Sharp differences among candidates in key races on the May 20 primary ballot emerged during a four-hour marathon forum held April 26 at the Antioch Bethel AME Church in Conyers.
The idea of MARTA expanding to Rockdale drew very different responses from county Board of Commissioners Post 2 candidates. U.S. Senate candidates debated the minimum wage, marijuana legalization and whether opposing the Affordable Care Act is racist.
About 65 people attended the forum to hear from two dozen candidates, also including office-seekers for the county Board of Education Post 1; state House Districts 91 and 113; the U.S. Congressional 4th District; the Georgia secretary of state; state school superintendent; state insurance commissioner; and state labor commissioner.
The forum - initially sponsored by the Rockdale Democratic Party, which later withdrew from sponsoring the forum - was sponsored by the Rockdale-Newton Section of the National Council of Negro Women and the Chi Tau Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
BOC Post 2
Republican incumbent JaNice Van Ness appeared alongside Arlen Gibson and Doreen Williams, two of three Democrats vying to challenge her this fall. Democrat Josie Dean did not attend.
Van Ness said she attended even though she has no primary opponent "because I serve each and every one of you."
Williams, a retired educator and former county Democratic Party chair, repeated her campaign pledges to be a "calm voice of reason" and use "common sense to find common ground for the common good."
"I'd like to have Rockdale rock," said Gibson, a Vietnam combat veteran and former police officer, pledging to work hard on economic development.
Friction among the current commissioners has previously been cited by the challengers as a main motive for running. At the forum, all three candidates alluded to it as among Rockdale's biggest challenges.
While Gibson said the key issue is "jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs," he added: "And certainly there must be a sense of cooperation with fellow commissioners...If we have a bunch of bickering back and forth, nothing gets done. There's stagnation."
"One of our greatest challenges, I believe, is working together in unified ways in terms of all races and parties," Van Ness said, calling for more "bridge-building."
Williams said "improved communications between constituents and the board of commissioners," and between the BOC and county employees, are crucial.
The candidates differed on possible MARTA public transit expansion to Rockdale, which is currently served only by a highly limited Georgia Regional Transit Authority commuter bus. Gibson supported MARTA, Van Ness opposed, and Williams called for more complex options.
"Yes, I'd support MARTA in an effort to come to Rockdale County," Gibson said. He said it would get people to jobs and shopping, and criticized the "misconception" that transit somehow enables crime.
"I do not support MARTA coming to Rockdale County," Van Ness said, because it is tax-funded. She said some other system totally funded by user fares would be better.
Williams said in her conversations with citizens, seniors say they want a public transportation service to get around within the county, and commuters "are interested in at least...being able to access MARTA in DeKalb" at more than just the existing Indian Creek rail station.
All three candidates agreed that improving education is a big factor in attracting businesses to Rockdale. Williams said the Conyers Rockdale Economic Development Council is also crucial. Gibson supported tax incentives, and Van Ness cited reducing crime for a better quality of life.
School board Post 1
As they did at a previous forum, incumbent Jim McBrayer and challenger Alberteen Young again presented themselves as representative of key groups.
"One of my biggest qualifications is, I'm the only member of the school board who's been in the classroom. I've been there and done it," said McBrayer, a former teacher and current BOE chair.
Young, who is African American, noted that about 82 percent of the school population is minority, while almost all BOE members are white.
"We have what I'd call inequitable representation," she said. "There's nothing wrong with the school board, but we need someone to represent the other 82 percent...I want to represent that part of our community that's being stereotyped."
Young, a former budget director at Fulton County schools, also said BOE members are "not doing your duty" if they lack budget expertise.
But McBrayer said a vote for him is a "vote for stability and continuity...As you know, that's how some counties get in problems, is having dysfunctional [school] boards."
McBrayer acknowledged the schools need to improve in some areas and said they will. Young implied there's a general lack of respect for students, especially minority students.
"We're last here today. We represent kids," Young said about herself and McBrayer after they had to wait hours to speak in the forum's last slot. Speaking loudly, she said there must be high expectations for students. Her personal high standards let her exceed fitness push-up requirements in the Army and to earn two degrees even though "I'm no genius-you can ask my kids," she said.
McBrayer said the schools "place emphasis on rigor" and are focused on the best education for all kids-"and all means all."
House Districts 91 and 113
In the local Georgia House races, only Democratic incumbents Pam Dickerson (District 113) and Dee Dawkins-Haigler (District 91) attended. Sharon Sawyer, who is challenging Dickerson, and Diane Adoma, challenging Dawkins-Haigler, were absent.
"My mantra's always been, ‘Pam for the people,'" said Dickerson, touting expertise in passing bipartisan bills. Every time I come out to speak to Rockdale, my opponent is not here. I don't know what that says about her," she added.
Dawkins-Haigler repeated her campaign slogan,"I'm running for my life, and yours." That means backing the working class in various debates, including the minimum wage, small business boosting, education and Medicaid expansion.
Both candidates were asked about concerns that HOPE Scholarships are mostly benefiting students in wealthy districts, and how to protect public employee benefits. Both said that the budget needs more review and better priorities.
Five of the 11 candidates in the crowded race to replace Saxby Chambliss in the Senate showed stark party differences, with some candidates on both sides injecting race into the debate.
The Democrats were Steen Miles, Todd Robinson and Dr. Branko "Dr. Rad" Radulovacki. The Republicans were Art Gardner and Derrick Grayson.
Both Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while all the Democrats support it.
"The post office is failing-that's the government," said Grayson. "I want government out of the way...Giving them one-sixth of the economy was not the answer."
Gardner complained the ACA is a "strictly partisan" law that mostly benefits insurance companies. "Our health care system was working" before it came along, he said, suggesting only smaller safety-net improvements were necessary.
Radulovacki, an Atlanta psychiatrist, said Gardner was "absolutely flat-out wrong" about health care being fine without the ACA. "I believe health care is a right and not for a privileged few."
Miles, a former Rockdale area state senator and WXIA-TV journalist, dramatically held up one of her campaign photos and said: "The young lady who took this picture was a small business owner. She is dead because she couldn't afford health care."
She claimed that Republican opposition to the ACA is just part of an overall unwillingness to work with President Obama rooted in racism. "The president would be extolled if he was not quite kissed by the sun as he is," she said. "I'm raising the ‘r' word."
Robinson agreed, saying, "I hate to say it, to pull the race card. [Health insurance] is not just for black people."
"I reject the notion that I'm a racist just because I'm a Republican," Gardner replied. "I'm not an uncaring son of a...," he said, pausing and nodding, "who says, ‘You're on your own.'"
No one mentioned that Grayson is African American, and he did not respond. But at other points, he blamed the government for harming black people with the War on Drugs and what he called welfare dependency.
The candidate split on party lines on a minimum wage boost, with Democrats for it and Republicans against. All except Grayson expressed some support for tax subsidies for businesses, given proper measures of their impacts.
All the candidates except Gardner expressed support for medical marijuana, and he previously told the News he supports it as well. They differed on legalizing or decriminalizing recreational pot: Miles and Robinson oppose it; Radulovacki supports it; Gardner said he's considering it; and Grayson backs the legalization of all drugs as a personal liberty.
Candidates not attending included Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republicans Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, Karen Handel, Jack Kingston and David Perdue.
U.S. Congress 4th District
Democratic incumbent Hank Johnson appeared alone, with challenger Tom Brown absent.
"We must reignite the American Dream" and grow the middle class, Johnson said.
"I would support casino gambling in Georgia," he said when asked about legalizing gambling and pari-mutuel betting. He joked that many Georgians go out of state "in order to put their coin in the machine and waste their money," adding, "I myself like the craps table."
The forum's time-keeper complained about trouble getting veteran benefits and lack of response from various offices, including Johnson's. The congressman said, "My office is known for good constituent services," and offered personal assistance.
State School Superintendent
Fifteen candidates are running for school superintendent, and seven of them appeared at the forum: Republicans Mary Kay Bacallao and Kira Willis; and Democrats Tarnisha Dent, Denise Freeman, Alisha Thomas Morgan, Rita Robinzine and Valarie Wilson.
The candidates were largely hard to distinguish, as they mostly spoke about broad ideals such as a love of high standards and a dislike of testing-driven education.
There appeared to be a party split over state funding of purely public schools versus charters or voucher programs, though details were scant. Willis focused on creating "school choice" and stopping schools from "being jacks of all trade because we're becoming master of none." Bacallao said she is for "educational liberty" for teachers, parents and students.
"We are moving quickly in this state to privatizing public education," Wilson said, calling that "criminal...because what you do is created another segregated system, a system of haves and have-nots." Freeman and Robinzine agreed.
The candidates had different explanations for recent reports that black students are suspended and expelled at unusually high rates in Georgia schools. Freeman, Morgan and Wilson suggested the punishment is largely a misunderstanding of the youths' cultural background. Other candidates suggested it's due to some form of discipline problem or acting out of boredom.
Other candidates who did not attend include Democrat Jurita Mays and Republicans Allen Fort, Ashley Bell, Michael Buck, Sharyl Dawes, Nancy Jester, T. Fitz Johnson and Richard Woods.
Secretary of State
Democrats Gerald Beckum and Doreen Carter are vying for the right to challenge Republican incumbent Brian Kemp on the fall ballot. Those Democrats attended, while Kemp did not.
Beckum, the mayor of Oglethorpe in Macon County, and Carter, a former Lithonia City Council member, focused on voter ID laws and various website and licensing problems under Kemp.
"Our forefathers died so we could vote, not so we could continue in the year of 2014 and be suppressed," Carter said, calling the voter ID requirements too burdensome.
The office's "biggest problem is, it's not sensitive to the people of Georgia," he said. "Anything that stands between us and our ability to vote for our government is wrong."
They both pledged to review the office's budget and tech upgrades. Carter noted her expertise as an accountant, while Beckum pledged to create a toll-free support hotline.
State insurance commissioner
Keith Heard, a Democrat hoping to challenge Republican incumbent Ralph Hudgens in the fall, attended the forum. Hudgens did not, nor did the other Democratic candidate, Liz Johnson.
Heard, a professional insurance agent, focused on achieving the Medicaid expansion under the ACA that Georgia opted out of, leading to concerns that some rural hospitals might close.
"There are some places you don't want to have an accident because you will not survive," Heard said. "I truly believe an insured Georgia is a healthy Georgia, and a healthy Georgia is a prosperous Georgia."
State labor commissioner
Republican incumbent Mark Butler did not attend, leaving Democratic challenger Robbin Shipp to speak on her own.
"I'm running because we need to retire the notion of a minimum wage and replace it with a livable wage," said Shipp, a former state representative.