When Zachary Perry moved to Athens in 2014, his passion for service that developed at his local Episcopal church in high school only grew.
He began working with people experiencing homelessness in Athens through The Episcopal Center at the University of Georgia. After engaging with the homeless community in Athens, Perry learned that a group was kicked out of their camp. Perry suggested to the priest at the time they use the lawn at The Episcopal Center to give the people somewhere to stay.
While Perry learned the idea wouldn’t be feasible in the long term due to zoning laws, his stalled efforts helped him think of new ways to aid a local community in need.
“If the system won’t even let you help people, then we need to fix the system,” Perry said he remembered thinking. “There’s the problem with a lot of what’s going on is not only that the system isn’t helping people, it’s standing in the way of assistance from willing participants.”
Challenging the red
Perry is now a third-year law student at UGA and is running for a seat on the Georgia State Senate in District 46. Perry’s journey to law school was prompted in part by his experiences working with Athenians, and his ambition to help people solve their problems led him to challenge 13-year Republican incumbent Bill Cowsert in November.
Perry is running as a Democrat in a district that is deeply red. In the 2018 midterm elections, Brian Kemp won over 75% of the vote in Walton County and around 70% of the vote in Oconee County. Cowsert won District 46 that year with 60% of the vote against Democratic challenger Marisue Hilliard.
Hilliard was the first viable Democratic challenger in the district since at least 2012, according to Ballotpedia. Perry said the lack of a Democratic presence in the past could be one aspect that makes the district winnable. The key voting bloc will be people who haven’t voted in the district in the past, Perry said, instead of trying to change people's minds.
“You have voters who realize they may align with democratic values but have never had a legitimate reason to go vote,” Perry said.
A passionate proposal
Perry’s passion for helping people is also recognized by his friends and professors. Sandra Mayson, an assistant professor at UGA’s Law School, taught Perry in criminal law and a seminar class on criminal justice reform. In the seminar, each student develops their own criminal justice proposal or a critique of a current criminal justice initiative, Mayson said. Perry created an original proposal for a housing-first reentry court program in Athens.
Housing-first reentry courts are devoted to helping reintegrate individuals into society after they serve criminal sentences by providing them with options for housing, Mayson said. Perry’s proposal for the class entailed researching the housing crisis nationally and locally, as well as making community connections necessary for possibly launching that type of initiative, Mayson said.
“It was a very impressive, original proposal,” Mayson said. “And Zach’s proposal departs from the premise that people can’t achieve, people can’t address their needs in life effectively without housing.”
As a political candidate, Perry sees affordable housing as a unifying issue across the district, something that can benefit each county.
Turning out the vote
The primary issue for his campaign, however, is voting. Perry made that priority clear in his campaign’s launch video released on Aug. 27.
“Until every Georgian can freely and easily exercise their most basic democratic right as a citizen of a republic, every other issue is secondary,” Perry said in the video.
If elected, Perry hopes to establish government accountability when it comes to voting issues and develop a “clearly delineated chain of command and chain of responsibility” when it comes to election issues in Georgia, he said.
When it comes to the election in Senate District 46, Perry’s initial plan was to canvass and knock on doors throughout the district. However, due to COVID-19, Perry is choosing not to canvass in order to protect constituents in his district.
“My thought process was I don’t have the political resources my opponent does, but I have two good legs and a strong back, and I can walk around neighborhoods until my legs fall off and shake hands and meet people,” Perry said. “Now, that’s not only dangerous to myself, but dangerous to my constituents, and dangerous to the people that I want to represent.”
Connor Harbin, a third year law student at UGA and friend of Perry’s said that talking to others and understanding their perspectives is key to who Perry is. Harbin and Perry often discuss policy, and there have been times she changed Perry’s mind or at least helped him gain new understanding on issues, she said.
“He’s not really here to judge anybody, or you know, be dismissive of other people's viewpoints,” she said. “He really does want to understand where people are coming from. And he wants to explain, truly explain why he believes what he believes.”
Perry has shifted to making phone calls and brainstorming ways to engage part of the electorate that may have not previously been engaged with politics. Even if Perry’s campaign can’t flip the seat, he hopes to be a resource to other Democrats in the Athens-Clarke County area running for state house. State house Districts 117 and 119 are currently held by Republicans after the districts flipped in the 2018 midterms.
Local activist Mokah Jasmine Johnson is running to unseat Houston Gaines in District 117, and Jonathan Wallace is running against Marcus Wiedower in District 119. Both districts cover parts of Athens-Clarke Countyand Oconee County, and Perry hopes he can help their campaigns by turning out voters across Oconee that may not otherwise vote, he said.
“One of the really important things about this race is those overlap of house district,” Perry said. “So Mokah and Jonathan getting elected and being a part of flipping the Georgia house. So flipping the Georgia house is the single most important objective of Georgia Democrats in 2020.”