A bevy of candidates in races on the May 20 ballot staked out their differences at an April 3 Rockdale Auditorium forum, presented by the Rockdale-Newton League of Women Voters and the News.
The forum included almost all of the candidates for local contested primaries and non-partisan races. Those races include the county Board of Commissioners Post 2; county Board of Education Post 1; state House Districts 91 and 113; and the U.S. Congressional 4th District. The forum also drew two of the 11 candidates for the U.S. Senate seat that Saxby Chambliss is leaving.
The format involved the candidates answering questions from the audience of about 50 people.
U.S. Congress 4th District
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson faces former DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown in the Democratic primary.
A Congressional committee meeting caused Johnson to arrive late and speak only briefly at the end of the forum, after his opponent had spoken. But even though they didn't meet, the candidates managed to engage in some verbal dueling.
Brown criticized Congress, saying that last year it passed 58 bills and "most of them were to name post offices after an individual. That's not acceptable."
Johnson said he has introduced 46 bills in his career and four of them have become law. "And I'm not talking about renaming a post office," he added.
"I have been a fighter for just regular working people," Johnson said. "The American Dream has turned into a nightmare for many," he said, pledging to support small businesses and the middle class rather than big corporations.
But Brown said he has heard complaints of poor constituent services in the district. He said he decided to run out of unhappiness with D.C. politics.
"I'm going to be a strong voice in Washington" to match what a strong district, Brown said. "If our voice in Washington is not as strong as the voice in the district, we get nothing."
"I know how the legislative process works...and how to eliminate programs that do not work," Brown said, describing himself as a pragmatic, bipartisan official.
He pledged to work on local business development, more local control of federal school funds, and more support for technical education.
U.S. Senate (Saxby Chambliss's seat)
The two Senate candidates appearing at the forum both have visited Rockdale before and praised the area in conversations with the News.
"I like the small-town atmosphere you get out here. You lose that in the big city," said Republican Art Gardner.
"The folks in Rockdale are very engaged civically. It's a very informed community," said Democrat Dr. Branko "Dr. Rad" Radulovacki.
Radulovacki, an Atlanta psychiatrist who once worked on Wall Street, helped lead a reform of state psychiatric hospitals in 2010. A supporter of raising the minimum wage and supporting the Affordable Care Act, he said he wants to "work in the spirit of bipartisanship" and "end gridlock" in Washington.
"I've spent over 40 years solving problems," said Gardner, an Atlanta patent attorney and former Lockheed engineer. He said he is focused on pragmatic solutions-such as making prescription drugs cheaper by using patent laws as leverage-and "not just a slogan."
Both candidates said they would challenge their parties when necessary.
"I absolutely would vote with my conscience and not necessarily what my party wants to do," said Gardner. A supporter of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and medical marijuana, Gardner said his party needs to stop driving away voters with "hard-right social stances."
"I have the courage to say it," he said.
"I am not going to be someone who's an absolutist," said Radulovacki. As a doctor, he said "When people come in that door, all those labels fall away" and they work together to solve the problem at hand.
Both candidates backed some form of immigration reform that includes amnesty for some people living illegally in the country. Gardner said that "illegal aliens" should be able to register and pay taxes, but only receive citizenship by serving five years in the U.S. military.
Radulovacki, himself a first-generation American born in what is now Serbia, said it is important that the country continues to welcome immigrants.
"What makes America America is, it is a beacon of light," he said, adding he generally supports President Obama's immigration reform policies combining deportation crackdowns with amnesties.
Other Democratic candidates in the Senate race include Steen Miles, Michelle Nunn and Todd Robinson. Other Republican candidates include Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, Derrick Grayson, Karen Handel, Jack Kingston and David Perdue.
(April 4, 2014)
House Districts 91 and 113
In Georgia House District 91, incumbent Dee Dawkins-Haigler faces challenger Diane Adoma in the Democratic primary.
They were joined at the table by District 113 incumbent Pam Dickerson, whose Democratic primary opponent, Sharon Sawyer, did not attend.
Adoma, a businesswoman involved in several charities, presented herself as a skilled fund-raiser and collaborator able to negotiate with many kinds of people.
"If you have 10 marbles and they have 12, you need to negotiate to get those other marbles," she said.
Dawkins-Haigler challenged that approach, saying there can be too much deal-cutting.
"You cannot compromise someone's health. You cannot compromise a child's education," she said. "I am not just running a race. I am literally running for my life" and that of everyone in the working class, she said.
Dickerson presented herself simply as "the people's advocate."
Asked about a top issue facing the state, Dawkins-Haigler said it is impossible to choose because they are interconnected.
"We don't take a piece of the pie. We take the whole pie and bring Georgia up to the place it needs to be," she said.
Adoma said education is the top issue, quoting Nelson Mandela's line that "eduation is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world."
Dickerson also cited education and the need to improve Georgia's low-rated schools. "We are going in the right direction, but we're not there yet," she said.
Question about how to curb the influence of Gold Dome lobbyists, Adoma said there should be "stricter laws," but added that it is "important for us to respect lobbyists" as part of democracy.
"I don't think lobbyists can have control over people with a good moral compass," said Dawkins-Haigler.
"I would like to say lobbyists don't have any influence over the bills we pass," Dickerson claimed. "My influence comes from the people," she said, adding that she hears more from constituents than from lobbyists.
All three candidates opposed recent proposals to privatize the state's child welfare programs.
BOC Post 2
Three Democrats are vying for the chance to challenge Republican incumbent JaNice Van Ness: Josie Dean, Arlen Gibson and Doreen Williams. All three agreed that the commissioners need to work together better, but disagreed on whether the board needs radical reform.
Dean volunteers on several SPLOST citizens oversight committees and presented herself as already up to speed, saying, "I'm efficient. Everything that happens in the county, I had something to do with."
Gibson, a former police officer and corrections officer, focused on making Rockdale "business-friendly" and competitive.
"We're the second-smallest county in Georgia, but we don't have to be the least of them," he said.
"I promise to be a calm voice of reason," said Williams, presenting herself as a consensus-builder. Williams, a retired educator and former chair of the county Democratic Party, repeated her campaign slogan: "Common sense to find common ground for the common good."
Gibson and Williams both cited economic development and transportation as among the top issues facing the county. Improved public safety is also key, Gibson said.
Dean and Williams also said citizens complain about how the current commissioners operate.
"They would like to see a commission that really works together well," Williams said.
"We treat our citizens too bad," Dean put it more bluntly, calling for a more accessible and transparent government.
Dean called for expanding the board from three to five commissioners, and also supports hiring a professional county manager. Today, she said, there are too many tie votes, and the chairperson/CEO has too much power, leaving the other members to "sit there like sitting ducks."
Gibson said the board needs a "different mindset," not more members. "We need to get along better" and compromise more, he said, adding that he might support hiring a manager if that doesn't happen.
All three candidates backed new approaches to the county budget. Williams called for a long-range strategic plan created with community input to guide budgeting. Dean said the board must stick to its budget instead of changing plans frequently. Gibson said the board is too focused on cutting programs rather than building revenue by attracting more businesses.
Board of Education Post 1
Incumbent Jim McBrayer and challenger Alberteen Young painted very different pictures of the Rockdale school system.
"I think we have a good thing going in Rockdale County," said McBrayer, who is the board's chairman. "I also believe in the words of my daddy, who was a good old country boy: ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Young, however, suggested that population growth is straining the system.
"It's nice that we have a good graduation rate. But it's not nice that we have decreased performance...in math, science and reading," she said, citing a recent accreditation report that was generally very favorable.
Both candidates presented themselves as having unique attributes for the job. McBrayer, a former teacher of 26 years and Salem High coach and athletic director, is the only board member with an education background. Young is a former budget director at Fulton County's schools, and warned that other counties have run into trouble for lack of someone with her expertise.
Young, who is black, noted that the current board is mostly white while the school population is largely black. She said she is not running against the incumbent but she is running to "represent the minority majority."
On charter school expansion, McBrayer was willing to consider it based on "need," and he noted the success of the Rockdale Career Academy. Young said would support charter expansion only if it did not take funding away from other schools.
Asked about how to improve standardized test scores, McBrayer said the system has a "safety net" for struggling students. Young spoke loudly and passionately about what she claimed are different measurement standards that unfairly make Georgia's test results look like "the bottom of the barrel."