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What The Site Of The Democratic Debate Says About Georgia, Role Of Black Voters

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The debate stage is prepared for Wednesday's Democratic presidential primary debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post, at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
Image credit: Saul Loeb

Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios has been home to Wakanda, the White House and The Walking Dead, but on Wednesday night it will host its most topical production yet: the next Democratic presidential primary debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.

With less than three months before voters begin casting ballots, 10 candidates will walk out onto a sound stage named for Oprah Winfrey.

The decision to stage the debate at Tyler Perry Studios is a sign of the political and economic power of Georgia’s growing film industry, an implicit acknowledgment of the space that black voters occupy in the primary electorate and a nod to the state’s potential battleground status in 2020.

“It shows how Georgia is ready to present on a national stage,” said Kalena Boller, a retired location manager who spent 15 years scouting out locations around Atlanta to film movies, music videos and television shows.

“What’s more Southern than that?”

The big, thick gates and tall fences outside the studios in southwest Atlanta resemble a fortress, which the facility once was in its past incarnation as a U.S. Army base, Fort McPherson, which operated from 1885 to 2011.

Filmmaker and producer Tyler Perry purchased part of the property in 2015 from the city of Atlanta to build his eponymous production facilities, larger than any studio in Los Angeles. He’s the only African American to own a major film studio.

“It’s 330 acres and 12 sound stages,” Tyler Perry told late-night host Jimmy Kimmel after the studio’s grand opening last month. “And I dedicated them all this weekend to people who paved the way and motivated and inspired me, like Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, Cicely Tyson, Will Smith, Halle Berry … .”

Standing in the parking lot of a recent development up the street from Tyler Perry Studios, Boller, the former location scout, said Georgia’s booming film economy is increasingly part of the political conversation too.

This year, several Hollywood actors and production companies called for a boycott of the state after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill tightening restrictions on abortion.

Shortly before a federal judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect, Perry voiced his support for film industry workers in the state and said he couldn’t just “up and leave” the place he called home.

“I mean, what’s more Southern than that?” asked Boller of Perry’s decision to stay.

Boller said the choice to locate this debate at Tyler Perry Studios shows where the Democratic Party is headed.

“What it’s specifically showing is that you cannot look away from the black Democratic vote,” she said. “You cannot discredit and you cannot ignore how much of a contribution we’re making to the country as a whole.”

Battleground Georgia

Donald Trump won Georgia in 2016 by only a 5-point margin, far tighter than past Republican candidates. In 2018, Kemp squeaked out an even narrower victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race.

In a sign that both parties are preparing to fight for Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in 2020, President Trump held a Black Voices for Trump coalition launch in Atlanta this month, while Democratic candidates have made regular stops at historically black colleges in the state, especially this week ahead of the debate.

Georgia will also be a major Senate battleground in 2020, with first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue up for reelection and a special election to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who’s resigning at the end of 2019 for health reasons.

“There is this opportunity before Democrats in Georgia that we’ve not seen and likely won’t see again for many years,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who lobbied the Democratic National Committee to bring the debate to the city.

“Atlanta is really this crown jewel of the South in so many ways — the diversity that it reflects, our economy and the metro area and just really the prominence of so many African American leaders and African American women who are leading cities throughout the South,” said Bottoms.

The debates aren’t the only big-ticket item coming to the studios in this corner of southwest Atlanta. Several movies are actively filming there, and the Miss Universe pageant, once owned by Trump, is coming in December.

Copyright 2019 Georgia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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