Before announcing their candidacy in February, Jesse Houle was searching for someone else to run as a progressive candidate for the District 6 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission.
Houle initially didn’t want to run for the office, finding public attention “deeply uncomfortable.” As their search turned up fruitless, Houle was conflicted on whether or not they should run. After mulling it over and realizing their existence wouldn’t solely be defined as a commissioner, Houle decided to run for office.
While excited at the prospect of treating their commissioner duties as a full-time job, Houle said they dislike the spotlight and the press attention that has come with their candidacy. Since coming to Athens and working as an activist, Houle said they have aimed to draw attention away from themselves when fighting for social justice and progressive changes.
“It’s not just a personal disinclination to have the focus on me,” Houle said. “It literally feels unethical for me to behave as if I can speak for other people and to elevate myself in front.”
Houle has spent the past 12 years in Athens making music, working at the non-profit Nuçi’s Space and fighting for progressive causes. Houle said they are running because they love Athens, see problems with incumbent Commissioner Jerry NeSmith and have the experience and leadership skills to enact progressive policies and change.
A progressive platform
Houle said they want to pass non-discrimination legislation to prevent discrimination based on sexuality, documentation status and other unprotected categories in people’s access to housing, employment, education and public accommodations — public and private facilities used by the general public like restaurants, movie theaters and bookstores.
Houle also supports the Linnentown Project, a community-led initiative for the recognition and redress of the University of Georgia’s removal of Linnentown, a historic majority-black neighborhood, to construct high-rise dorms.
Houle also aims to develop a tenants’ bill of rights with other commissioners and community members to outline renters’ rights. The bill of rights would include information about affordable housing, living conditions and eviction reform.
Houle plans to fight for a wage of $15 per hour, adjusted for inflation, for all county employees and to pressure large employers like UGA to pay its workers $15 per hour. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
Houle plans to support unions and worker-owned cooperatives by establishing labor programs, such as a worker center, to inform and help workers utilize their rights.
Houle said their campaign is focused on continuously fighting for progressive policies rather than achieving one goal.
“There will still continue to be work to undo the legacy of slavery and colonialism in our society,” Houle said. “Even if we were to achieve everything on that platform, the work wouldn't be done … even if I win, I’m going to be one of 10 commissioners.”
Houle said NeSmith isn’t in line with “the values of Athens’ community” and criticized NeSmith’s support of Republican District 117 state Rep. Houston Gaines. In 2017, NeSmith and other ACC mayor and commission members hosted a fundraiser to support Gaines’ campaign in the Republican primary race for the seat.
Houle also believes they have the experience to serve as commissioner from their time advocating for progressive causes in Athens. They were an organizer in the Occupy Athens movement in 2011 — as part of the international occupy movement in protest against wealth inequality and political power amassed by “the 1%.” Houle later co-founded Athens for Everyone in 2014 with now-District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson and other activists.
Houle said they view leadership as a collaborative and collective project.
“A good leader is also willing to be led,” Houle said. “If I’m going to push for racial justice as a white person, that ultimately means finding ways to elevate and support and get behind people of color, who define what justice looks like for them.”
Houle also worked full-time on Denson’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 2014.
Houle first met Denson at a music festival in Massachusetts in the summer of 2007. Denson said he instantly formed a strong connection with Houle, who lived in Massachusetts at the time, as they sat in the grass until 4 a.m. talking about music, life and Athens.
“I know that, if they were to win the election, they would be somebody who would literally give everything they have to ensure that Athens is the best, most equitable community it could be,” Denson said.
Denson and his other friends in Athens convinced Houle to move to Athens in 2008. At the time, Houle said they viewed Georgia as a “racist hotbed.” Since moving, Houle said they have developed a more complex understanding, saying the South’s problems exist alongside beauty and solidarity.
“They convinced me basically that Athens was actually a lot different from how I was thinking of it, that there was a lot of really wonderful art, music and people and a lot of space to kind of be my weird queer self and not have to hide,” Houle said. “And that proved to be true.”
Houle identifies as non-binary and identifies with the blanket term “queer.” Growing up in a conservative Catholic environment in Massachusetts, they said they weren’t exposed to many non-binary and transgender people, but later began to realize they were non-binary. Houle began using “they/them” pronouns around three years ago.
‘Doing the work’
A4E co-founder Adam Lassila first met Houle during the Occupy Athens event. Lassila remembers Houle showing up to the protest with papers, notes and plans for the coming days and the movement’s goals.
Lassila and Houle later worked together on Denson’s mayoral campaign and on A4E.
“Jesse’s actually been doing the work of local governments, from the outside, organizing the community to fight for significant changes and winning them for years,” Lassila said. “That’s even more valuable experience than being on the county commission but not getting stuff done or standing in the way of important things we need to have done.”
Houle said part of them constantly feels at odds running for office, calling it a “fallacy” to believe an elected official can wholly represent other people. While acknowledging the irony of running for office based on their beliefs, Houle said they’re ready to play the role of representative, believing they can spur progressive change in Athens.
“I’m just tolerating the period of being a candidate,” Houle said. “If I ever get to a point where I’m comfortable being hyper-focused on as an individual, that’s probably the time to replace me with somebody else.”
Correction: Deborah Gonzalez was a candidate in the state House District 117 special election in 2017, not the incumbent in 2017 as a previous version of this article stated. Jerry NeSmith was on the event committee for a fundraiser for Houston Gaines against Doug McKillip in the District 117 Republican primary, and supported Deborah Gonzalez in the special election. The Red & Black regrets this error and it has since been corrected.