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Q&A with Daniel Blackman, candidate for GA Public Service Commission’s District 4

BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE

Atlanta, GA, October 15, 2020: In our ongoing series, NRI Pulse is interviewing candidates ahead of the November elections. Daniel Blackman, who is running for election to the Georgia Public Service Commission to represent District 4, discussed his priorities and views for the commission.

In 2016, Blackman became the first African American to run for the office in Forsyth County, and was the 2014 Democratic nominee for Georgia’s Public Service Commission. He was appointed by the Chairman of the National Wildlife Federation to serve on an Environmental Policy Commission. He worked with the D.C. based Environmental Working Group to advance mandatory GMO labeling legislation. Blackman partnered with the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and Power Africa Initiative, served as an advisor to the Congressional Black Caucus and EPA on Environmental Justice issues, and served on the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law. Blackman was one of 65 global leaders to be invited to Vatican City to discuss the global impact of the climate crisis ahead of the Paris Climate Accords. He has been a guest lecturer at many universities. He is the author of the book “Nationalism without Compassion,” Board Member at ACLU of Georgia, and is an alum of Clark Atlanta University.

Uma Palam Pulendran of They See Blue facilitated the interview.

You are an activist committed to fighting for environmental justice, public health, and political empowerment. How does this passion translate into your policy making decisions – like say in a decision such as if cost should the factor to determine what energy resources utilities use or should goals like cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions?
I think reduced carbon emissions clean air and clean water, which we so fundamentally take for granted, which is one of the reasons I ran for this position. I’ve had a chance to travel internationally in the Middle East and in Europe. My family is from the Caribbean. My grandfather served as a diplomat to the United Nations from Barbados so I have a very extensive history of working in the international community. When you look at countries like the United States and China, and you look at what is happening globally and the decisions that we have to make politically, we have to take into account the access to clean water and clean air, that we’re not really considering our impact on. So, as a climate activist and as an environmental justice advocate, I work very hard to make sure that we bring these issues up in our policymaking process, but also as we work with communities that are, I’d say regionally different and diverse whether it’s the Pacific Islander community or the South Asian community or the Caribbean community. We have to understand that every community is different and share different values and we hope to work to understand that better to implement better policies.

Georgia lawmakers are proposing a new tax on phone lines, TV subscriptions and maybe even internet streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. What are your thoughts about this?
Totally against it. We have already put a tremendous burden on consumers. Georgia has amongst the highest rates in the United States from utility standpoint, we’re not even talking about Internet access at this time. In Georgia, we have 10.2 million residents, but 1.9 million Georgians are living at or below the poverty line. The hardest hit communities are those that live in adverse poverty areas outside the metro Atlanta area where young men and women who were working hard to get their education virtually don’t have consistent access to the Internet. If we’re going to begin to change that narrative, we have to work to make sure that we protect the pocketbooks of consumers and ratepayers. Utility companies for the past several decades have made a tremendous amount of money. If you look at what COVID-19 has done right now this is the wrong time to be having a conversation about adding a tax on streaming services, or on any utilities when we’ve already seen a burden. For example, In the US, about five to 6% of an average American’s paycheck goes to paying the utility bill. In Georgia, we’re paying 18 to 22% of our paycheck towards our utility bill. This includes gas, electric, cable. I’m totally against any new taxes that would burden working families and seniors on a fixed income.

The ongoing shift to remote work will drive demand for networking infrastructure and connectivity. However, the demand could also strain small business owners, a lot of Indian-American businesses included, and startups. Does the office of Public Service Commission have any plans to address these issues?
In Forsyth County, we have one of the fastest growing Indian populations in the United States. We have to begin to think about how those communities interact. Part of my background is driving technology investments in Silicon Valley and around the United States when it when it in regard to startups. So, if you look at startups and the burden that we’re seeing right now, for example, you just mentioned streaming media. When you talk about streaming services teleworking, telecommuting, telemedicine, we have to have the infrastructure in place to support that. But then, we also have to consider in our minority contracting opportunities, the opportunities for the Indian community, the Asian community with Latino community and black community. Startups are the Hallmark and the backbone of our society in our economy. If we’re not looking at these businesses that many of them which are running Silicon Valley. The difference in Georgia and California as it relates to this is the type of investments that are made to support these growing communities in your infrastructure. So, we have to rethink what we’re doing in Georgia, especially since infrastructure is so critical. I am a big proponent of one expanding our infrastructure so that the travel and the, whether it’s through light rail or bus we have to do a better job of that. The public service Commission’s responsibility and role has nothing to do with transportation, but what I believe is in this capacity we have to drive that investment. We also have to make sure that utility companies take into consideration what types of infrastructure reform and adjustments they’re going to have to make over the next several decades. When we begin to see things begin to be automated at higher levels, we’re going to have to rethink energy, not just the way we generate energy, but the way our energy impacts our daily work, our lives, our commuting, and our ability to be able to be productive at home. But when we have these growing populations in states like Georgia, we have to make sure that somebody practices in our investments for clean energy are in alignment, so that opportunities exist for small business owners, but also for those who are at work that are and that are, you know, wanting to be entrepreneurs startups and executives that deal with in the technology industries.

Two new nuclear reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle are over-budget and years behind schedule and Georgia’s families, small businesses, cities, and schools are paying dearly. What are your thoughts about this?
Well, we cannot reverse what has already been done. Plant Vogtle is one of the fiscally most irresponsible decisions in the history of the state of Georgia. It’s currently sitting at around $30 billion. So, when you talk about it being on, you know, over budget and past schedule, we have to think about what are the alternate impacts that we’re going to see in our society, we could have been investing, that same billions of dollars into energy infrastructure, into wireless broadband and to access the internet, high speed internet accessibility for communities that are not as wired. When I think of planning mobile there’s nothing, we can do to reverse the decisions that have been made. We have to now hold the utility companies Georgia Power, case in point, more accountable because their shareholders have not been hurt their ratepayers out. So the ratepayers in the state of Georgia are taking on the burden and you mentioned it, amazingly when you said, the business small businesses, they’re fitting the bill, our schools, they’re fitting the bill schools are paying upwards of 10 to $15,000 to be paid over the last several years to be paying for this individuals are paying around nine to $10 a month, which means, over a year’s time they’re paying almost 1200 dollars for struggling working families. So the three things that I want to see happen is one, we need to rethink, and listen to the staff and the Public Service Commission which has made recommendations on how to shift some of the burden back to the utility companies and not to the ratepayers. That’s number one. The way we do that is working with elected officials that house representatives and state senators in Georgia, that can help us to craft legislation and policy that will allow that burden to be reverted from the ratepayer in the consumer to the utility company and shareholders. Number two, we’ve got to rethink our investment in energy infrastructure. We have over invested into fossil fuels and under investing into clean technology. When I say clean technology I don’t just mean the technology from an aspect of solar panels and biofuels and wintered and I also mean our ability to secure our grid and invest in a grid that is not only sustainable, but that can take on extreme weather, whether it’s hurricanes or the threat of tornadoes. We need to make sure infrastructure is in place to build that type of work. And then lastly, I would like to see if this is a little more of an ambitious, I would like to see some of those expenses reverted to education. I would like to see a significant amount or portion of what has been spent to be turned back into the educational system, so that in our K through 12, education, we can begin to train young men and women for the workforce that’s going to be needed for us to sustain a clean energy workforce. The problem is when you look at colleges like Georgia Tech, about 68% of the students that graduate from there, leave the state of Georgia. Why, because their skill set their degree and their aspirations, cannot be maintained in Georgia. We have to begin to train a workforce and develop a workforce, specifically in high school and middle school that can then translate into jobs, once they leave whether they want to go into technical jobs, or they want to pursue a college degree, that can then translate into cleaner into jobs that will build the workforce, we need to build out and not be indebted to projects like plant Vogtle will be paying for the next 60 years.

How can the Georgia Public Service Commission encourage investment in, and adoption of, clean energy like solar, wind, and other renewable, zero- to low-carbon resources?
We have to drive on public and private investment. We’ve done a very poor job of doing this thinking that the relationship between the utility companies with PSC is the most sustainable relationship. There’s a line in the sand – the PSC is not an arm of the utility companies, it’s the regulatory body to make sure they’re doing the right thing while providing safe and reliable energy. So what we need to do is my background for example, and working with Goldman Sachs, for example, which has committed over $500 billion over a 10 year period to combat climate change and to invest into clean energy technology. Why aren’t we working to drive those public and private partnerships locally, so that we can begin to expand the investment? I believe we can offer incentives to businesses and subsidize what consumers do on their own. But if we rely on those two alone, we won’t be able to make the type of strides we want to go into the future. But we must begin to drive the investments of private companies and investments from around the country. We can then create this space in Georgia remanufacturing can be in your increased technology, research and development can be increased in colleges like Georgia Tech on Savannah State University on Georgia Southern, which is on the costal line we can maybe invest into clean tech such as winter wind technology off the coast of Georgia. We need to rethink the way in which we want to drive investment into our state so that we can build a more robust and advanced state, that can compete with other places, like Germany.

Next year the PSC will adopt Georgia Power’s Integrated Resource Plan. What will you be looking for from the utility in its plan?
That’s right. Integrated resources plan basically is the outlook on the way in which Georgia Power will generate their power over the next several years. We need to make sure that they have a diverse mix of clean energy. We’ve been too heavily relied on pole and on fossil fuels., I would like to see Georgia Power and other utility companies give us a realistic plan for the next three to five years, not in the next thirty years.  Minority communities facing increased challenges with respiratory illness, asthma, and senior citizens facing respiratory illness are impacted the most. So, we need to see our power companies, whether it’s an AMC or Georgia Power or its Atlanta gas in light, we need to begin to see plans that show us how we can transform the future, and not be left in the past. I’m going to be looking on especially with the mobile monitoring report. We’ve got to look at what changes they’ve made, how they face the challenges, how we’re going to be able to deal with threats, for instance, we have an on presidential election coming up in the next three four weeks, well what happens when countries like China or Russia or any other country have a cyber-attack, are we putting the infrastructure in place now to be able to deal with those things that are coming against us?  So, this integrated resources plan really show and explain to us how we’re going to be able to rely more on clean energy sources that can be protected against cyber-attack as a threat their own, but also make sure that we understand how we’re going to transition to the power we currently use, and some power that is not only a better investment, but offers us a better opportunity for commission and for the state of Georgia.

How can the Georgia Public Service Commission encourage investment in, and adoption of, clean energy like solar, wind, and other renewable, zero- to low-carbon resources?
The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to treat this treat the state of Georgia and our first hundred days as four regions north, south, east and west. We want to separate those regions and have two times a year, they want to have something applied to the Institute of Public Utilities, we want to make sure that we’re communicating with religious leaders on interfaith leaders, civic leaders school leaders, local government officials and we want to bring people together for two days. So, we come in and we give a full day course, not only on the utility regulation process, but on how to advocate to your elected officials. The Public Service Commission needs to do more town halls, need to communicate more, there needs to be more transparency. When I’m elected to the Public Service Commission, I will have an open list so that people can see who I’m communicating with. People like me have to make sure people understand what climate change means, as it relates to the emissions, or coal ash seeps into our water like in Juliet Georgia, or when we have high levels of mercury and lead in our waters. We need to put ourselves in a position where people now have more of an interest because they understand three things – how their public health is affected, how their pocketbooks are affected and three, a sustainable goal and plan we’re well able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (proposed by Blackman’s grandfather at the UN). We have to give our children the kind of environment that will allow them to perform and produce and to sustain themselves for the next several years of their lives and so they can build their families as well so we have to educate the community but also on schools, K through 12 and make sure the right people are at the table to make the policies that support our ideologies.

More Indians who have never been politically active before are coming out in support of you. What do you know about the community and the culture?
Where I live, we have a very fast-growing Indian population and our schools have increasingly become diverse. So, I’m sat down with the parents and the families and I understand the importance of education in our communities and that’s why I adjusted my platform. On my website, I have a space called creating a workforce of the future. I believe that when we have families that are coming here from other countries, they are building and raising their families in places where they want them to be able to compete globally. So, my perspective on what we have been able to accomplish as a candidate is to make sure that we’re placing a heavy emphasis on education. I’ve built a campaign based upon being sensitive to the differences that we have that make us unique, and also making sure that we place an emphasis on education. We have done a poor job, not just as Democrats, not just as republicans but as society in the United States on the emphasis on education. I have three children I’m raising, and I believe that if I’m able to build infrastructure for families like yours and the other ones are voting for me, then it’s incumbent for me to make sure that we’re doing it in a way that allows us to provide the same opportunities for kids, no matter what their zip code is, what their background is, what differences they may have. So I am very committed to the plight of those who live here to share some differences that really make us unique what makes America great is not our political power it’s not our military power, it’s the power of our diversity, and investing into the diverse communities and make us a better society for everyone.

Why should the community vote for you?
I didn’t want to run for Public Service Commission, this year. What I wanted to do this year was to help impact the presidential election. But what I learned in working to impact that area was that, there were so many people that weren’t excited about going all the way down the boundary. And as you know, all politics is local. We can talk about the presidential election all we want, but we’re not talking about our East Indian population in Forsyth County in Gwinnett County. We’re not talking about our urban population in Stone Mountain. We’re not talking about our populations of Brazilian Afro Brazilians and Brazilian Americans. We are not talking about these communities, then they are going to vote only for the president, if they vote at all.. They’re not going to vote for judges, the county commission which robs investment, school board races, the House or Senate races. And they are not realizing that in their inactivity, and their unwillingness to be involved in the political process, whether it’s through the census, or its voting for house and senate representatives, what happens at that point is, we now have an in an unbalanced system that unfairly has an impact on our community. So, people should vote for someone that believes in educating our community, not just being a candidate is going to disappear is a six-year term. I believe in my first two years. I will have not only increased the educational capacity of individuals to know about the Public Service Commission, and I believe that we can really work with school systems are 159 counties in Georgia. I want to make sure that within the first two years, we can drive education in technology and utility regulation. why, because in some of these four communities, they’re being left behind because they don’t have access to information education. So, if you want a candidate, that will represent you, that’s going to pick up the phone, that’s going to come into communities, that would be me. I believe that we have to look at the entirety of our state, we have to look at the future of our children collectively, and we have to have individuals get elected to make sure that they’re driving the conversation, representing people’s voices that are not being heard and that dropping investments for small businesses, our communities, the diversity of what makes us strong. But Lastly, our children who don’t have a voice and who have been left behind. We as the state cannot afford at any electrical position to leave another county or child behind. I also will make a commitment right now on your show, that I will be accessible because when you get elected, you shouldn’t disappear, people should know how to reach you in every time especially in your time of need.

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