LEARY, Ga.—Joyce Barlow had barely warmed her pew seat at Mt. Zion Baptist Church before having to deal with health scares affecting two members of the congregation.
She had just delivered her campaign speech when the holy ghost filled one of the deaconesses. The woman began shouting and convulsing. A couple of . church members carried her out of the sanctuary. Barlow, a registered nurse, followed them, to check on the woman. After caring for her, a church member alerted her to an elderly man who had passed out. The man has diabetes and had not been taking his medicine. It messes with his “manliness” so he doesn’t take it, he told her. For the man and the deaconess, it was one of the few direct connections they had to immediate health care.
Barlow hopes to change that if she wins her election Tuesday. She’ll be able to better address the broader needs of District 151, which suffers from a variety of economic maladies, as a member of the Georgia legislature.
While much of the nation knows about Stacey Abrams’ historic gubernatorial run, Barlow is vying to be the first black person to represent District 151. She is running against 36-year incumbent state Rep. Gerald Greene (R-Cuthbert). There is no polling done in races this small, so it’s hard to tell how she’s doing.
Greene did not immediately respond to an interview request for this story.
Barlow joins more than 400 black women across the nation who are on the ballot today. According to Higher Heights, only 266 of the 1,830 women serving nationwide as state legislators are black. If Barlow wins her race, she will be one more person in the state legislature who can help a Gov. Abrams push her agenda forward. For the 50,000 residents in District 151, her goal is to help bring more high-paying jobs to the region so young and talented people would decide to stick around when they grow up. But most importantly, Barlow wants residents of her district to have better access to the health care system. It’s a matter of life or death.
Barlow says several towns share an ambulance service. But the nearest hospital is a half hour away in Albany, far enough for someone to die on the way to get care, she said. That has implications for the personal health of residents, but also the health of the area overall.
“Businesses aren’t going to locate where there is no healthcare facility to treat their employees and the economy is poor,” Barlow said on our way to Leary, explaining how lack of healthcare services stifles job growth.
Barlow knows most of the people she’s vying to represent. She’s been operating her home care business in the district for more than 30 years. As a member of the health industry, Barlow has a unique perspective about the desperate economic conditions residents face. Roughly half her patients use Medicaid, so when Gov. Nathan Deal rejected the expansion of Medicaid, it hurt them severely. And there are no major businesses in the region. Most folks rely on farming and the minimum wage jobs they can get a restaurant or some other small private business. Many of those jobs do not offer healthcare, Barlow said.
Those struggles are a prominent feature of the area. It only takes 30 minutes to drive from Albany to Leary, but the economic disparities between the two towns are immediately noticeable as you drive down GA-62 W. Cell phone signals fade in and out. Barlow knows these roads so well she can tell you which stretches of the route provide a window of call time before the signal drops. She says there isn’t much broadband in the area and that most people still use dial up to access the Internet.
“Can you image a kid trying to get some homework done and they need broadband to access something as opposed to using old DSL?” she asked. “That’s all they have.”
Originally from Florida, she moved to Albany more than 30 years ago, married and raised her children here with her late husband. Over the years, Barlow has joined several community boards and gotten to know more people.
When I traveled with her recently, her final campaign stop was at Shiloh Baptist Church in Preston in nearby Webster County. On our way there, Barlow observed workers clearing trees felled by Hurricane Michael weeks ago.
“I always look to see if there is any diversity in the crews,” she said. “Everybody should have access to those jobs. They’re probably from out of town, not local.”
When we got to the church at almost 2:30 p.m., the members were well into their fish fry. Rev. Coley Clark told Barlow she was free to walk around and chat with folks while they ate. She spotted a man in a black pickup truck. He was smoking and raised the window as she walked over.
“How you doing Mr. [Jesse] Jones?” Barlow asked as she knocked on the window. “Why you hiding? I see you smoking. I’ll let you get away with smoking this one time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jones replied, putting out the cigarette.
Jones retired after working for Webster County for 39 years. He has never left the area except for a few short trips to Oklahoma and Atlanta. He learned about Barlow after seeing a white guy passing out campaign literature with the photos of Abrams and other Democrats. Barlow’s was one of the photos. Jones decided to vote for her after running into her at a campaign event in the county. Like many people at the fish fry, he voted a straight Democratic ticket.
“Brian Kemp ain’t the right person for me,” said Jones, 72, who took advantage of early voting. “Even if he was a Democrat, he ain’t the right person for me. He says things he shouldn’t say. He’s like our president; he ain’t got no business winning nothing.”
Sitting next to him was Diane Moses. Like Jones, Moses, 54, will be voting on a straight Democratic ticket. She works a minimum wage job as a cashier at a local store. She agrees with Abrams’ push to increase the minimum wage to $15.
“Some people out here start off with $7.25,” Moses said. “I don’t know how they live off that.”
They can’t, and that is why they leave the area for higher wage jobs. But, as Barlow explained to me, many of those people drive an hour away to make $10 an hour but do not have healthcare. So they end up burning a lot of gas driving to and from the community without improving their access to healthcare.
That’s why small towns like Preston frequently lose young talent. The wooded areas and cotton fields haven’t made way for any type of industry that could provide the foundation for a fruitful life, they reason. Most young people around these parts have no interest in staying. Barlow knows that well.
In between trying to convince grownups to get out to vote Tuesday, she ran into young children running around and gathered them together.
“You all can’t vote now, but you are the future leaders,” she told them. “You will be taking my place one day. You will have my job.”
They mostly nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Near the food tents close to the back of the church was Brandon Brown frying catfish for people lined up with styrofoam plates waiting for him to pull fillets from the grease. Brown, 22, will be enlisting in the Navy in January. He spent a year in culinary school and wants to run is own restaurant someday—but not in Webster County.
“It won’t succeed here,” Brown said. “I think the restaurant will succeed if I open it someplace else.”
On our way back to Albany, Barlow reflected on why she is running and the money needed to finance a campaign. At the beginning, she had to put up a lot of her own money before her supporters helped her with other expenses. Folks who own office space donated it to Barlow to set up her headquarters.
Getting fundraisers to work campaigns of her size is nearly impossible. One of the first things fundraisers ask is for a list of people who are ready to donate. If your list is full of people who are only giving $5 here and $15 there, that’s not enough to convince most fundraisers to take on a candidate because they fundraisers earn a living from a percentage of what they raise. So Barlow used her own money until she won the primary in May. It was only then money started coming in from Georgia. Still, the vast amount of her financial support came from outside the state.
Money keeps most people from running for office, which is why black women tend not to throw their hats in local politics. Barlow doesn’t have all of the money in the world, but she could at least pay for a lot of upfront costs to get her campaign off the ground.
Most can’t even do that.
Our conversation then moved to Donald Trump, who was in Macon recently to support Kemp. We talked about the Tea Party wave that preceded 2016. She shared her frustration about black people who don’t take advantage of early voting. The last day to early vote was Friday. Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor who did not recuse himself from duties as secretary of state and has worked vigorously to restrict voting in Georgia, announced that Georgia broke the midterm early voting record with 2,071,830 ballots with 1,886,905 in-person and 184,925 by mail. The previous record was 945,507 early votes cast – 838,484 in-person and 107,023 by mail in 2014.
I have been in Georgia for two weeks traveling the state. Many black people told me they feared voting early because they did not believe their ballot would be counted, or that it would get lost. Barlow has heard the same thing. When a woman she knows told Barlow she worried her ballot would be tampered with if she voted before Tuesday, Barlow asked what’s to stop someone from tampering with it Tuesday. The woman told her there is too much happening that day for something to happen.
“Are you sure?” Barlow asked.
“Well, I’m not 100 percent sure, but that’s how I feel about it,” the woman replied.
Barlow is sensitive to her feelings.
“That may very well have been the history in these small towns,” Barlow surmises. “That you vote early and then the ballot disappears. I don’t know.”
The nation is paying attention to Abrams, but the blue wave badly needs to hit the rural corners of southwest Georgia as it does Atlanta. Trump’s vision for America is shared by a lot of people in District 151, Barlow explains, even if the majority of people who would be harmed by it are black.
“The only way we can (change) that is a new administration,” Barlow said. “We gotta work towards that and everybody has to stand up. Not one group against another. We’ve got to all stand together and say, ‘Enough!’ Enough of the hate.”