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Athens-Clarke County District 6 Commissioner-elect Jesse Houle was sworn-into office on Nov. 17, 2020 on the steps of City Hall. Houle won the special election on Nov. 3 to complete the final months of Jerry NeSmith’s term and will also continue as District 6 Commissioner next year. (Photo/Sofi Gratas)

Jesse Houle had a busy first night as Athens-Clarke County District 6 commissioner.

They were sworn in, made a speech and elbow tapped supporters and friends, then returned to the ACC City Hall to attend their first Mayor and Commission meeting. There, they voted yes to give western downtown Athens a historic district designation. 

Houle ensured that each aspect of the swearing-in ceremony had meaning to them. Despite temperatures in the 50s, they wore a short-sleeve green T-shirt that said “Abolish Prison.”

Houle raised their right hand with an outstretched palm to signal an open mind. Their left hand was on a stack of books, including two about Buddhism and “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Buddhism taught Houle about how multiple things can be true at once, they said during their speech. 

“This is an occasion of both suffering and joy in this world and this community,” Houle said. “This is an occasion of both celebration and loss.” 

Former District 6 commissioner Jerry NeSmith died on June 7 after a fall in his home, just two days before the primary election against Houle. The Georgia Supreme Court declared Houle the winner of a term beginning January 2021, with the votes cast for NeSmith on June 9 declared void. Houle initiated a moment of silence Tuesday to honor NeSmith. 

“The only reason this ends up being possible is because of the untimely passing of someone who many people I’ll be working with [and] who are present today cared about, loved, appreciated and respected deeply,” Houle said. 

Houle defeated Chad Lowery by only 626 votes in the November special election. Lowery attempted to fill NeSmith’s remaining six-week term before Houle inevitably took office. 

Houle, a progressive, has been a political activist since the Occupy Wall Street movement. Currently employed at local nonprofit Nuci’s Space, Houle co-founded Athens for Everyone, a grassroots organization fighting for “social and economic justice.”