District 113th candidates square off in forum
Morgan County Democratic Party Chairman Patsy Harris places a campaign sign outside the Oconee County Library last week. PHOTO BY J. MAXWELL
By Judy A. Maxwell
The ballot is busy with names. The issues are many. And the campaign season is short. Very short.
Four people running for the suddenly opened 113th District State House seat made their first group appearance at a candidates' night held Wednesday, June 8, at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville.
The district includes four voting districts in Morgan County -- Apalachee, Bostwick, Rutledge and Madison West -- with more than 2,100 eligible voters.
Republicans Sarah Bell, Alan Alexander and Chuck Williams and Democrat Dan Matthews, all of Oconee County, were on the firing line as residents aimed questions at them for two hours in an attempt to narrow the field to one on June 21, the day a special election will be held to fill the seat vacated by Hank Huckaby in April.
Huckaby, sworn in after besting Democratic Suzy Compere in the Nov. 2 General Election, stepped down after being named the next chancellor of Georgia's university system. Gov. Deal called for the special election, with a possible run-off date of July 19. The special election will cost Morgan County at least $5,000, said Bobby Howington, the county's elections supervisor. Early voting ends Friday.
The candidates' professional backgrounds are varied, but they largely were in concert on most the issues raised by the 70 people in the audience, including illegal immigration, funding for public education, school vouchers, bank failures, jobs and the recovering economy.
At one point, however, Alexander, a lawyer who counsels local governments and public safety departments, pointedly disagreed with Bell, who said she would like to see counties in the state each get a family court modeled after the program in Fulton County. Alexander called Fulton County's family court "a disaster." "It was set up as a pilot program, and it's a micro-managed court, it's expensive and it doesn't work," said Alexander, a father of six who has two young children at home. He offered that the current Superior Court system is efficient in family law matters; and it keeps a lot of the decisions regarding divorce, child support and custody under the control of the families.
Bell, single with no children, said beyond family law, almost all of the issues facing Georgia's General Assembly are family-related. She cited lack of jobs, high taxation, careless government spending and a weak public education system. "We don't want to fight against the family as a government." Bell also spoke on the issue of character. "You have to look at a candidate's background. Have they been consistent? People don't really change very much," said Bell, who teaches English at Gainesville State College and who has long been active in the Oconee County Republican Committee.
Matthews is chairman of Oconee County's Democratic Committee and, until recently, blogged his views and opinions on Oconee Patch, a community online news and opinion site. Matthews was criticized by some readers for claiming that none of the three GOP candidates has much to offer in a May 16 blog and then qualifying to run for the seat two days later. The Patch placed an editor's disclaimer at the top of Matthews' blog and said he is on leave while a candidate.
The single father of one, Matthews has long been involved in media and mass communication, working with radio and newspapers as well as Web sites. He said he feels 113th District voters need more of a choice on June 21.
Like Alexander and Bell, Matthews said he is a proponent of the state keeping its promise to adequately fund public education, and blasted Gov. Deal for raising the grade point average for students seeking to qualify for a HOPE Scholarship, a state-lottery-funded program that helps pay college tuition. The required GPA is 3.7, up from 3.2.
The other three candidates agreed that funding the HOPE Scholarship is an issue that needs careful consideration, with Bell saying officials need to trim administration and infrastructure costs so more of the money goes to students and Williams noting that HOPE started as a "program based on hope" and has grown to "a free education for every child." "HOPE is not an entitlement and we have to get it back to what it was designed for," Williams said, adding its focus was to enable low- to moderate-income students finance a post-secondary education.
Williams touted a long-time career in economic development and community banking during which he was able to work closely with state elected officials and administration on many issues.
Early in the Q&A, an audience member asked all of the candidates what the state General Assembly can do to stop the failure of so many banks in Georgia -- 63 since fall 2008.
Each candidate said the government should do its best to not interfere with the private banking business.
"There's a fine line between regulating to protect investors and having too much regulation that banks cannot operate," said Alexander.
Bell noted the weak banks failed and Georgia still has many strong, successful financial institutions. Matthews suggested that banks keep their loans local and stop predatory lending. "The state has a role to play," he said, "but the federal government tells the banks what to do."
Williams was probably listened to the most carefully when giving his response. "I was in banking for 30 years, and you know I was associated with a failed bank." Williams was president of North Georgia Bank in Watkinsville when federal banking regulators shuttered it in February. Statewide, the banks that failed were of all sizes and all ages, said Williams. "They failed because of Georgia's meltdown in the real estate economy," he said, adding, "We've not seen the end of it, unfortunately."
STAY INFORMED. VOTE The next candidates' forum for 113th District State House race will be from 6-9 p.m. Thursday, June 16, at the North Oconee High School's performing arts building.
The event is sponsored by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce. For more information, contact Zoe Gattie at 706-769-7947.
Early voting ends Friday evening and the special election is set for June 21 with a possible runoff on July 19..
Printed in the June 17, 2011 edition