Following a narrow loss to Republican incumbent Gerald Greene in 2018, Democratic candidate returns for a seat in the House in this year’s election
ALBANY, GA. — Joyce Barlow is making her second run against longtime incumbent Republican Gerald Greene for the Georgia State Representative seat in House District 151, which has historically been a unique location of Gov. Brian Kemp and other Georgia Republicans’ voter suppression efforts.
I was able to interview Barlow, who is also a registered nurse and small business owner, on April 8, 2020, shortly after the immense outbreak in Albany, Ga., that put Doughtery county on the map as one of the highest ranking regions for COVID-19 infections per capita in the world in March 2020. The interview was vaulted and is being provided now in the interest of illuminating the struggles that rural counties in Georgia face in elections, as well as connecting the dots between policy and death as we’ve seen exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Southwest rural counties in Georgia have been grounds for systemic voter suppression, as we covered last year in an in-depth look into Randolph County, which resides in the district Barlow wishes to represent. After a narrow loss to Greene in 2018 — the same time Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Gov.* Brian Kemp, which was covered in a flash in national news — Barlow returns this cycle to fight for the people in her district. Her platform includes Medicaid expansion (which Greene did not vote on when it was up for vote in 2014), installing reliable broadband to keep HD 151 connected to the world and help provide greater resources, economic development, job creation, and more.
You can learn more about Barlow on her official campaign website. The conversation, in which we discussed COVID-19, voter suppression, the importance of the census, and Barlow’s current campaign, follows.
Aja Arnold: In November 2018, you narrowly lost in your race in your district. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about who you are in the work that you’re doing and what that experience was like.
Joyce Barlow: In 2018, I ran for State Representative in HD 151 and that covered nine counties: Dougherty, Terrell, Randolph, Early, Clay, Calhoun, Stewart, Webster, and Quitman. That’s nine counties, a lot of territory. [I gained] experience in covering all of the areas, getting to meet the people, introducing myself, telling them about my platform, telling them about my experience. I am a registered nurse with 30-something years of experience and a business owner with 25-plus years of experience. I use my experience of both to get my message out and my number one platform agenda was Medicaid expansion.
We need Medicaid expansion in that area. [We’ve been] bad in the last eight to 10 years; at least three hospitals have closed. Those counties were Terrell County, Stewart-Webster County, and Calhoun County. People understood that; they felt the impact of not having a hospital. Because, unfortunately, once it’s gone, it’s almost impossible to get it back up and going. And if anything does return, it is not in the form of a hospital, because of the cost that’s involved. Medicaid expansion would have helped those three hospitals maintain their viability. It would have maintained jobs and it would have kicked in a boost in the economy, and it would have been very good to support the tech space for the schools in the area. So losing your hospitals, you lose your people, they move away. Your tax base is diminished. All of that is lost. I had worked in the area already. I knew a lot about the area and the people, because with my business, I had covered that area by myself before I was able to hire staff. I was the aid, the maid, and the chief bottle washer going to see all of my people and my clients. I knew about the socioeconomic situation, people living in the community, the district, and what the needs were. So I was very, very comfortable campaigning and talking with people.
AA: It sounds like most of the community understood how important Medicaid expansion was and the benefits for the communities. So what led to the narrow loss that year?
JB: Well, there were two things. One of the counties, Randolph County, that was the home county of the opponent [incumbent Gerald Greene] and people knowing him from way back when he was a former high school teacher and taught children, kids, and their children and their children. “Oh, well he taught me.” That would be the response I would get.
I would say, “Well, let me ask you this. You finished high school here, you stayed here and you went to school, whether you finish or not. Did you have other teachers?” “Well, yes.” “So you’re telling me that anyone who taught you 25 years ago — as your county’s things are deteriorating around you — that you would vote for them?” And I’m not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence. And they’d say, “Of course not.” I’d say, “Well, let’s think about it. Let’s go back even five or 10 years ago. What has improved here where you are now?” “Well, things have really gotten worse.”
And that would be the conversation in talking to people and getting them to understand. But that was a tremendous challenge trying to talk to everyone. So I would have meetings, go and talk with people, go to different counties. Just because a person is incumbent, it takes a lot to get your message out there and then for them to know who you are. It takes a lot to educate, inform, have an awareness, and have your name remembered in the brain as to who you are. Even though they may be a Democrat, a lot of people were not voting democratic because Gerald is a Republican. And they weren’t thinking that way, that Democrats vote for Democrats. We were part of the Democratic party. So that was part of education and awareness. Having people become knowledgeable about me, my platform, what I was for. That took a lot of time, and with the three or four challenges that he has had in the past, I did extremely well comparatively.
AA: What challenges? That he may have encountered that you handled more successfully?
JB: Well, one of the things is it’s a huge landmass that you’ve got to cover, nine counties. If you were in one spot to go from one county, it’s about 45 minutes to an hour to cover if you go from one extreme to the other of the district. So first of all, going to meet the people who are in power positions or knowledgeable about the community. I’ve got to find out who the city commissioners are, the county commissioners, the mayor, the power structure there. Get to meet them, have an appointment time, get to talk to them, meet with them, and then maybe they’ll introduce me to someone else, or go to the churches. Learning what churches or church members or church ministers are active in the community and willing to meet with me to discuss my platform.
You have to remember, this may be their first time seeing me; they’d never heard of me before. So here I am, asking you to listen to my platform, what I’m about, give you some references of some names of people that know me. So that the minister will feel good enough about me to have me allow me to come to his church and give me two to three minutes to speak to his parishioners about my platform. But when you have over maybe 200 churches to try to make it to in six months, that’s just a lot of turf.
One visit is not enough to the community, to that county. It’s required that you make more visits to show your authenticity, that you genuinely want to win this race, that you’re there for the long term. That you are not going to disappear, that you’re not showing up at this particular event and we never see you again. So that required a lot of planning and traveling and support from people in the communities that bought into my campaign. Those that knew about me, those that knew of my business. Some of the people had previously worked for me. Gaining the trust of the people challenging at times, because you must remember I was the third or fourth person who came along challenging Gerald as they know him. But this time the difference is, the other people who challenged, after they lost, they went away.
I’m back again. I’m not a quitter. I will stay the course. I intend to win this election by the grace of God. I’ve got numerous people helping me and the people are ready for a change. They’re ready. I will never forget that one of the things I [saw in] the Albany Herald. After the election was over, they did an article. They interviewed Gerald and [he said], “They are my flock. I am their shepherd.”
The only example that he could give in the paper that particular day of how he had helped the people was, he said, “They don’t know who to go to for help if their son or their child is in prison. They contact me so their child can get moved closer to home.” Now to me, if that’s the only example you can give of helping people impoverished and needing help, that’s a poor example.
AA: To your knowledge, does Gerald Greene have any sort of relationship with Gov. Brian Kemp?
JB: I don’t know. He’s a Republican, so he probably does. I know in 2014, when it came up to vote for Medicaid expansion, he did not vote. If you are a Democrat, your district is heavily democratic. It’s a Democratic district. The majority of the voters in the district are Democrat and African-American. You don’t vote for when Medicaid comes up for expansion, what does that say?
AA: We also saw that at the same time when Stacey Abrams was in her race against Gov. Brian Kemp, and there were a lot of polling location closures in your district.
AA: Do you think — I mean, it’s hard to say that it didn’t affect the outcome, but now that you’re running again, has there been any progress made to fight those polling location closures and other forms of barriers of access to the ballot? Do you think that played a significant role a couple of years ago?
JB: Well, let me say back in 2018 when that occurred, there was a rally cry throughout the county, the city, throughout southwest Georgia, and the state. People rallied up, the ACLU stepped in, the NAACP, and several other freedom voting rights groups rallied, came in, and supported the non-closure of those polls. And as a result, it was canceled, because the timing was so obviously wrong, and therefore, they stepped away. All of the polls, all nine polls remained open. But since then, they revisited the issue and two of those polls have closed.
AA: After meeting with people at Fair Fight a couple times and also meeting with folks at Fair Count, I think one thing that doesn’t translate to many people in the more densely populated areas is how impactful a polling location closure is. Can you help explain what that means? If more locations close, how many people are affected, and how difficult it actually makes it for them to vote.
JB: Polls closing in a particular district means that that person has to find a way to accommodate themselves to get to another polling site. If the polling site that you normally vote at is two blocks from your house, that’s very convenient. You can walk there, they can go early in the morning and walk there, get their voting done, and return home timely. It’s convenient in that there aren’t long waiting lines, because it’s right in your community. Now, once that poll closes, that means if they don’t have a car, they have to arrange transportation. And if there isn’t anyone to arrange the transportation, that becomes discouraging. And sometimes, even though there are people that may assist, it’s got to be at the convenience of the driver. If the driver is delayed, or does not show up or cannot, it discourages the voter from actually voting. They may say it’s too much of a hassle. If they don’t have the money to pay the driver, they don’t vote. So it’s direct voter suppression and a discontinuance of voting. If they miss voting several times, guess what? They’re removed off the rolls. And the particular person who they may be voting for loses that vote. And if you keep adding up the numbers for those people that don’t vote or you lose the vote, the person who may have won may not win because their voters who were in favor of a change will not get to vote and the vote goes to the other person. Because there’s nothing to count. One-to-one. So it discourages and it suppresses the vote by moving and closing polls.
AA: Right. Absolutely. I think we’re seeing voter suppression occur all over the country in this current election year and there’s a lot of discouragement. So what can we as individuals do? How can we stay engaged in this process against that discouragement? What can we do to support candidates like you in Georgia and to stay engaged with each other?
JB: Well, the Democratic party and all the organizations that are involved in voting, getting the vote out, Black votes matter, Fair Fight, all of those organizations — All on the Line — all those groups have to continuously work and keep people educated, have volunteers in the community that are willing to work, and to assist to make sure that people are educated. There’s literature to share, advertisement helps, community workers that are willing to get out and talk with people. There are the churches. It’s an ongoing effort to apply pressure to the Secretary of State and the governor to let them know we are watching you and to have some political action behind that. And mitigation, if necessary, to know that we are here. We are not going away. We are observing. We know that whatever you’re trying to do, if you’re trying to suppress the vote, if you’re not going to send out the application for the absentee ballot, we all know that it will be. It’s an issue that is a form of voter suppression, especially now with the COVID-19 virus. You have to take some sort of proactive approach and that’s been done. That helps right there. Sending that ballot out and making sure that everybody gets it. Everybody, they have the opportunity to request an absentee ballot.
AA: You’re located in Albany, Ga.?
JB: Yes, I live in Dougherty County.
AA: Your location has been hit pretty adversely by the COVID-19 pandemic.
JB: Yes, we have.
AA: How is everything going?
Well, the numbers continue to grow in deaths. Unfortunately, the way this started was through a funeral and that’s been sad. That’s what I understand from reading the paper and listening to other people, that it started from a large funeral. There happened to be someone there that had contracted COVID-19, but I guess they were not knowledgeable about it. And from there, it spread from person to person. When you have a funeral, usually there’s the internment and the repass and people are socializing, fraternizing, and just spending time with each other fellowshipping. And you go about your business after the repass and back to your home, then to your job and around other people. Unbeknownst to them, they had contracted the COVID virus until they started to get sick. So the numbers started to add up, according to the hospital and the papers of what I’ve read, that is how they made a determination and traced it back to this particular funeral. But by the time it was discovered, so many people had interacted with each other and it was such a catastrophe.
As a result, more and more people were getting ill. So finally, people became more knowledgeable about it and started paying attention. Unfortunately, people were dying. The city was unprepared for such a devastation as to what happened. But it’s slowly getting under control. We have lists of people that I know of — I know close to a thousand people have been tested. But I think, I’m not sure the numbers right now, how many had that. So I will not say. I do know it’s greater than 40 people who have died. And initially then I started to think, “Why is the number so great with African Americans that are dying from this disease? What is this virus? What is going on with it?
The more I thought about it, I thought about it to myself and I mentioned it to a friend about a week and a half ago. I know that, of course, the more underlying conditions that you have that makes your system unable to defend itself as readily as someone who’s outrightly healthy. But still, there’ve been some healthy people that have contracted COVID and succumbed. So knowing that with the diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart disease, obesity, all of that played a part in it. Indirectly, as I was talking with someone else, they were telling me, “Well Joyce, that is voter suppression.” And we talked about it, and I said, “Well, how is that?” They said, “Well, because of lack of adequate health care, rural hospitals not getting the funding that they need, and people not having insurance cards … they’re going to go to the doctors last. Or even if you do, you have a copay, a huge copay, because this is still the first part of the year or meeting that deductible. Therefore, when the person gets sick, they’re not concerned about voting. And the more voters that are there to put a person in office that’s going to vote for their interests, that secures the power of the person who does not want Medicaid expansion.” So I said, “Yeah, that’s valid when you explain it that way.” So it makes a difference.
AA: Do you think that many of these deaths that we’re not just seeing in Georgia, but around the country, could have been prevented if we had an expansion of Medicaid?
JB: Well, two things. People would have gone to the doctor more readily. Rural hospitals already have a burden. First of all, they’re barely keeping their doors open. So when you have an influx of COVID-19 patients, they can’t accommodate them. They will do what they can until they can get them transferred out. They don’t have the resources to render that care. They may not have the staffing or the equipment. That’s another thing, because Medicaid reimbursement is a payment source that helps to pay to get qualified nurses, qualified doctors, aides, technicians, and all of your support staff. Therefore, when you don’t have that resource and the patients still need the care, you’re out there in the dark trying to make it so you would have that person transported out to a larger medical facility that is not as strapped for cash or underfunded.
AA: Did you say you’re in the nursing field?
JB: Yes, I’m a registered nurse, as well. I am indirectly working in the industry through my own private business, which is Inglewood Healthcare. I’m not working in the hospitals. I am more so sheltering at home and doing what I can to help my sister who’s combating breast cancer, so I pretty much help her. And, of course, I don’t want to expose her to anything, so I make sure I steer clear of anyone that may or that has to meet the direct care for COVID patients.
AA: How can people who are not living in your district or can vote for you but want to support you?
Well, they can go to my website and read all about me. They can click on the donate button and it will take them to ActBlue and they will be able to make a donation there for me. FOr recurring, click the button and make it a recurring monthly donation until the elections are over. They can send a paper check donation to my campaign headquarters. The address load is located on the website and I just sent out my first e-newsletter today. Yay! They can read that newsletter to get find out more about me, my campaign information. The website is located there and other information they may need. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I was doing three times a week Facebook live communication videos and last week I was too busy with trying to get the newsletter formulated and completed. This week I just completed a Facebook live so that I can make sure I’m staying out there. I’m meeting and talking to people, they’re knowing I’m here. Phone calls, virtual meetings, just a lot of that, that’s how I’m campaigning now and sheltering in place. I’m thinking it requires just as much, if not more.
AA: Yes, yes. That’s been the experience. Somehow I feel more tired working from home, trying to reach people.
JB: Yes. Yes. It’s consuming at times, because you got to try to text or call or email and try to reach them. I mean, the same thing, but in the process, somehow seems like you’re doing some other things. So it makes a difference being at the house and you can’t go out, you can’t interact if you go out. You’ve got to keep your face mask on. Stay your six feet away — six to eight feet is what I say — away from the person so your communication is limited. We want to minimize the spread of COVID-19 so this can dissipate and that there are no new infections while the CDC or the researchers come up with the vaccine. Which is what, a year to a year and a half away?
AA: How long do you think it’s going to take?
JB: Listening to Dr. Fauci, he’s saying that it’s going to recycle back in September. We may reach the apex of the infections and the encounters that are in the hospital, and it will start to decline. Dr. Fauci was saying in September or October we’re going to see it peak again and start to rise. And that is not encouraging at all. So right now, we don’t know. We don’t know which way. This is new to everybody. It’s a whole new virus. It’s new in how we are responding. We don’t know how soon we will get back to our regular lives, and even if we do, it will be a different way of life.
AA: I’m really thinking about the connection you made with voter suppression, because I had done that kind of on the back end. I feel like voter suppression… my hope is that this year is something we hear more about in the news when we’re talking about this presidential election, because we’re going to just see it more and more. The veil will be pulled back on that. But the continuation of the continuation of the spread of how it really, you know, keeps vulnerable communities down that are already down. People who don’t have health insurance, for example. So we’re trying to do everything we can to break that cycle and keep people engaged and keep fighting, even when it’s hard.
JB: I don’t think we’ve talked about some of my other platform agendas or economic development and job, except economic development and expansion to bring an industry to the area that’s compatible. The thing about having quality funding for quality schools, but it all goes hand in hand with if you’re bringing in… you want to bring in a business that’s going to provide a decent livable wage. First thing they’re going to look at, they’re going to pull the census. The census is so important, because the companies pull those numbers. They look at the demographics, they look at the schools, in the parks, or whatever’s there, and they make a decision then if that’s where they want to locate their business. “Am I going to get the type of people to have skilled labor here that’s going to have good fundamentals and a good work ethic?” They look at the rating of the school. They find out all of that and they do their background work. They do their homework before they decide to put a business there. Then they looked at the health care, what’s available as far as health care.
As I say, it falls together. The health care piece and the quality of the schools and then the rating of the number of people and the socioeconomics as much as they can get from the census data and they make a determination whether they place a grocery store or a new business there. If the numbers and the other demographic information does not support it, they say, “Oh well no, we won’t go here. But at the same time, let’s look over here. We’ve got their demographic and raw information. Let’s research this community more. This community looks positive that we can make a profit; our business will do well and thrive.”
All of those practices that were lacking in HD 151, that’s the challenge I face of letting people know that I will fight for this. The other thing is broadband and in some of our districts we don’t have strong, reliable broadband. You may lose your signal. We need to have broadband and all of the counters because outsourcing is done. If the business isn’t brought to that county, then some of the infrastructure can through outsourcing. But if we don’t have reliable broadband, how can you communicate back and forth with the main office and have a connection and outsource work? That piece right there connects you to the whole world, the broadband piece. That would be one of my platforms right there to work toward making sure all of the rural counties have a broadband connection. It’s encompassing, but because the issues have not been looked at in the way they should, it’s like a slow slide that has happened because of the leadership in the position and it’s like they’re in place and that’s it. And you have to look at the full district and say, “What is happening to the district?” Yes, the main nucleus, the metropolitan city is Albany, and everything else is rural. But if all of that disappears, then what happens? What happens when your rural counties, the people either age out and your young people leave? You dry up on the vine. There’s nothing left. And that is what we are. People want to have all of the amenities available at home. They don’t mind going to a big city or somewhere for a day or two, or an evening out, but they want to be able to enjoy where they’re living. And not everyone is meant to live in a big city.