The three Democratic candidates seeking to represent Oconee County in the General Assembly in January gave mostly similar answers to a wide range of questions, from the impact of redistricting on the county to the COVID-19 pandemic, in a virtual candidate forum on Monday night.
The three Republican incumbents chose not to participate in the citizen-organized forum, so only Democratic candidates, Mokah Johnson for House District 117, Jonathan Wallace for House District 119, and Zachary Perry for Senate District 46, were in the session.
The virtual forum was marred by ugly racial slurs hurled at Johnson by Zoom Bombers before they could be tossed out of the session.
In her closing comments, Johnson addressed the incident, asking voters to “look beyond my skin color” and “beyond my hair” and vote for her because of the work she has done as an activist in the community.
During the 90-minute-long session on Monday, Johnson, Wallace and Perry responded to 13 questions submitted by voters asking for their positions on a gambling, transportation, partisan elections, ranked voting and other topics, as well as on the pandemic and redistricting.
Early voting for the Nov. 3 election is in its second week, and 8,715 Oconee County voters already have cast a ballot in-person, and another 4,134 have returned an absentee ballot. Those 12,849 voters who already have marked their ballots make up 40.7 percent of the county’s 31,594 eligible voters.
I organized the virtual candidate forum session on Monday in collaboration with my wife, Ann Hollifield, also an emeritus professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, and Karen Hilyard and Philip Ashford. All of us live in Oconee County.
I served as host, with Ann watching chat and feeding me questions from the audience, and Karen and Philip serving as co-hosts to monitor activity in the session.
I communicated our interest in hosting a virtual candidate forum to all six of the candidates for House District 117, House District 119, and Senate District 46 on the afternoon of Sept. 26.
That was before the forum organized by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce had been announced. That forum was held on Oct. 14.
Houston Gaines, Republican incumbent in House District 117, said he could not fit a forum into his schedule.
Marcus Wiedower, Republican incumbent in House District 119, said he did not wish to do a second forum.
Bill Cowsert, Republican incumbent in Senate District 46, has never responded to repeated messages about the forum.
Three of Oconee County’s 12 precincts, Marswood Hall, Bogart, and East Oconee, are in House District 117. The remaining nine precincts are in House District 119. All of Oconee County is in Senate District 46.
Structure of Session
Democrats Johnson, Wallace and Perry said they wished to participate in the forum even without the Republican candidates.
Registration for the session was required, and I solicited questions in advance and also said it would be possible to pose questions via chat once the session began.
I gave each of the three candidates, starting with Johnson from the 117th House District, then Wallace from the 119th House District, and Perry from the 46th Senate District, three minutes for introduction before posing questions.
We started with a question that had been submitted in advance and then went to a question I had written before the session while we waited on questions from the chat.
I interspersed some additional questions I had written as backups as the evening progressed to add additional topics to the forum.
Order of responding to the questions was rotated among the candidates.
I recorded the session on Zoom and have embedded the video below.
I have annotated the video in the text that follows so it is possible to find easily responses to each of the questions posed.
What Happened On Monday
The three Democratic candidates had agreed to come into the Zoom session at 7:45 on Monday so we could make sure all connections were in place and review procedures before the 8 p.m. launch of the forum.
When I attempted to launch the session at 7:40, the Zoom program on my computer crashed inexplicably.
When I tried to relaunch the program, it opened the session and the candidates were present, but my screen was partially blocked by a white space that was some remnant of the crash. Nothing I could do would eliminate that blockage on the screen.
My wife and I decided that she would back out of her program and give me her computer and I would re-enter as host on her computer under my Zoom ID.
Before I backed out, I made Perry and Wallace co-hosts so someone on the session was in charge of it.
Hilyard and Ashford had not yet joined the session since they were at a Planning Commission meeting, where Hilyard is a voting member and Ashford was video recording the session for this blog.
When I came back to the session on my wife’s computer, I was not able to regain host capabilities and had lost the ability to designate other hosts or otherwise control the session.
My wife was able to access the session only through her iPhone. Ashford and Hilyard were just arriving, but they had not been authorized as co-hosts so had no control over the session. My wife also had not been authorized as a co-host.
The session was set up so all participants had to enter a waiting room for admission to the session, and all entered with their microphones and cameras turned off.
None of us has a good sense of what was being done in the confusion at that point, but we soon learned that some people had been admitted who shouldn’t have been admitted.
A few minutes into my introduction of the program, some audio interference began.
We had turned the microphones and video off on admission, but someone had managed to unmute himself and was talking privately. The sounds were being heard by all.
Then the disruption became greater, an image flashed on the screen, and I was told twice to shut up, the second time quite forcefully. It became clear to us at this point that the session was under attack.
We were trying to figure out how to address the problem when a series of horrible racial slurs were hurled at Johnson.
It took us a couple of minutes to get the session back under control through the heroic efforts of Hilyard, Ashford, Perry, and Wallace.
We had to pause the session, review all admissions, and allow all of us to regain composure before restarting the session. This was 6 minutes and 47 seconds after we realized we were under attack.
What We Know Now
A review of the session records shows that seven “persons” registered for the session–as was required for admission--between 8:04 and 8:05, as we were launching the session. The session had been slightly delayed as I switched computers.
Those same seven “persons” participated in the session between 8:04 and 8:06, four of them more than once.
Two of the names were not full names, and one of them was racist and vulgar and never should have been admitted.
The other five have usual first and last names.
We have not been able to find the identify of any of these five names in the searches we have done to this point.
The Zoom video recording of the session does not contain any information indicating which of these “persons” were involved in the disruptive and hateful comments.
Perry eliminated the names we suspected were being used by the Bombers from the session, and Hilyard reported the names to Zoom shortly after the disruption.
Johnson made fleeting reference to the racial slurs in her opening comments but returned to them in her closing comments.
“I would just like to say before I close out,” she said, “at the beginning of this Zoom call, the term, being called nigger. That is something that I have to walk with even if I become a representative.
“Even some of the people that I would be fighting for would refer to me and feel that way about me, irregardless of where my heart, my mind and my intention may be,” she said.
“And everybody that’s listening on here, if you believe in humanity, and you want something better, you want change. You want to bring people together. You’re tired of the racism. You’re tired of the tension. You’re tired of the inequity, the injustice,” she said. “I’m asking for your vote.
“I’m asking for you to look beyond my skin color,” she continued. “I’m asking for you to look beyond my hair.”
Johnson asked that people “look at the work I’ve done in Athens-Clarke county. I’ve fought for the people. I’ve fought for justice. I’ve fought for equity,” she said.
Johnson is an educator and activist who lives in Athens-Clarke County.
Annotation For Video
Introductions begin at 4:21 in the video.
Question 1 (Jeff Hood) (12:06 in video): “Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton is pushing for a $1 billion casino and entertainment facility, which would be built on the race track’s property in Henry County. Are you in favor of or opposed to casinos in Georgia? Please explain your answer.
Johnson said she would need to do more research before making a decision. Perry said the state should stop trying to regulate morality. Wallace said he is opposed to casino gambling but would listen to voters if the issue were raised.
Question 2 (Becker) (15:13): “Prior to redistricting in 2011, Oconee County in its entirety was in House District 113, making up 60 percent of the district, which also included parts of Clarke County, Oglethorpe County, and Morgan County. Oconee County also was entirely in the old 46th Senate District. During redistricting hearings, then Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin Davis and others asked that Oconee County not be divided up in redistricting. That didn’t happen, and Oconee is now divided between the 117th and 119th, though it remains in its entirety in Senate District 46. If you are elected, you will be participating in redistricting. What would be your approach to redistricting and what are your thoughts about how Oconee County should be represented in the General Assembly?”
None of the candidates would commit to keeping Oconee County together, but all called for handing redistricting over to an independent commission and for transparency in the process.
Question 3 (Chalis Montgomery) (21:25): “With the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, what legislation do you plan to introduce or sign onto regarding reproductive justice?”
Wallace criticized Wiedower for voting for House Bill 481 in the 2019 legislative session. Officially The Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act, the bill was generally referred to as the “heartbeat bill.”
Wallace said the law is unconstitutional “and was known to be unconstitutional when it was proposed and was done anyway at a cost of millions of dollars to Georgian” in legal fees to defend it.
“I would look to push back on that type of legislation,” he said, “and that we protect women’s right to choose.”
Perry said he wants to “enshrine the protections of Roe (vs. Wade) in state law.”
Johnson said it was “HB 481 that made me say this is the last straw, I am definitely going to run for office.”
“I would definitely do anything I can to advocate to protect women’s constitutional right and advocate for us to have more health coverage and resources within our community when it comes to hospitals and clinics being reopened.”
Question 4 (Bruce and Karen Menke) (26:10 ): “What should the state legislature do to respond to the climate crisis?”
Perry said the “state can start to reguide its growing economy to be a more environmental friendly economy. Within the disaster of the climate crisis there is an opportunity.”
Perry said the state should try to bring manufacturing jobs such as for “wind turbines, solar panels and the like, and we can lead the country in that and we can also lead the world.”
Johnson said she would work to repeal House Bill 792 regulating waste management that she said “allows the power companies to avoid responsibilities for their actions” and she would “support renewable energy.”
She also called for increased investment in public transit.
Wallace said he supports an electric vehicle tax credit and improved transportation “ensuring that people can use public transportation that gets folks off the roads and driving cars."
Wallace said the state can “incentivize good behaviors” that will help with climate change.
(I mispronounced Karen and Bruce’s name because I misread the note from my wife. I apologize.)
Question 5 (Becker) (30:31): “The governor has gotten approval from the federal government for waivers for Medicaid expansion that have a requirement for access and approval for a proposal to withdraw Georgia citizens from the healthcare exchange of the Affordable Care Act. What, if anything, should the legislature do when it meets in January in response?”
Perry said the “state legislature does have the power to create a better health insurance system in the state of Georgia and one that doesn’t just favor health insurance companies and corporate hospitals but one that favors and helps improve the lives of people who really need it.”
Wallace said the governor’s plan “costs more and it covers fewer people.” The plan, he said, will eliminate the health care coverage of 60,000 people.
Wallace said the state loses $8 million a day because it has not expanded Medicaid and that money goes to other states and he will fight for that if he is elected.
Johnson said “to sum it up, I oppose the waiver. It doesn’t make sense to me to have work requirements, especially right now, for insurance.”
Question 6 (Chalis Montgomery) (35:40): “What will you do, if anything, to champion teacher tenure given how essential we now recognize teachers to be?”
“Education is the biggest equalizer,” Johnson said, and she said she would not support any cuts to education. “Anything I can do to support the teachers, the students, the families to make sure that students are properly compensated, that is what I will do.”
Wallace criticized Wiedower for cutting the education budget in the last session and supporting the transfer of funds from public schools to private schools.
“Our teachers are in crisis right now,” Wallace said. They are spending their salary increase on cleaning supplies.
“The best people to decide what teachers need are teachers,” Perry said. “We need to restore labor rights to our teachers.”
Question 7 (Ken Davis) (40:48): “Oconee has grown largely because of our educational system, but Georgia as a whole is near the bottom. What can be done to improve education for all of Georgia?”
Johnson said the QBE (Quality Basic Education) formula needs to be updated.
Perry said “updating the QBE is definitely a first step but we need to do more. We need to be more drastic and more creative.”
“Basing educational funding off of property taxes is a way to systemically lock people into poverty and prevent them from becoming better than their circumstances,” Perry said.
Wallace said he believes in public education and “does not believe we should be diverting funds into the pockets of private schools.”
He also wants to make Pre-K education available to every student and to pay Pre-K teachers the same as other teachers.
He also wants to update the QBE formula.
Question 8 (Becker) (44:11): “At the Board of Commissioners forum last week, the Republican candidates said they were opposed to making the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education races, offices, nonpartisan, while the Democratic candidates supported that change. What is your position on this issue, and what would you do as a legislator from this county regarding this change?”
Wallace said he thinks it is a mistake that these positions are partisan, but he said all three legislators would have to agree to any change and it would require support locally.
“I would want to see that we have a very strong voice coming from the people supporting that before I would be willing to put forward that legislation,” Wallace said.
“We need to put people in place and let them choose what they want for their local commission or Board of Elections or Board of Education,” Johnson said.
“If nonpartisan elections is something a community wants, then it is the duty of the legislators who represent that community to give them nonpartisan elections,” Perry said.
Question 9 (Eric Gisler) (47:51): “How do you feel about ranked-choice voting?”
All three said they support ranked choice voting. Wallace and Perry said it would save money. Johnson said it would solve the problem of people not turning out for runoff elections.
Question 10 (Bruce and Karen Menke) (51:14): “What, if anything, should the state legislature do to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?”
“I think what we need to do is establish that science matters,” Perry said, “and follow what doctors and scientists tell us what we need to do.”
“A lot of our essential workers, we need to make sure they’re protected,” Johnson said. She also said full health care coverage is essential for everyone.
“People need security,” Wallace said. “They need to know that if we go out into the community. that businesses are going to be doing everything that they can to keep it safe. That teachers and students are going to be safe. That confidence is what is going to lead to the economic recovery.”
Question 11 (Jeff Hood ) (56:46); “What do you see as the greatest need in Georgia regarding transportation? How would you address traffic issues in Atlanta? Do you support light rail?”
All three of the candidates favored light rail and investment in public transportation systems generally.
“The greatest need in Georgia, as far as transportation, is improving our public transportation system,” Perry said.
“More roads lead to more congestion,” Wallace said. “We have to encourage alternative transportation. We have to encourage things like regional bus systems.”
Johnson said rail connections between Athens and Atlanta would provide opportunities for people here to gain the jobs and other opportunities in Atlanta.
Question 12 (Becker) (1:02:39): “At the Republican Party meeting at the end of September, Rep. Marcus Wiedower from the 119th said that those present should ignore the financial disclosure statements of the two House races because he said outside funding meant that the Democrats were better funded than Republicans. I looked at those disclosure statements for Sept. 30 and they showed that Marcus (Wiedower) had net balance was $215,121. Jonathan, you had a net balance as $57,251. Houston (Gaines) had a $191,966 net balance. Mokah you had a balance of $116,572. Bill Cowsert had $234,505, and Zach, you had $4,047. So, is there something about these disclosure forms that is not adequately reflecting the money that is going into these campaigns, and, if that is the case, which is what Marcus was contending, can you give us a better sense of the financial balance as you understand it from your perspective, since he has offered his?”
Johnson said her forms are complete and that the disclosure form “tells the story of the people who your candidate works for.”
Wallace said “We disclose every dollar that we receive.”
“Everything is reported from us,” Perry said.
“There are third parties that are involved with these races we don’t have any control over and we don’t have any duty to report what they do for us,” Perry said, and the same is true for the Republican candidates.
Question 13 (Ryan Daniel) (1:11:23): “Is it appropriate to pay someone in your family with campaign funds?”
Johnson said it that is not illegal to pay a family member, that she has paid her husband for some of the work he has done on her campaign, and that “they deserve to be compensated for their work if funding is there.”
Wallace said spending also is reported on disclosure forms so everyone can see how campaign money is spent.
Perry said it was appropriate to pay family members who work for the campaign.
Closing Comments are at 1:14:48.
The video below is the Zoom recording, minus 6 minutes and 47 seconds that I cut out.
During those six minutes and 47 seconds, the Bombers launched their racist attacks on Johnson followed by attacks on Hilyard as she spoke over the Bombers.
During the time I cut out, those of us managing the session tried to identify the people who might be responsible for the bombing. We don’t know if those names were real, and we don’t know if we read the names of innocent citizens.
I have made the decision that I do not want to disseminate further the comments made or repeat the names read.
Johnson, in her closing comments summarized above, addresses precisely the comments made, repeating some of the words. Her closing comments are unedited in the video.