Sunday, October 18, 2020

Oconee County’s State Legislative Candidates Differ In Their Lists Of Needs In The Districts They Seek To Represent

***Also Differ In Legislative Priorities***

Adam Hammond, moderator at the candidate forum last week sponsored by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, posed a common question to Oconee County’s statehouse candidates.

“What are the three biggest needs in your district?” the former network anchor asked.

Jonathan Wallace, Democratic candidate for the House District 119, responded first to the question and listed education generally, providing information to parents about educational choices during the pandemic, and healthcare.

Incumbent Marcus Wiedower, the Republican Party nominee, followed and agreed that education is the number one issue, and the second is transportation. He didn’t list a third.

Mokah Jasmine Johnson, the Democratic Party nominee for the 117th House District, then listed affordable housing, healthcare, and rural broadband.

Houston Gaines, the incumbent Republican in the 117th House race, listed healthcare, support for small businesses, and public safety.

When the question was presented to Bill Cowsert, the Republican incumbent in Senate District 46, later in the forum, he picked economic opportunities, affordable healthcare, and broadband access.

Zachary Perry, the Democratic Party nominee for the 46th Senate seat, following Cowsert, listed affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and the needs of workers and small business struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The forum directed only two questions to the House candidates and three to the Senate candidates, but Oconee County citizens will have another chance starting at 8 p.m. tomorrow night to direct questions to Wallace, Johnson and Perry, who are participating in a citizen-organized virtual forum. The Republicans have refused to participate, though the invitation is still open to them.

Registration is required and is available by clicking HERE

As of the end of the day on Friday, 5,996 Oconee County voters had participated in in-person early voting at the Civic Center. The Board of Elections and Registration has received an additional 3,405 absentee ballots, meaning that 29.8 percent of the county’s 31,594 eligible voters already has cast a ballot.

Chamber Forum

The Chamber Forum started just after 6 p.m. on Wednesday and included some candidate in-person at the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce office in Athens-Clarke County and others linked virtually.

In addition to the two candidates for House District 117, the two candidates for House District 119, and the two candidates for Senate District 46, the forum included the three candidates in the special election for the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney, and the two candidates for Senate District 47.

House District 117 includes East Oconee, Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts in Oconee County as well as parts of Athens, Barrow and Jackson counties.

The remaining nine precincts in Oconee County and parts of Clarke County make up the 119th House District.

All of Oconee County falls into the 46th Senate District, which also includes parts of Clarke and Walton counties.

None of Oconee county falls into the 47th Senate District, which is made up of Madison County and parts of Clarke, Jackson, and Barrow counties. Frank Ginn is the incumbent and Republican candidate in Senate District 47, and Dawn Johnson is the Democratic candidate.

Oconee and Clarke counties make up the Western Judicial Circuit. The District Attorney candidates are James Chafin, running without a party label, and Deborah Gonzalez and Brian Patterson, both running as Democrats.

Hammond posed only two questions to Chafin, Gonzalez and Patterson.

For the House section, Senate section, and District Attorney section of the forum, candidates were given 90 seconds for self-introductions, 90 seconds to answer the questions directed to them, and 90 seconds for closing comments.

The video from the forum is annotated and embedded below.

Question 1 For House Candidates

The first question Hammond posed to the four House candidates dealt with desired legislation.


Question 1 House: “If you could get one piece of legislation passed in the next session, guaranteed, what would that legislation do? What would it cover?”

Gaines, the first to answer, said “Over my two years in office, I passed, I believe, it is seven bills, focused on opioids, human trafficking, health care reform, but as I said in the intro, we have more work to do.

“And I’ll tell you this, I had a bill that I worked really hard on this year, we didn’t quite get it over the finish line to provide paid leave for state employees and for educators and teachers,” Gaines said. “I believe that would be such important legislation for us to get passed next year, so that will be top priority for me.”

“I would fight for full Medicaid expansion, for all Georgians to have full healthcare coverage,” Johnson said. “There are too many people that I know that are suffering right now that do not have adequate healthcare coverage.”

“I’ve really spearheaded with a foster care family from Oconee County, really spearheaded a lot of needed foster care reform,” Wiedower said. “We’re working on a piece of legislation that deals with aggravated circumstances with foster care children” and “I’d really like to continue that work.”

“It’s a tough decision because there are a lot of needs for Georgians that are dire right now,” Wallace said. “But If I had to choose one, that I could guarantee, it would be to fully fund our educational system with a revised QBE formula.” (QBE stands for Quality Basic Education.)

Hammond next posed his second question.

Question 2 House: “What are the three biggest needs in your district?”

Wallace On Biggest Needs

“I’ve heard a number complaints from parents who are struggling to make the right decision for their family because they don’t get the information they need to make the choices to keep their family safe,” Wallace said, who was the first in the rotation to get the opportunity to respond.


“There’s been a false choice that’s been presented that we can have an open economy and we don’t have to worry about safety. The truth of the matter is that they are tied together. We have to worry about both,” he continued.

“So education, fully support that,” he said.

“We have to close the Medicaid gap that would bring over 500,000 would have access to healthcare,” Wallace said. “That would bring over 40,000 jobs to the state. That would help address some of the maternal mortality that we have in the state that is some of the worst in the nation.”

Wiedower On Biggest Needs

“Number one is going to be obviously education,” Wiedower said. “If you don’t start there, the future is bleak.”


“We’ve got to make sure that we safely have an opportunity to put our kids, all our of our kids in the district, back in school. Again, it’s the safest place for a lot of those kids. And we’re not going to ever--some of those kids we’ll lose if we don’t get them back on line, back on track right immediately.”

“I mean how many times have we all seen how great of an area Athens is to live in?” Wiedower asked. “Every time we get publicized like that more and more people want to come to the area, and that’s going to mean more traffic.”

“I’m on the Transportation Committee working very closely with the DOT to make 316 a limited access highway–to safely let our families travel on that road to and from Atlanta. And we have to do that in a manner where we’re not raising taxes.”

Johnson On Biggest Need

“From me living in this community and with my district speaking with various people, I believe that affordable housing is a top priority with the eviction rates,” Johnson said.


“Also, healthcare, I spoke about that previously,” she said.

“And access to rural broadband,” she continued. “The schools and the businesses can benefit from having proper access to broadband Internet access.

“Right now, there’s students that are not receiving proper education within various communities. I hear teachers talking about not being able to operate properly in certain neighborhoods because they don’t have access to proper Internet,” Johnson said.

“When it comes to affordable housing I would say just 30 days there was approximately 200 people that were supposed to be evicted from Athens-Clarke County,” she said.

“We already have a homelessness situation, so we need to create solutions that are going to help people keep a roof over their head, help children to be safe, and get their education, and also make sure that everyone have access to full healthcare coverage and not under-insured or have no insurance at all,” Johnson said.

Gaines On Biggest Need

“I would say the three things are healthcare, supporting our small businesses, and public safety,” Gaines said.

“You know on healthcare we know right now seeing with COVID-19 how this is impacting our community, our state and our nation,” he continued.

“We’ve got to help folks who are struggling right now–workers, job creators,” Gaines said. “It is a really tough business environment for folks right now, so we’ve got to make sure they have the relief that they need to continue to stay open and keep businesses and workers afloat as they continue during this difficult time.”

“You know right now we’re seeing calls for defunding the police and issues like that,” Gaines said. “That is something we cannot allow to happen in our community. We’ve got to keep our community healthy and safe.”

Questions For Senate Candidates

Hammond asked a very lengthy question to start off the second segment of the forum.

Question 1 (Senate): “Even though Georgia has again been named the best states for business, and that’s for the seventh consecutive year, there’s no question that multiple industries, employers, and particularly small businesses in the hospitality sector which we know so well here in Athens are hurting. The Hospitality Industry alone employs half a million Georgians. And as we move toward recovery in this pandemic, what legislative protocols or job retraining programs may you propose or support to get Georgia businesses, farmers and industries on stronger footing?”


Cowsert used the question to say “I think businesses need as low of a regulatory and tax burdens on them as possible so they can use their resources in the capitalistic system to produce goods and services for all of us.”

Perry said he favors a program “that brings the technical schools into the highs schools to educate people and give them real-world experience because not everybody needs to go to college, not everybody wants to go to college.”

Question 2 Senate: “If you could get one piece of legislation passed next session, no questions asked, just get it passed, what would that legislation cover?”

“I’ve spent the last two years focused on broadband expansion for all of Georgians,” Cowsert said. “I think we have to make sure that this basic necessity of life now is available to our entire state, not just the haves, the rich folks in the big cities, but all the rest of us as well.”

“It would completely end the process or the practice of cash bail in the state of Georgia,” Perry said. “It unfairly targets low income individuals that are waiting on their day in court.”

Greatest Needs In District

Hammond’s third question for the Senate candidates was his second question in the first forum segment.

Question 3 Senate: “What are the three greatest needs in your districts?”

“If I was going to narrow it down to just three things I think probably the first is economic opportunities,” Cowsert said. “What people really want is an opportunity, a chance for a high paying job. That’s the way out of poverty.


“Secondly, I think, we all need affordable, accessible healthcare,” Cowsert said. “We need to be able to know we’re getting top-notch healthcare and that we can afford to have that healthcare and it's available to everybody throughout the district and throughout this state.”

“And as I mentioned earlier, I think broadband accessibility is a need for this district,” Cowsert said. “I continuously hear that from people all the way from down in Loganville to up here in Athens to Oconee County."

“The three greatest needs in this district is affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and, in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, supporting workers and small businesses as we move forward,” Perry said.

“Criminal justice reform is a need across the state,” Perry said. “Criminal just reform is one of (former governor) Nathan Deal’s bipartisan legacies, and the governor currently has abandoned that. We need to go back to those roots. We need to get back to leading the country in reforming our broken criminal justice system.”

“I understand the need to look after our small businesses and the workers that are struggling to make ends meet post COVID,” Perry said.

District Attorney Questions

Hammond only asked two questions of the three District Attorney candidates.

Question 1 District Attorney “Two of the district attorney’s important roles are, number one, insuring that people committing some of the most serious and complicated crimes in our community such as human trafficking and other forms of actual abuse and exploitation are held accountable for their crimes. Number two, teaching and mentoring less experienced attorneys to prepare them to properly and justly perform their jobs in the courtroom. How does your experience prepare you to fulfill those two key roles?”


Patterson said he has worked in the District Attorney Office for 18 years and has experience in prosecuting and supervising.

Chafin said he has been practicing law for 21 years in front of juries and has prosecuted human trafficking cases. He said he also has experience mentoring.

Gonzalez said prosecuting and mentoring are not the only aspects of the District Attorney job. She said she will prosecute in a “fair and just manner” and will mentor by linking to prosecutors all over the country.

Question 2 District Attorney: “Do you support or oppose no cash bail as under consideration by the Athens-Clarke County Commission and why is that?”


All three candidates said they supported the initiative.

Monday Night Forum

I will serve as host of the forum on Monday and read the questions submitted by citizens to the candidates.

My wife, Ann Hollifield, will serve as co-host, assisting with the questions submitted during the session and with the timing of responses. Philip Ashford and Karen Hilyard also will serve as co-hosts, managing logistics of the session.

We have hosted virtual forums already for the Oconee County Board of Education and Oconee County Board of Commissioners candidate races.


Gaines said his schedule is too busy to allow him to participate. Wiedower said he did not want to participate in the citizen candidate forum and that the Chamber Forum was sufficient. Cowsert has ignored all invitations to participate.

Citizens can submit questions for tomorrow night’s forum to or via the chat session for the virtual forum on Zoom.

Here is the invitation:

You are invited to a Zoom meeting. When: Oct 19, 2020 08:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.


I recorded the video from the Chamber Forum with screen capture software after it was recorded and stored on the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce Facebook page

I removed the recorded breaks between the sections of the meeting and then uploaded the edited video to the Oconee County Observations Vimeo page.

That video is embedded below.

Opening statements for House Districts 117 and 119 are at 3:56 in the video.

Question 1 for the two House races is at 9:35 in the video.

Question 2 for the two House races is at 15:29.

Closing statements for the four House candidates begin at 22:03.

Opening comments for the four Senate candidates begin at 31:10.

Question 1 for the four senate candidates starts at 38:05.

Question 2 for the four senate candidates starts at 45:25.

Question 3 for the four senate candidates is at 52:11.

Closing comments for the four senate candidates start at 58:55.

Opening comments for the three District Attorney candidates start at 1:08:21.

Question 1 for the District Attorney candidates is at 1:13:19.

Question 2 for the District Attorney candidates is at 1:18:55.

Closing comments for the three District Attorney Candidates are at 1:23:40.

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