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State House District 160: Georgia Southern student wants change
W James Woodall
James Major Woodall

STATESBORO — James “Major” Woodall, Georgia Youth and College Division NAACP state president, a senior at Georgia Southern University and a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, recently took on a new role: Democratic Party candidate for Georgia House of Representatives in District 160.

With Woodall the only Democrat and incumbent Rep. Jan Tankersley the only Republican, they will appear unopposed on their parties’ separate ballots in the May 24 primary. So, voters must wait until Nov. 8 to decide this contest.

“We are facing a more challenging time right now, more challenging than I’ve ever experienced in my life, where we are in need of leadership, true and genuine, authentic leaders who are able to lead with vision, tenacity and clarity to be able to move our people forward,” Woodall said in an interview.

He then summarized a campaign based on three E’s: economics, education and environmental justice.

The 3 E’s

On economics, the first thing he mentioned was House Bill 757, the “religious liberty bill” that recently passed the Legislature, with Tankersley among the many Republicans who voted for it. But Republican Gov. Nathan Deal announced Monday that he would veto it, as some national event organizers threatened to boycott Georgia over of a law opponents portray as allowing discrimination in reaction against same-sex marriage.

Woodall opposes the bill.

Another economic issue Woodall emphasizes is expanding Medicaid eligibility. As part of opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the state’s Republican-majority government has refused to expand Medicaid, giving up offered federal funding in the process.

“Because we have not allowed Medicaid to be expanded to hundreds of thousands of Georgians, we limit what we can do in terms of bringing more jobs in the health-care industry,” Woodall said. “Right here on Georgia Southern’s campus, we have one of the best nursing programs in the country. Where are they going to go? Are they all going to go to the same hospital?”

On education, Woodall advocates expansion of the HOPE scholarship and grant program “to bridge the gap between access and affordability for our students.” Meanwhile, he opposes the Opportunity School District legislation, which Tankersley supported, and which goes to the voters in the form of an amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot. Its passage would allow the state to assign chronically underperforming schools to a statewide “district” to be operated under charters or by contracted organizations.

“It allows for the chartering and the privatization of our schools,” Woodall said. “It brings so much outside money that’s not necessarily supportive of the communities ... and so it allows for other outside forces to be able to regulate what’s going on within our communities, when in reality we need to be able to govern our local schools the best way we know how, and that’s through the local level.”

On environmental policy, Woodall said the state should authorize direct monitoring by the federal Environmental Protection Agency of rivers and landfills. He is concerned that a landfill near Jesup receiving up to 10,000 tons of coal ash a day will result in serious problems within a few years, he said.

Tankersley did the right thing, Woodall said, when she opposed renewing a textile finishing plant’s discharge permit into the Ogeechee River after a mass fish kill in 2011.

“But we need more. We need legislation that allows for the EPA to be able to monitor closely what is being put into our rivers, what is being put into our landfills, what is being put in our communities,” he said.

Campus carry

Not one of the three E’s, Tankersley’s support of legislation allowing handguns on college campuses was what prompted Woodall to become a candidate, he said. Under the bill awaiting Deal’s signature, “campus carry” would be limited to permit holders age 21 and up.

Woodall said he supports the right to carry firearms, “even open carry” in general, but believes state lawmakers should have heeded the concerns of the people who will be directly affected. Some student government organizations, faculty members, university administrators and the state University System chancellor opposed the legislation.

“As a representative, if our job is not to represent the people’s voices, then what are we doing?” Woodall said. “So when I saw that our district representative voted for that, I said something has to be done, no more talking is needed, because obviously we’re not being listened to and not being heard.”

Past and future

Woodall, 22, will graduate from Georgia Southern in May with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in religion. Before being elected to the NAACP Youth and College Division’s top statewide post last October, he had served as 2014-15 president of the Georgia Southern University Chapter of the NAACP. He also served more than two years as a GSU student government senator.

Woodall grew up in Riverdale, where he became Riverdale High School’s Junior ROTC cadet commander. He was raised by his mother and his grandparents, both of whom are ministers, while his father was in and out of prison. Woodall remains a member of a church in Riverdale but recently started attending Agape Worship Center in Statesboro.

He is looking for a church home in Statesboro because that is where he wants to remain to start a family, he said. Woodall has not ruled out the ministry or active-duty military service in the future, but his current plans are for law school.

He wants to attend Savannah Law School while remaining a Statesboro resident.

Woodall said he has heard talk about his seeking state office while still a college student, in comparison to Tankersley’s experience.

“But I think all you need in terms of experience is a heart to serve,” Woodall said. “We all start somewhere, but my heart is with the people, my heart will always be with the people, and that trumps experience any day.”

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