Sunday, April 21, 2024

Oconee County Democrats Hear From Wide Range Of Candidates, Ending With Incumbent And Independent Challenger In DA Race

***Forum, Not A Debate, Party Leader Advises***

As the Oconee County Democratic Party meeting got underway on Thursday, Party Chair Harold Thompson told those gathered that what was about to take place was a candidate forum, not a debate.

Most of those who came to the front of the room one-by-one are running unopposed in the May 21 Democratic Party Primary, and, in one case, the person they want to debate won’t be decided until the May 21 Republican Primary.

At the end of the meeting, however Thompson invited incumbent Democratic District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez to come forward, as well as Kalki Yalamanchili, who is hoping to get on the ballot in November as an Independent to challenge Gonzalez.

Yalamanchili and then Gonzalez gave an introduction, and while tension did build during the nearly 50 minutes they were seated next to each other at the front of the room talking and answering questions, the overall exchange was respectful.

Although Republican Party Chair Kathy Hurley had suggested that Republicans attend the Democratic Party meeting to listen to Gonzalez and Yalamanchili and wear “red” to distinguish themselves, there was little evidence of red in the room on Thursday night.

Jeff Hood, Vice Chairman for Policy Initiatives with the county Republican Party, did attend and ask questions of two of the candidates, but not of either Gonzalez or Yalamanchili, and the questions were not confrontational.

The three conservative women running as Democrats, but without Democratic Party endorsement, were in attendance, but they were not invited to speak. They had been invited to introduce themselves at the March party meeting.

Laura King, running for Oconee County Clerk of Superior Court as a Democrat without party support,  early in the meeting did challenge Lexy Doherty, one of the two Democrats seeking the party nomination in the 10th Congressional District, but Thompson moved the meeting along after a brief back-and forth between the two.

Meeting Structure

Party Chair Thompson announced as the forum got underway that John Barrow, who was the featured speaker at the forum, “had a last minute conflict.” His campaign sent a video in his stead.

Thompson And Barrow

Barrow, former 12th District Congressman from Georgia, is running against incumbent Andrew Pinson in the Nonpartisan General Election held on May 21 in conjunction with the Republican and Democratic Party primaries.

Three incumbent Supreme Court Justices are on the ballot, and only Pinson has opposition.

The race is nonpartian, but Barrow served in Congress from 2005 to 2015 as a Democrat. Pinson was appointed two years ago by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. He has clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In his video, Barrow said he is running for the Supreme Court “because I believe women have the same rights in our state Constitution that we used to have under the U.S. Constitution before Roe versus Wade was reversed a couple of years ago.”

“I’m running against somebody who disagrees with me on that,” he said. “And that is the central issue in this campaign.”

It is a statewide election, Barrow said, “and that means everybody’s vote everywhere means as much as anybody’s vote anywhere.”

Thompson reminded the group gathered that the election on May 21 will decide the outcome of the contest between Barrow and Pinson. “This is the race,” he said. “Please get out and vote on May 21.”

Congressional Candidates

Party Chair Thompson next called forward Jessica Fore and Doherty, both of whom qualified for the Democratic Party nomination in the 10th Congressional District to run against incumbent Mike Collins, who is unopposed on the Republican ballot.

Fore and Doherty

As they were coming forward, Thompson said the forum was an opportunity to learn about the candidates, some of whom were new to the group. Just more than 40 people were assembled in the basement meeting room of the Oconee Chamber of Commerce in Watkinsville.

Doherty said the reason she is running “is I just fundamentally believe in Democracy and I believe that we can have a functional, productive, forward thinking Democracy and I think we probably all agree we don’t have that right now.”

She said she wants to focus on “raising wages and lowering prices” and “protecting our right to vote. Particularly in Georgia, racial gerrymandering is still happening,” she said.

Fore said she has developed relationships over time with a variety of people throughout the district through her work in “domestic violence victim advocacy,” and “I’m running with the goal of flipping this district.”

When the two had finished speaking, King said she wanted to direct her question to “the first girl” who had spoken and wanted to know “where is there racial gerrymandering in your district?”

Doherty said racial gerrymandering was not an issue in District 10. She said it was in Atlanta.

“You said racial,” King responded. “I’m just curious about the racial part.”

In response to a subsequent question on her priorities, Fore said “We need to have living wage jobs, we need affordable housing, we need universal health care.”

Legislative Candidates

Thompson said that Gareth Fenley, running unopposed for the Democratic Party nomination for state Senate District 46 against incumbent Republican Bill Cowsert, had developed COVID-19 and could not attend the forum.


Courtney Frisch, seeking the Democratic nomination for House District 121, also did not attend. Republican Marcus Wiedower is the incumbent House District 121 Representative, and he is being challenged in the Republican Primary on May 21 by John Michael Grigsby.

Thompson asked Andrew Ferguson, running unopposed for the Democratic Party nomination for House District 120, to come forward to speak. Republican Houston Gaines is the incumbent, and he is unopposed in the May 21 Republican Party Primary.

Ferguson began by saying that Houston Gaines was the deciding vote for passage House Bill 481 in 2019 that prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The vote in the House was 92 to 78, with both Gaines and Wiedower voting for the ban. The bill needed 91 votes to pass.

Ferguson said his top priority is restoring “reproductive rights in the state of Georgia.”

Ferguson said that Georgia is “50th in healthcare, we are 49th for workers, and we are 37th for children. We are sitting on an $11 billion surplus...It is the responsibility of that state legislature to use that money to improve Georgian’s lives.”

“Republicans have been in control of the state legislature for 20 consecutive years,” he said. “If the best they can do is 50th in health care, 49th in workers rights, 37th for children, I think that those folks need to be replaced.”

In response to a question from Hood, Ferguson said he was opposed to legalizing sports betting, which Wiedower has been supporting.

Wade For Sheriff

Reginald Wade, who is running unopposed on the Democratic Primary ballot for sheriff, was the next candidate to step forward. Incumbent Sheriff James Hale is unopposed on the Republican Party ballot on May 21.


Wade spent time relaying his background in the military and his 37 years in law enforcement, and said he returned home because “I served Clarke County, served Richmond County, what greater place to serve than Oconee.”

“I have over 3,700 hours of police related training,” he said, including graduation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy.

“Who doesn’t want to live in a community where you are safe?” he said. “So that is the priority. And we know what that entails. That includes law enforcement, prosecution, working together to make sure things happen and that those are held accountable when they do things and when they victimize people."

“Also, on the other side,” he said. “We want to be a place where you get to know who are the deputies and who are the personnel in this community policing.”

“One of the training we will look at is de-escalation,” Wade said. “Too many times force is used that (is) unnecessary force.”

“Not only de-escalation,” he said. “We must train our deputies on dealing with mental illness.”

Hood asked Wade “How important is it for the sheriff to have a strong working relationship with the District Attorney?” and Wade responded : “That’s important. The two works hand in hand.”

“And I say this,” he continued. “I’m the type of person, especially being a pastor, being one who served in the United States Army, served in three different agencies, I can work with anybody. I can work with anybody.”

Green For Post School Board Post 5

Katie Green is the sole Party endorsed candidate for the Board of Education on the May 21 Democratic Ballot, and she followed Wade in making her introduction. Green is seeking Post 5.


Republicans Brock Toole and Stephen Aleshire are competing in the May 21 Republican Primary for the open Post 5 seat on the Board. Sheri Ward Long, who is running as a Democrat for Post 4 without Party endorsement, also was present at the meeting on Thursday.

Green said she “has been an educator for pretty much my entire life. I’ve taught kids from kindergarten through students that are master’s students.” She is an instructional leader at present at Clarke Central High School, where she coaches the science teachers.

“I think that Oconee County Schools are phenomenal,” Green said. “I just want to make sure that every kid in the school district has access to all of the things that they need.” She also said she wants to work to help the school manage growth in the county.

In response to a question on Board transparency, she said “to me there needs to be more conversations between the School Board members and teachers, parents, citizens. I would like there to just be a lot more communication.”

“I think there needs to be a lot more interaction between the School Board and the community,” she added. “I don’t really see very much right now.”

At present, voters elect the chair of the Board of Education, as they do for the Board of Commissioners, but the School Board wants to change that so it can elect the Chair from among its members. The November ballot will contain a referendum item that would bring about that change.

Thompson asked Green to “weigh in on that,” and she said “to me it seems like it would be nice to have experience on the School Board before you were the Chair of the Board.”

District Attorney Candidates

Yalamanchili has chosen not to challenge Gonzalez in the Democratic Primary on May 21 or to run in the Republican Primary, but rather to run as an Independent.


His name will not be on the ballot on May 21, and it will be on the ballot in November only if he is able to obtain 5,694 verified signatures of registered voters in Oconee and Clarke counties on petitions asking that his name be put on the ballot.

Yalamanchili had attended the February meeting of the Oconee County Democrats with the plan to introduce himself, but that in-person meeting was aborted when access to the Chamber of Commerce Building was blocked due to a change in the entrance code.

Yalamanchili used the opportunity on Thursday night to make up for that missed opportunity, telling those gathered that “I’ve been doing criminal justice work the entire time I’ve been an attorney.”

He said he spent six years as a prosecutor as an Assistant District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit under the previous District Attorney, Ken Mauldin, a Democrat, and the last six years in private practice doing criminal defense work.

Yalamanchili said he wants to be the District Attorney “because I think that our Circuit, which covers Clarke County and Oconee County, has all the tools it needs to have one of the best District Attorney’s Offices in the state.”

Yalamanchili focused on staffing, saying that victims are often “coming to you at their darkest moment because a crime has been committed against them, and when they come to us we need to have an office that is led from experience, that is staffed with experienced, trained prosecutors, that provides the vital, community function to those people.”

Gonzalez Offers Introduction

Gonzalez, who is seeking re-election to her second four-year term, said as she began her comments “most of you know me. I’m not a stranger to the Oconee County Dems. I’m very proud to be here again.”


“Four years ago we started on a journey,” she said. “Actually, some of you started before that when I was a state representative.” Gonzalez represented parts of Oconee County in the State House in 2018.

“We looked at the justice system here and we said, you know what, for 48 years we’ve had two DAs who did things one way that was not good for our community,” she said. “It was oppressive to Black, Brown and poor people. And were doing things in a way that our community no longer wants.”

“I ran on a very progressive platform,” she said. “I wanted to end mass incarceration, and I wanted to look at the racial disparity in that system, and I wanted to make reforms.”

“And I’ve done everything that I promised to do,” she said.

“You’ll hear about those issues that were mistakes or go bad and then how they get resolved,” she said. “And they get better. That is something that happens in every single office. All over the state and all over the country.”

“Why is my office in the news?” she asked. “I’ve faced push back from day one. Before I was even elected. When I was elected, this was a county that wanted to secede. Did they ever try to work with me? No. But I will say, can I work with everybody? Yes.”


Gonzalez responded to the problems of staffing by acknowledging that her office does not “have all of the people that we want to have in our office at this moment.”

Yalamanchili And Gonzalez 2

Gonzalez said she just has hired four new assistant district attorneys, “two started this week, two start next week. We’ve got two more in the pipeline. We’ve got people who are waiting to get their results from the Bar (Association).”

In response to a question from Thompson about solutions to the staffing issues, Yalamanchili said the office under Gonzalez has experienced “an extreme amount of turnover.”

“I’ve already started conversations with...about eight people who have a significant amount of prosecutorial experience,” he said. “We’re talking about a minimum six to seven years, often time over 20 years.”

“There are some people who have had job offers from this office, Ms. Gonzalez’ Office, and have turned them down because they didn’t want to come to work in her office but are willing to come back to the Circuit,” he said.

“It is really a desirable place to come live and work,” he said. “Places in metro Atlanta have always paid more than here. But the staffing shortage that we’re experiencing right now is something that has resulted from current leadership of the office.”

“We have people joining us now and wanting to be part of this,” Gonzalez told Thompson. “We’ve also started new ways of looking at the work that we are doing. For example, not everybody has to be in the office all day long. We can have some remote.”

A Question On Cases

Andrea Wellnitz, who is one of the founders of Oconee County Progressives and who ran for School Board as a Democrat in 2018, posed what became the final question of the evening.

Yalamanchili And Gonzalez 1

“I’ve heard from a number of people in the community,” she said, “and it doesn’t take much to look in The Oconee Enterprise to see, that there are a number of violent offenders that are not being held accountable. And that there are victims of rape, and sexual violence who are not receiving justice currently in the system.”

She asked both Gonzalez and Yalamanchili to respond to that observation.

“One of the things that I will say is that we have a brand new director of victim services,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve put in different policies and procedures that are in place.”

“We have much more training than we’ve had before,” she continued. “And that we have been speaking and working with our victims much more than we ever have before.”

“You just take every day, and you try to do a little better every single day,” she said.

“I 100 percent believe if you’re not getting better every day then you’re getting worse,” Yalamanchili said in response. “The problem is for the last three years we’ve been going backwards.”

“Ms. Gonzalez wants to tell you and sell you on a story that she’s done exactly what she said she was going to do. And that’s just not true at all.”

“You need to come from a place of honesty about whether or not your office is adequately staffed and trained in order to get the job done. The reality of the situation is that these reforms are not being put into place that are claimed that are happening,” he said. “It is repeated failures. It is important for people to know that.”

Upcoming Forums

The Republican Party will hold what it is calling a “Candidate Face-Off” between Wiedower and Grigsby at its meeting tomorrow night (April 22), which starts at 6 p.m. at the Piedmont Health Campus Lobby Meeting Room, 1305 Jennings Mill Road.

Michael Prochaska, co-publisher of The Oconee Enterprise, and I will host a candidate forum for qualified Democratic and Republican School Board candidates from 6 to 8 p.m. on April 25 at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park, 3500 Hog Mountain Road.

Candidates will make short introductions, and then the floor will be open for citizens to pose their own questions.

Those asking a question will be asked to introduce themselves by name as a courtesy to the candidates.

Questions must be about Oconee County Schools or the Board of Education.

Candidates also will be given the opportunity to offer a short closing statements and place campaign literature at the rear of the room.

The meeting will be video recorded and made available for download for anyone who wishes to use it.

Monday is the final day to register for the May 21 Primary/Nonpartisan elections.

Early voting will begin at 8 a.m. on April 29 and run through May 17 at the Oconee County Administrative Building, 7635 Macon Highway, north of Watkinsville.


The video below is of the entire meeting of the Oconee County Democrats at April 18.

Barrow’s video begins at 1:58 in the video.

Jessica Fore and Lexy Doherty came to the front of the room to speak at 6:18.

Ferguson began his comments at 32:30 in the video.

Wade began is comments at 45:45 in the video.

Green came forward to talk at 1:08:03 in the video.

The two District Attorney candidates began their presentations at 1:22:06 in the video.

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