Donald Trump played a role in the candidate forum for the Nov. 7 special elections for House Districts 117 and 119 held tonight (Tuesday) at the Oconee County campus of the University of North Georgia, as he did in a forum last week.
In response to a question about Trump’s behavior as President, the three Republican candidates in the race for House District 119 strongly endorsed Trump, though Steven Strickland did say he had problems with 5 percent of what Trump does.
That produced a tense exchange with audience member Russell Edwards, an Athens attorney who is past chair of the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee.
Gaines criticized Edwards for Edwards’ role in removing Athens-Clarke County Mayor Nancy Denson, a mentor of Gaines, from the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee because of her support of Gaines.
Neither Deborah Gonzalez, running as a Democrat in the 117th, nor Jonathan Wallace, running as a Democrat in the 119th, attended the forum, which had been organized by the Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County Republican Parties in collaboration with the student government at the Oconee County campus.
Moderator Blake Giles told the audience of just less then 40 that the two Democratic candidates had cited scheduling conflicts in declining to attend.
Format and Issues
The meeting in a room on the UNG Oconee County campus started at 6 p.m., but the candidates were given 30 minutes to mingle and talk with the audience before being called to the front of the room by Student Government President William Wheeler.
After introductory comments by Oconee County GOP Chair Tammy Gilland and her counterpart from Athens-Clarke County, Gordon Rhoden, Giles began asking questions submitted in advance by those present.
Giles is the retired editor of The Oconee Enterprise.
Giles gave Strickland, Tom Lord and Marcus Wiedower, the candidates for the 119th House seat formerly held by Chuck Williams, each three minutes for a self introduction.
This was followed by 11 questions, including whether the state should have an income tax, whether the state should increase pay for law enforcement officers, how high speed Internet services should improved, and how to keep students graduating from area universities in the area.
The candidates differed only in modest ways in their answers.
Trump Reactions 119th
“We have a number of questions up here about President Trump,” Giles said, before indicating he was combining them in asking “what is your comment about the behavior of our current president?”
“I think 95 percent of what Donald Trump does in his behaviors are spot on,” Strickland said. “But there is 5 percent of the time I believe that he maybe crosses the line on certain things, maybe his execution of his message isn’t necessarily optimal for that particular point in time.”
“I think he’s working very hard to find ways for us to get back on track, to get things moving in the right directions,” Wiedower said. “I think some people need to grow some tougher skin. I respect the president and the job he’s doing and hope it continues.”
“I think he’s doing a good job,” Lord said. “I do wish the media would lay off a little bit. And some of his tweets or twits or whatever they call those–I don’t understand that–I do wish he’d lay off that a little bit. But I am in full support of our President.”
Shift To 117
Giles asked 11 questions of Gaines, in rapid fashion. Included were questions on religious freedom, on pay for police, and on how his youthfulness factored into the campaign.
The question Giles asked of Gaines about Trump was not the same one he asked of the candidates in the 119th race.
Giles said the questioner wrote that “they saw film footage of you at the last Oconee Forum and I think your words were misrepresented to the community. So could you please clarify, if the election was tomorrow, would you vote for Trump or Hillary and why?”
Following some light banter with Giles, Gaines said:
“I think I made myself clear, and my opponent made it clear that she said she would proudly support Hillary Clinton again.
“And so the reality is, who you vote for for president has no indication of how you would be as state representative.
“You all know me. You know I’d be a conservative Republican representing this district. So I’ll continue to work on education issues, transportation issues and issues that are important to the local community.”
The transcription above is the exact and complete answer that Gaines gave.
“You still didn’t answer it,” Edwards called out from the back of the room. “You still didn’t answer the question.”
Both Gilland and Rhoden told Edwards no one was allowed to ask questions from the audience, but Edwards persisted.
“And actually, I’ll go ahead and respond to Russell again,” Gaines said. “I responded to Russell at the last debate, where they asked actually for audience members, if you’re related to a campaign, not ask a question. And Russell Edwards led the charge to...”
“Still not answering the question,” Edwards interrupted.
“...to oust the Mayor of Athens...”
“Just answer the question,” Edwards demanded.
“From the Democratic Committee. And so, why people are sick and tired of politics is because...”
“Because you won’t answer,” Edwards said.
“No, because of what you did to the Mayor in Athens.”
“Just answer,” Edwards said.
At that point, Giles went to the next question.
Following the questions in both parts of the meeting, Giles gave the candidates a chance to make a summary statement.
Gaines used his time to argue for the importance of the election, noting that the 117th has been held by a Republican since it was created in redistricting in 2011.
Regina Quick, the only person to hold the seat, stepped down in August after being appointed Superior Court Judge.
Gaines said he differed significantly from Gonzalez on a number of issues, including on Medicaid expansion and on the minimum wage.
A key issue in the two campaigns will be turnout.
Voting in Oconee County has been light in the first two days of early voting.
On Monday, 79 voters cast a ballot, and 67 cast a ballot today.
The county had 27,428 registered voters on Oct. 1.
The entire session lasted only a little more than 70 minutes, including a pause between the two parts of the questioning.
The video below contains the introductory comments, the responses to the questions and even the gap as the candidates for the 119th sat down and Gaines came to the table at the front of the room.
About 10 people left during that time, and Edwards joined the audience.
The introductory comments of the candidates for the 119th begin at 6:09 in the video.
The introductory comments of Gaines begins at 54:35.
The question on Trump in the session on the 119th begins at 41:10.
The question on Trump posed to Gaines is at 1:01:50.