There were moments of humor at the Bryan County NAACP’s first candidate’s political forum.
When forum moderator Dr. Thomasina Butler briefly stumbled over the pronunciation of Brad Raffensperger’s surname, the Republican candidate for Georgia’s secretary of state said he understood.
“It’s OK,” Raffensperger said. “I couldn’t pronounce my name until I got into in middle school myself.”
And when Charles Wilson, a representative for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, got to be the first to make closing comments more than two hours after the forum began, he thanked Butler. “I appreciate it, because as a ‘W’ I am always last,” Wilson said.
The event — held Sept. 27 at the Harn Community Center in Pembroke — lasted nearly three hours, giving voters an opportunity to hear directly from candidates, according to Bryan County NAACP Interim President Johnnie Quiller.
“It’s a chance to ask the pertinent questions,” Quiller told those in the audience, several of whom took advantage to question candidates or their representatives on issues ranging from education and health care to voting. Alfonza Hagen, a retired GBI agent from Pembroke, asked Wilson whether Kemp’s campaign promise to give teachers a permanent $5,000 pay raise was merely “a bait and switch,” and claimed candidates often promise to increase salaries in education and law enforcement to win votes, but those raises don’t materialize.
Wilson, who said he is an Army veteran from a military family, responded that the question itself was “baiting,” and said “Brian Kemp is an honorable man. Brian Kemp says what he means and means what he says.”
The exchange ended with Wilson, who noted he was at a disadvantage because he couldn’t answer for Kemp, promising to “get back with Hagan.”
Others in the audience asked about health care - Democrats were for expanding Medicare in Georgia - and questioned candidates on voter fraud.
There were also reminders that political candidates are only human. John Turpish, a Libertarian running for the District 5 seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission, was represented by his father, also named John Turpish. The younger Turpish was on a business trip to Washington - the state, not the nation’s capitol, his father said, as he did his best to lay out his son’s case for the position.
One of Turpish’ opponents, Democrat Dawn Randolph, was on hand and she said she ran in 2006. Then, she got 40 percent of the vote as a 40-year-old.
“I’m 52 this election,” she said.
Also present was Dr. Sonia Francis-Rolle, who is running as a write-in candidate for Georgia school superintendent.
Taking part were state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, and his opponent, Democrat Alicia Scott from Savannah; state agricultural commission candidate Fred Swann, a Democrat; Lisa Ring, the Richmond Hill Democrat running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1; and Richmond Hill resident Sandra Workman, who is running against incumbent state Sen. Ben Watson, M.D., a Republican.
Carter did not attend but provided a video. Watson did not attend. Neither did Otha Thornton, who won the Democratic nomination for school superintendent.
State labor commissioner candidate Richard Keatley also provided a message, read by Quiller.
From the outset, the NAACP’s forum offered candidates a chance to give their platforms and talk issues. Candidates had two minutes to introduce themselves, then Butler asked the same question of each - what their priorities are in the areas of the environment, transportation, education, housing and growth, “and what actions will you take in these areas to enhance the quality of life for people in Bryan County?”
Candidates were given two minutes to respond, with rebuttals of up to one minute for opponents.
Here’s how it broke down, by issue.
Environment: Scott went first, noting that the environment was high on her list of priorities. She said she was against fracking and offshore drilling.
“Fracking destroys the environment and communities,” Scott said. “I am a huge proponent of sustainable, clean, renewable energy. I want to see more investment in solar and we’ve got 11 miles of coast line, so more tidal energy.”
Scott also wants to provide incentives for builders who create LEED certified projects.
Scott was followed by Workman, who said “Everything she (Scott) said, before adding she moved to Bryan County “because I love the environment here,” and spent 10 years as a volunteer with The Dolphin Project.
Swann said his focus as agricultural commissioner on “increasing the number of family farms,” in rural Georgia will help the environment.
“The environmental impacts of factory farming are enormous, from fertilizer and pesticide runoff into our streams and rivers and aquifers,” Swann said. “The small farm owner is a better steward of the land than the big factory farmer.”
Ring said she wants to make the First Congressional District “the Silicon valley of sustainable, green energy, creating thousands of jobs while making the Georgia coast a global leader in renewable energy.
Randolph pointed to coal ash leeching into ground water in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence as an example of what can happen when utilities aren’t adequately regulated.
“Every one of our energy assets creates waste, and one of the PSC’s jobs is to make sure the waste they produce does not impact the health and welfare of communities,” Randolph said.
Stephens noted he was named a state legislator of the year by the Sierra Club.
Transportation: Stephens, who said he was running on his record, noted that the widening of Highway 144 and the I-95 interchange at Belfast Keller “didn’t just happen,” and said both were the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people.
Scott said she’s a proponent of “light rail, clean, natural gas or electric passenger rail from Atlanta to Augusta and Savannah and Jacksonville. A little bit more than Amtrak provides. Public transportation is important.”
Education: Rolle, who worked in education in both Kansas and Massachusetts before coming to Georgia, where she once worked for former state school superintendent Linda Schrenko, said education funding in Georgia is too often spent on administration and notin the classroom. “For every teacher recruited, they recruit three administrators,” Rolle said. “We need to look at what money we have and how it’s spent. We also have to have transparency with regard to what we are doing with the dollar amounts we have in the school systems, and make sure those dollars are being spent in the classroom.”
She is a proponent of technical education, but noted “counties often like to do their own thing” rather than work together regionally.
Workman said the high cost of PreK is an economic issue. “We need to help people pay for PreK so families can get to work and not have to pay PreK costs that can sometimes be as much as a college education.” She also wants more focus on education from state lawmakers, Workman said.
Swann said he believed agriculture has an impact on education, since children who aren’t adequately fed can’t learn. He praised Georgia’s public education system, because both he and his children are “on the autism spectrum” and had wonderful teachers.
“If we’re not going to pay teachers what they deserve to get paid, then we don’t care about education,” Swann said. “I say don’t tell me what your priorities are. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what your priorities are.”Ring said there needs to be more investment in public education.
“Funding has been cut regularly for public schools, and they’re having to do more and more with less and less,” she said. “Education has to be a priority, and it starts with having the teachers we need.”
Ring said she wants to see apprenticeship programs for those who don’t want to go on to college, as well as free tuition at technical schools and universities, she said. Ring also wants veterans to get retraining for civilian employment, she said.
Stephens said Georgia lawmakers fully funded the state’s QBE, or quality basic education, formula for the first time.
“Can we do more, yes,” he said, adding that lawmakers also voted to put $380 million into the teacher’s retirement fund, something that local districts are concerned about since they have to come up with the match.
Stephens’ claim the state is funding QBE fully drew a rebuttal from Scott, who along with others said that formula is from 1984.
“How many of you can survive on what you made in 1985?,” Scott asked, then answered her own question. “Not many.”
She also took issue with Wilson’s statement that Kemp plans on raising teacher pay by $5,000 annually, claiming Republicans often vote to “see that education if fully funded, right before an election.” She called the $5,000 raise arbitrary and, after taxes, gas money. She said she wants the general assembly to revisit the 1984 formula. “We’re No. 25 in the country in teachers salary, No. 31 in overall quality of education and No. 38 in per student spending,” Scott said. “It’s a matter of priorities. Yes we’re No. 1 in business, but we’re depriving our students.”
Housing: Stephens touted the Stephens-Day Bill,which froze property taxes in Chatham County at the price at which the property was purchased, also sponsored a bill to allow victims of domestic violence to break leases as a matter of safety. Scott also praised Stephens-Day.
Growth and other issues: As did other candidates, Workman said Georgia’s reputation as “The No. 1 state to do business in,” often came at a cost.
“For economic opportunity we’re usually rated very low, sometimes in the 30s, sometimes in the bottom 10,” she said, adding that the state needs to look at ways to “focus on the people- power part of creating business.”
Stephens said he helped bring the film industry into Georgia through tax incentives, and is a believer in housing tax credits. And, he said, state lawmakers just passed the first cut in state income tax in history, which Stephens said will save taxpayers some $5.5 billion over five years.
Scott said some incentives given businesses to come to Georgia don’t help workers.
She claimed one employer was given a $4,700 per person per job tax credit.
“Do you think the corporation passed those tax credits on to workers?” Scott asked, before noting that Savannah currently has a 26 percent poverty rate and yet only 4.9 percent unemployment – meaning that 95 percent of those who can and will work are working, but 21 percent of the jobs they’re in are “poverty- level” jobs.
Swann, who criticized the current ag commissioner for representing factory farms over Georgia residents, said his focus as agricultural commissioner on “increasing the number of family farms,” in rural Georgia could help end economic blight. “I don’t care about profit margins, I care about the health of the rural community,” he said.
Ring said her desire to see Georgia’s First District become a leader in green energy, will create thousands of jobs. She also wants government that will “invest in individuals in the community,” Ring said, and she’d start with “a single payer universal care health system.”
Randolph said the PSC in 2019 will be setting rates utilities can charge its customers, which makes the PSC race an important one for everyone.
She said everyone from consumers to big utilities should pay the same cost for energy.
“We’ve got a huge opportunity next year to change the way we do energy in Georgia,” she said.
Turpish said his son as a Libertarian wants to “get government out of our lives,” and provide more choice for consumers.
He said it seems the current PSC represents utility companies, not consumers.
“If you don’t have the choice to buy from somebody else, you don’t have the liberty you should have,” Turpish said.
He said Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle was an exampleof the PSC’s failure to look after consumers.
“The plant was supposed to cost $14 billion and be finished in 2017,” Turpish said. “Now, it’s not going to be finished until 2022 and cost $27 billion.”
Turpish said his son will “advocate to have that project halted,” while noting that some studies have projections it could take 80 years to pay for the plant.
Raffensperger, an engineer who drove 240 miles to attend the forum, said the secretary of state can help grow jobs by reducing the number of professions which require state licenses.
“Many people do not realize the secretary of state oversees licensing, and that’s currently 130 different licenses for 40 different occupations,” Raffensperger said. “If it is a question of public health and public safety, it makes sense to require licensing, but we should never make it so difficult or expensive that we discourage that young aspiring person with an idea.”
Raffensperger said two of the United State’s biggest companies, Apple and Amazon, were once small startups.
Scott said one of her legislative priorities is to expand Medicaid.
“We’ve had 50 rural hospitals close in Georgia in the past five years, and we’re leaving money on the table at the federal level because the GOP doesn’t like Obamacare,” she said.
Scott also wants to lower the tax burden on veterans and retirees.
Workman also supports expanding Medicaide in Georgia.
“We’re losing $3 billion a year in federal money we’ve already paid for in our taxes,” she said. “For every $1 Georgia spends in health care, we would get back $9 in federal money, and we’re currently letting that go,” Workman said. “In our county alone, 1,200 people who would have a health care card in their pocket if we would expand Medicare. To me, the question isn’t whether we can afford to do this, the question is whether can afford not to do it.”
Stephens said it wasn’t that simple, saying the number of people moving to Georgia will have a huge impact on the state’s ability to provide health care.
But he touted recent efforts by local leaders to bring health care to North Bryan. Savannah-based Curtis Cooper Health Care has started sending a mobile unit to Pembroke several times a week, and eventually will have a permanent clinic. Raffensperger said the state needs to update voting machines to make elections more secure.
“We’ve had 10 generations of iPhones, but our voting machines haven’t been updated since 2005, and they need to be updated,” he said.
When pressed on his statement that he wanted to make sure only U.S. citizens voted and asked what data he had to show that was a problem in Georgia, Raffensperger said there have been instances of identity theft, but it’s also about the fact people “have fought and died for the right to vote.”
Candidates also got an opportunity to talk about themselves during the forum.
Ring noted she’s an military spouse and military mom who once served worked as a security guard.
“I never wanted to be a politician, but we deserve better,” Ring said, adding that she’s knocked on 27,000 doors across the first district. “We deserve to have a voice in Washington.”
Stephens said he was born in Lyons but has lived in Savannah since he was 6. He noted he comes from “life long union members” while his work on both the environment and “history on tax policy are sound.” He also lauded improvements in local schools while adding that when he started as a state rep 21 years ago, he had black hair and a waistline.
“Both have since disappeared,” Stephens said.
Turpish, who spoke for his son, drove up from Jacksonville for the forum.
“I’ve loved visiting Bryan County, it’s a beautiful area you have up here,” he said, adding that he’d been married for 47 years and he and his wife have three children and adopted 11 more. He described his son as “very smart,” “a loyal friend” and “a great individual,” who will be a champion for individual rights. Randolph, a self-described Army brat who lives in Henry County, said she’s been working on policy issues for 30 years and advocating for consumer issues for 24 years. She urged voters to pick her as a “consumer champion who really understands the language of the regulatory process.”
Swann said he hoped voters paid “special attention” to the race for agricultural commissioner.
“How can we say we’re serious about health care, if we’re not serious about nutrition? How can we say we’re serious about education, if children go to school hungry? How can we say we’re serious about the economy and rural economic development, if we’re not serious about agriculture as a means of helping people lift themselves up out of poverty?”
Workman said she’s “had a lot of roles” in life and at 26 was a divorced mother taking college courses before working her way up to becoming information security director for Time Warner Cable.
Workman said with the federal government under President Trump and the GOP “dismantling environmental protections and consumer protections,” as well as challenging women’s rights, “it’s time for the states to step up.”
“No one should be sending their children to school afraid the child is not going to come home,” she said. “We can protect Second Amendment Rights and still protect children. No one should have a full-time job and still live below the poverty level. No one should have to make the choice between medical care or buying groceries. But it’s up to you to get to the polls.”
Scott, originally from California and a licensed stockbroker and businesswoman whose husband was career Army, said she wants to hold herself accountable.
In urging NAACP members and others to get out and vote, Quiller said it was the first time in her life she was in the same room with so many candidates.
“This is awesome,” Quiller said.