The candidates on Monday night fielded questions on campus carry, healthcare, religious freedom, President Donald Trump and a variety of other matters.
The three candidates running as Republicans in Georgia House District 119 agreed in their responses to most of the questions, while the lone Democrat in the Nov. 7 special election politely differentiated his views from those expressed by the others.
As the forum progressed at Oconee Veterans Park, Republican candidate Houston Gaines criticized his opponent, Deborah Gonzalez, the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Party, and even moderator Russ Page.
In his introductory comments, Gaines had stressed his experience, saying last year at the University of Georgia “I was student body president, where we had the chance to work on real issues and solutions.”
Gonzalez was soft-spoken in her responses, but she firmly challenged Gaines’ assertion that his experience as president of the University of Georgia Student Government last year qualified him for a seat in the General Assembly.
“I was associate vice president at Georgia Perimeter College,” she said. “I worked with the Student Government Association presidents every year. I know what it is from the faculty standpoint, from the student standpoint, from Student Affairs standpoint.”
She left it at that.
The meeting consisted of two back-to-back forums, the first for the candidates for the 119th House District, made up of Oconee and Clarke Counties, and the second for candidates for the 117th House District.
The 117th is dominated by Clarke County but includes three precincts in northeastern Oconee County--Athens Academy, Malcom Bridge and Bogart--and parts of Barrow and Jackson counties.
When the session began at 6 p.m. Monday night, 70 people were in the audience, and others came in as the meeting in the Community Center at the park evolved.
Audience members identified themselves as from Barrow, Clarke and Oconee counties, though Oconee County residents were most prominent, at least among those who asked questions.
The crowd did thin for the 117th forum, reflecting the fact that 10 of the county’s 13 precincts fall into the 119th, but many audience members remained until the session ended just before 9 p.m.
Sarah Bell, Russ Page and I were the forum organizers.
Not all of the questions asked of the candidates in the two session were the same, but several were repeated, including the one on campus carry and the one on Trump.
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The General Assembly earlier this year passed House Bill 280 allowing guns on campus, over the opposition of the chancellor of the Board of Regents, the president of the University of Georgia, and many vocal University of Georgia faculty members.
Regina Quick, then representing the 117th but now a Superior Court Judge, and Chuck Williams, then representing the 119th but now director of the Georgia Forestry Commission, voted against House Bill 280.
So did Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents all of Oconee County and parts of Clarke County in the General Assembly.
Republican 119 candidates Tom Lord, Steven Strickland and Marcus Wiedower all said at the forum Monday night that they supported campus carry. Democrat Jonathan Wallace said he opposed it.
Republican Houston Gaines didn’t say whether he was for or against campus carry when the question came up in the session for the 117th, while Democrat Deborah Gonzales said she was opposed.
In both sessions, Russell Edwards, an Athens attorney who is past chair of the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee, asked the candidates how they voted in the 2016 presidential election and if they would vote the same way again.
Lord, Strickland and Wiedower said they voted for Trump and would vote for him again.
Wallace said he voted for Hillary Clinton and would vote for her again, though he said he did not agree with “all of her opinions and positions.”
Gaines said “I certainly would not be voting for Hillary Clinton,” but he did not say if he would vote for Trump.
Gonzalez said she probably would vote for Clinton and certainly would not vote for Trump.
Gaines On Denson
In responding to Edwards’ question about Trump, Gaines criticized moderator Page for allowing Edwards to speak, saying “He has been a strong supporter of my opponent since day one.”
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Page had said in the introduction that he did not want someone who “is a member of one of the campaigns, or family or friend of the candidate” to ask questions so as to give time to others in the audience.
Gaines next launched in a critique of “Athens Democrats” for removing Athens Mayor Nancy Denson from the Democratic Party Committee after she endorsed Gaines.
Gaines, who called himself a “life-long Conservative Republican,” had run Denson’s last campaign for mayor. Elections for the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission are nonpartisan, though Denson is a prominent Democrat in the community.
Gaines said that Edwards “led the charge to oust” Denson and called on Gonzalez to “disavow” what Edwards had done.
Gonzalez said that Edwards was not part of her campaign.
Gaines returned to his complaint about how Denson was treated in response to a subsequent question on an unrelated topic.
Range Of Questions
At the start of each of the two forums, the candidates were given a chance to make a three-minute introduction, with the order determined by chance.
Page said that each candidate would get to answer each of the questions posed and asked that endorsements or statement not be made.
Audience members posed 14 different questions in the first forum and 13 in the second.
Included were questions about the Las Vegas shooting, preservation of monuments, gerrymandering, charter schools, health care and women’s issues.
Campus Carry Question 119
The second question asked in the first forum was on gun control, and campus carry came up in the responses. The question that followed was on campus carry specifically. Campus carry was the fourth question in the second forum.
“Campus carry, as it’s written, is flawed,” Wiedower said. “It’s very flawed. It needs to be readdressed. I am in support of campus carry. I’m not in support of how it is currently written...There’s not a lot of clarity in where and when you can carry. It really gets to the point where it an ineffective bill.”
“I stand in support of campus carry,” Lord said. “I know when it was signed into law opponents of the bill, they predicted mass carnage. That hasn’t happened, so I do stand in support of campus carry.”
“I fully support campus carry,” Strickland said. “There is ambiguity in the statute as its written. I do believe that it needs to be addressed and either narrowed or broadened.”
“I’ve already stated that I’m not a fan” of campus carry, Wallace said. “It is an issue of local control...The one’s who are most likely to be affected are the students, the teachers and the workers, and all of those I’ve spoken to so far have said that they are not a fan.”
Campus Carry Question 117
Gonzalez said the “campus carry bill is one of the reason’s I’m running, because I oppose it. An institute of higher education is about learning, and any obstacle to that should not be allowed on campus.”
Gaines said that “strong second amendment supporters were not necessarily pleased with the bill in terms of it having too many exemptions. On the other side of the coin, you did have a lot of faculty, staff and students who came out and opposed that piece of legislation.”
Gaines said “we can have a better conversation about the topic” in January when the General Assembly meets again and one semester will have passed since the law took effect.
Gaines, Lord, Strickland and Wiedower had answered a question on campus carry at the Oconee County Republican Party meeting late last month, and Lord, Strickland and Wiedower had supported campus carry, as they did on Monday.
Gaines answered this way at that GOP meeting: “If you’re like me and supported the second amendment, you know, folks would say there are too many exemptions in the law.”
The question on religious freedom came up only in the first forum.
“I think it is very important that we respect people’s religious beliefs,” Wallace said. “But I also think it is important that we are welcoming to others. As a Christian, what I believe is that we have to welcome everyone.”
Wiedower said that a religious freedom bill should have passed this past year and that he opposed Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of a similar bill the year before after businesses objected to the bill.
“I don’t think our government should be put in a situation where we’re being held hostage by any large industry,” he said.
Lord said he was in favor of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act for the state.
“I believe that Nathan Deal should not have bent the knee to big government last year, should have signed RFRA into law,” Strickland said.
Video Annotation District 119
Below is the video of the first forum for the four candidates from the 119th House District.
I have trimmed off Page’s comments, so the video begins with the introductory comments of the four candidates.
What follows are the time markers for each of the questions asked. The answers follow the questions.
Gun control: 15:40.
Campus carry: 20:30.
Religious freedom: 29:30.
Vote in 2016 Presidential election: 36:15.
Women’s issues: 39:20.
Campaign financing: 45:40.
Health care and Medicaid expansion: 49:04.
Communication with constituents: 55:52.
Desired House committee assignments: 1:01:50.
Preserving rural character: 1:08:25.
Diversity and Charlottesville: 1:21:38.
Video Annotation District 117
Below is the video of the second forum for the two candidates from the 117th.
Once again, I have trimmed off Page’s comments, so the video begins with the introductory comments of the two candidates.
I've also shown the time markers for each of the questions asked. The answers follow the questions.
Charter schools: 5:25
Vote in 2016 Presidential election: 8:40.
Campus carry: 14:56.
What learned from Denson, Quick: 18:44.
Preservation of monuments: 23:30.
Health care inequalities: 29:47.
Tax structure: 34:00.
Experiences relevant for General Assembly: 37:26.
Working with party caucuses in General Assembly: 44:34.
Health care: 48:42.
For those who prefer to watch the full forum as it transpired, the video is below.
The only editing I did for this version was to remove the introductory comments Page made as the second session began.
Those comments were a repeat of the comments he made at the beginning of the first session.