Friday, July 15, 2011

Candidates in Oconee County’s Georgia House District 113th Race Differ on Issues and in Style

And in Likely Longevity

It seems almost certain that only a small percentage of the 35,750 eligible voters will cast ballots in the July 19 runoff election for the open seat in Georgia House District 113.

Of those who do vote, most are likely to use party to help them pick between the two candidates.

That suggests that Republican Chuck Williams will be representing Oconee County and parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties in Atlanta at the special session next month.

No doubt at least some, perhaps small, number of voters will not use party labels to decide between Williams and Democrat Dan Matthews and will rely instead on what the candidates have said and done during the campaign.

These voters will have much to ponder.

In the three campaign forums and in interviews the two candidates have given during the campaign, neither has followed traditional ideological lines.

The two have agreed on many issues and differed on others.

And the two candidates have shown they are different in style and background.

Williams has said in an interview he did with 1340 WGAU radio newsman Tim Bryant on May 4, when he was the only declared candidate, that he would not pledge not to raise taxes if elected. Bryant had not even asked him about such a pledge.

“I am intending to avoid during this campaign and after I take office falling into that trap of making unequivocal statements, signing pledges or what not, for no new taxes, because I do subscribe to the Republican theory of minimal government, minimal taxes, but the fact is this state and any governmental entity has got to have adequate revenue to function,” Williams said.

Matthews did take such a pledge on taxes, saying in his closing comments at the candidate forum on June 30 that he “will say no” to raising taxes and fees.

On the social issue of abortion, the two candidates have taken very similar stands.

Both said they are pro-life, but both also said they would not restrict a woman’s choice.

“I don’t think abortion should be used as birth control,” Matthews said at the June 30 forum. But he said he would not tell women what to do on the issue.

“I also have a problem with telling women what to do,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, I’m pro-life. I believe that abortion is something that is not good, is not proper.”

Matthews says he would have voted against House Bill 87, which critics and supporters alike say takes a strong stand against illegal immigration. He said it is hurting businesses in Georgia, particularly agriculture.

Williams said he would have supported it “reluctantly.” At the June 30 forum, however, he gave a nuanced answer about his support.

“We all want fruits and vegetables on the store shelves when we go. When we stay at a hotel, we want our rooms cleaned, but yet we bemoan the fact that illegal immigrants are putting a big burden on our health care system, on our criminal justice system, and on our schools.”

Both said they are supportive of Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, which Oconee County wants to build with Walton County and for which the two counties are seeking state support.

Matthews said finding funding to finance the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission was not a priority.

“I am not going to commit to do that because I don’t think we have the money to do that,” he said at the June 30 forum.

Williams said he would support finding funding for the Commission.

“We’ve just got to find a way to do it,” Williams said.

Williams also wants stronger, not less, government involvement in banking regulation, and said as a legislator he would work to strengthen the State Department of Banking and Finance.

“In times of adversity, banks need a strong regulator,” he said in his May 4 interview with Bryant.

In the June 8 candidate forum, Matthews said “I wouldn’t want the government in the state of Georgia telling people and telling banks how to do their business.”

Williams reminded Matthews and the audience that the state of Georgia already does regulate banks.

Williams has described himself, at least by inference, as a “social moderate and fiscal conservative.”

Matthews has described himself as a “libertarian Democrat.”

Matthews and Williams have had to deal with their histories during the campaign.

Williams has spent much time explaining his role as founder and president of North Georgia Bank, which failed in February.

He was asked about the issue at all three candidate forums.

Williams presided over the failure of a bank he started and helped in the transition to a new bank owner. He walked away with, by his own admission to Tim Bryant in an interview on July 6, at least a million dollars in loss.

Despite these setbacks, Williams had enough confidence in himself to come out of retirement as a tree farmer and say that his experiences with the bank qualified him to represent the county and rest of the district in Atlanta and help the state of Georgia manage its financial crisis.

“I learned lessons that I will take to Atlanta and I will use as we try to help Georgia work through similar problems,” Williams said at the June 30 candidate forum at the Civic Center.

Banks that fail usually make bad loans, that is, loans to people who cannot repay them. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sold most of the North Georgia loans to BankSouth, but the FDIC expects to share in losses from them.

Williams said at that forum that North Georgia’s loan portfolio was “weighted toward residential and development construction money.” When the local residential market collapsed, so did his bank.

Williams reminded the audience his bank was making loans in a period in which lenders were promoting “innovative mortgage products.”

Williams said as the CEO of North Georgia bank “I obviously accept responsibility for everything that occurred at our bank.” But he said he wanted that to include ”not only the problems but the good things we did,” such as supporting local charities.

Matthews has had to distance himself from his history as a partisan, liberal blogger

At the June 30 candidate forum, Bryant, who served as moderator, asked Matthews if he had any second thoughts about a blog he had written at the time former Congressman Charles Norwood was dying of cancer.

Matthews said he could not remember the blog.

The message in the blog isn’t very clear, but it certainly is possible to read it as insensitive to Norwood, as the questioner in the audience at the forum did.

Bryant returned to the blog when he interviewed Matthews on July 5, and at this time Matthews was more contrite.

He said he had gone back and reread the blog.

“In five years, I’ve changed. In five years, my father passed away and died,” Matthews said.

“Yes, what I said in 2005 and wrote in my blog was inartful,” he added.”It was probably poorly written, and I’m sorry if I scorched the ears of anyone.”

Williams is the ultimate insider, and he has emphasized that in the forums.

He has served on local and state governmental boards and has ties to former Gov. Sonny Perdue and current Gov. Nathan Deal. He is the darling of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, in which he has been active.

Ed Perkins, active in the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, is his campaign chairman, according to records he filed with the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Committee.

Larry Benson, president of Benson Bakery of Bogart and local hotel owner, is his campaign treasurer.

Dan Matthews’ most prominent role has been as chairman of the Oconee County Democratic Party, a decidedly low-key activity in the strongly Republican county.

His filing papers list only himself.

In an amended campaign finance statement filed on Wednesday, Matthews reporting raising only $4,411, including a loan of $100 he made to his campaign. He had $1,605 on hand to spend.

Williams reported in an amended statement he filed this morning that he had raised $20,228, including a loan of $5,908 he made to himself. He had $12,885 on hand to spend.

Matthews is an office manager working with two attorneys in Athens.

During the campaign, Matthews has discussed his personal life openly. He has said repeatedly he is a single father, and he brings his son with him to political events.

Williams has been reserved, saying little about his personal life.

Matthews wore a suit to all three candidate forums, but he didn’t look very comfortable in the suit. He never has had the tie pulled tight.

Williams dressed for each in banker dark blue suits and jackets.

Williams speaks slowly in a clear, southern drawn. He weighs his words, showing little sign of emotion. He hedges on many of the issues, saying he needs time to gather more information and think about them.

Matthews speaks loudly in an accent that reflects his Iowa roots. His sentences meander and are often hard to follow. He appears to feel compelled to have a stance on every issue.

The closing statements the two candidates gave at the June 30 candidate forum illustrate those stylistic differences.

Williams has said that an advantage to electing him is that he will be effective, given his connections.

Matthews says he will listen to different points of view. In a written response to a question from Oconee Patch, he said he would use his expertise in social media to make himself an effective communicator with his constituents.

No Democratic candidate has done well in the 113th District as currently configured. Democrat Becky Vaughn got 38.9 percent of the vote in her race against incumbent Bob Smith in 2006, and Suzy Compere got 27.5 percent of the vote in the November 2010 race against Hank Huckaby.

Huckaby entered the race when Smith announced he would not seek reelection and then resigned in April to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

Matthews got 26.7 percent of the votes in the June 21 first round of the special election. He was running against Republicans Williams, Alan Alexander and Sarah Bell. Williams got 38.8 percent.

But only 3,923, or 11.0 percent, of the active voters turned out. That figure was 12.7 percent in Oconee County.

As of the end of the day today, 1,005 voters cast ballots in early voting in Oconee County, according to Carole Amos from the election office. That compares with the 775 who voted in early voting for the June 21 election.

Early voting ended at 5 p.m. today.

Oconee County voters make up 59.7 percent of the 35,750 registered voters in the 113th district.

The early voting figures suggests turnout in the runoff could be higher than in the June 21 election. It also is possible that simply a larger number of persons used early voting in the middle of the summer.

To be successful, Matthews needs to energize his base but also reach out to those who are willing to consider voting for someone who is not running as a Republican.

His seeming attack on Norris has not helped, but he also said he did not agree with 10th District Congressman Paul Broun in the second debate and made an unsolicited criticism of the Republican Party in his interview on July 5 with Tim Bryant.

“I think there are a lot of problems with the economy,” he said. “It seems to me the Georgia Republican Party has kind of become the party of uncertainty in the state of Georgia in the way that business has been done.”

Williams can afford to be more partisan, as he needs to make sure people who normally vote Republican go to the polls.

With Bell, who positioned herself as the most conservative candidate in the June 21 first round, out of the race, Williams does need to make sure that the conservative base is motivated to come to the polls on Tuesday.

If Williams were to be elected and wants to stay in the job, he probably would be very difficult to defeat next time around. As part of the majority, he could help create a district, using his southern Oconee County base, that would almost guarantee that.

Williams has hedged on whether he would support a change in the district that would see Oconee County split between districts. The legislature will take up redistricting when it meets next month.

In the July 6 interview with Bryant, Williams said simply “Everything is up for discussion at this point.”

Matthews, as a Democrat, probably would find it difficult to hold his position in 2012.

As a member of the minority party, he would have little influence on how the districts will be drawn.

Matthews could easily be put into a district with someone likely to defeat him when he comes up for reelection.


Readers caught two typos, which I corrected in this version. I also made an error in the number of early voters in Oconee County in the June 21 election and have corrected that. I thank the readers for pointing out the typos and apologize for the errors.


Almost all of what I have written above comes from three sources:

*The three candidate forums. Video from each is at the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

*The four interviews 1340 WGAU radio journalist Tim Bryant did on these dates:

May 4 with Williams

May 19 with Matthews

July 5 with Matthews

July 6 with Williams

All are available in the archives of 1340 WGAU.

*Written comments the two candidates gave to Oconee Patch in response to submitted questions.