All four of the candidates seeking to represent Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives when redistricting will be considered say they are open to turning the process over to an independent commission.
Marcus Wiedower, the Republican currently representing House District 119, gave the most guarded response, saying “If there is a push and acceptance for a third party, I’m fine with that.” Wiedower said “I want to stay, quite frankly, as far away from that subject as I can.”
Houston Gaines, the Republican currently representing House District 117, said “I’d rather there be some sort of, maybe, some computer” do the work to remove “human nature” from the process. “So we’ll continue to look at proposals, certainly open to them,” he added.
Jonathan Wallace, the Democrat seeking to be elected in the House 119 race, said the legislature should be transparent if it does the redistricting but “I would love to see that happen if it be in the hand of an independent body.”
Mokah Jasmine Johnson, the Democrat candidate in House District 117, was unequivocal, saying “I definitely think it should be turned over to an independent body in order for us to have fair representation and to have a fair voting system.”
The four were participating in separate interviews conducted by reporters at WUGA in which the four candidates in Tuesday's election were asked “Do you believe that the Georgia General Assembly can draw fair districts, or should redistricting be turned over to an independent body?”
The interviews, conducted early last month and available online at Athens News Matters, lasted about 10 minutes each and covered other topics, including legalization of recreational marijuana and gun control.
District 117 and District 119
District 117 and 119 are products of redistricting by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2011.
Doug McKillip represented what was then House District 115, all of which was in Clarke County. McKillip had been elected as a Democrat but switched parties.
To create a Republican district for McKillip, the 115th became the 117th by adding in three precincts from Oconee County (Bogart, Marswood Hall, and East Oconee), as well as parts of Barrow and Jackson counties.
The old 113, which had included all of Oconee County and parts of Morgan, Oglethorpe and Clarke counties, was reconfigured into the 119th. That District included the remaining 10 precincts of Oconee County and a roughly equal part of Clarke County based on population.
Local Oconee County leaders and citizens, including then Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin Davis, spoke in opposition to the changes.
WUGA interviewers Chris Shupe and Alexia Ridley didn’t provide that background to the candidates in the Oct. 9 interviews, but they didn’t need to.
Gaines chose to talk about what had happened 10 years earlier under Democratic control of the legislature.
“In 2001, when we had certain people in control,” Gaines said. “those maps were drawn ridiculous and they were challenged in court and had to be fixed. But you know, listen, for me, if there’s a proposal out there to address this issue I’m certainly open to it.”
Johnson focused on what had happened in 2011.
“With me, Jonathan Wallace, Spencer Frye, you can walk down Lumpkin Street and walk through each one of our districts. The way that it’s chopped up, you could see that its directly arranged so that one party can hold power over the other party.”
Spencer Frye represents House District 118, the only House District falling entirely in Clarke County. He is a Democrat.
Wallace said that, if the legislature did redistricting itself, it should do so in the open, with “goals of the redistricting specified ahead of time.”
“The body that does this work could submit a written report summarizing the work that was done along the way,” he added.
“Ultimately I would like that same work to be done by an independent body,” he said.
“I think it can disenfranchise people,” Wiedower said and said he prefers not being involved in the process. “Whatever lines it ends up being, if I’m honored to be there still, then I’ll be happen to represent the people I get that opportunity for.”
The four candidates have had limited opportunities in the campaign to respond to identical questions posed by outsiders.
The four appeared virtually in a candidate forum sponsored by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, but they responded to only two questions, both focused on legislative goals.
Johnson and Wallace participated in a virtual forum I organized with three other citizens in Oconee County, but Gaines and Wiedower were unwilling to participate.
At that forum, Johnson and Wallace would not commit to keeping all of Oconee County’s precincts together in future redistricting, but each called for handing redistricting over to an independent commission and for transparency in the process.
In the WUGA interviews, Gaines and Wiedower would not criticize Gov. Brian Kemp’s policies in response to the pandemic, while Johnson and Wallace called for more local control.
Johnson and Wallace said the state should expand Medicaid to help rural hospitals, while Gaines said the state should help the rural hospitals develop better business plans and Wiedower said there was no single answer to problems of rural hospitals.
Gaines and Wiedower opposed legalization of recreational marijuana, while Johnson and Wallace favored it.
Gaines and Johnson focused on legislation to improve clean water and air as the way the legislature should respond to climate change, while Wallace proposed a carbon tax credit program and Wiedower offered a carbon sequestration bill.
The interviewers asked the four candidates to identify the best way to reduce gun violence in Georgia.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is address mental health,” Gaines said. Defunding the police departments is “not the solution,” he said.
Johnson called for increased background checks with a focus on domestic violence and mental illness and said for such people it “should not be easy to have access to guns.”
She also called for a reconsideration of the campus carry bill that allow guns on the state’s campuses.
Wallace said the state needs “common sense gun regulations” including “Red Flag laws” preventing those with records of domestic violence and other crimes from getting guns.
Wiedower said “Obviously, it is a huge social issue” and blamed technology for separating people from each other, particularly during the pandemic.”
“A lot of the things that are going on right now, a lot of the unnecessary hatred towards each other for various reasons,” Wiedower said. “I think a lot of that happens behind a keyboard and not because, or less face-to-face interaction.
“We’ve got to get back to that at a community level. That’s not something you can legislate,” he said. “We just have to be better people in our communities.”