure for these expenditures, but I’d be surprised if she has spent less than $30,000 so far, including a mailer.

I find this expenditure surprising, since county tax records indicate that she owes more than $16,000 in back property taxes. I note in passing that the Georgia constitution renders a candidate ineligible to run for public office if they owe back taxes and have been adjudicated as delinquent in such. The tax commissioner gave warning of a fifa tax lien coming to her property last year. I believe that might qualify, but I am not a lawyer.

It costs at least $10,000 to hit regular voters in this district with a mailer. And it’s the mailer that rankled me enough to write about this race.

Aside from the asinine argument that all of the social ills of America visited upon DeKalb County can be attributed to Henson’s personal failings as a legislator – an argument she’s making about the Democratic Party’s leader in the Senate –  were claims that the murder rate in DeKalb County had been increasing.

“According to the ‘Georgia Fatality Report’ each year our Dekalb communities have been riddled with the increase in crime and murders and our seniors often left to fend for themselves.”

She misspelled “DeKalb.” It is also a lie. It’s a lie, citing a fake organization.

Crime rates in DeKalb are near 30-year lows. Violent crime was down 8 percent in 2017 from the previous year and property crime is down 5 percent.  Crime, generally, has been falling for almost two decades now, falling fastest in the black community. I suppose one could argue that the raw figure for murder has gone up and down a bit over the years, but at a certain point statistical variance makes it hard to raise alarms in any one year when the long-term trend is plainly down.

None of that nuance matters to the media, of course, which makes money by scaring the hell out of middle class consumers. The evening news will gravitate toward whatever crime it can find, regardless of whether or not that accurately reflects the community. That creates perceptions of African American criminality, which makes it harder for black people to buy homes, win contracts, find jobs and avoid other kinds of public bias – the real problem facing black America.

And yet, we have a black political leader perpetuating harmful black racial stereotypes. It’s infuriating

Things are actually improving, though I have sincere concerns about DeKalb’s sewer problems and police retention issues. And, yes, there are long-standing elected officials who are coasting on the power of incumbency without contributing to the argument. (Looking at you, Coach Williams.) But DeKalb’s politics require vigilance, because there’s an operator around every corner.

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Will Durant
Will Durant

I really have hope that MLK’s dream can be achieved someday but fear it will be long after I’ve shuffled off. The .01% percentage difference in our genome logically should not make for the huge cultural differences. But of course when has logic had anything to do with politics. “Bitch!? You call me a bitch?! Imma show you one!” Such is the state of American politics that I don’t actually find this immediately disqualifying. Amen. “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women] — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And… Read more »