Wednesday night’s political forum sponsored by The Northeast Georgian and 107.7 The Breeze gave voters one final chance to hear from candidates participating in the Aug. 11 runoff election.
Despite all candidates remaining civil during the forum, the portion between incumbent Natalie Crawford and challenger Bruce Harkness for Habersham County’s District 4 commission seat did feature some debate over the county’s biggest infrastructure needs.
Crawford pointed to the county’s roads and bridges as the biggest infrastructure need.
“Ideally you would be on a cycle where you’re replacing and resurfacing these roads and bridges every 20 year cycle, but we’re more than 40 years out due to budget constraints,” Crawford said. “I would applaud our county employees for their ingenuity and the work they do to do that as low cost as possible and still have quality roads and bridges. Additionally we are able to secure somewhere upwards of $1.5 million per year in grants to help us stay on as strong of a cycle of refinement and resurfacing that we can be on.”
Harkness disagreed with Crawford, as he believed the county’s infrastructure were “some of the best roads and bridges in the state of Georgia.” Instead, Harkness pointed to the lack of a water and sewer plan to combat future growth as the county’s biggest infrastructure concern.
“We have not got one plan in this county for future growth, and growth is coming,” Harkness said. “I don’t want growth, but we have to be prepared and we have to be ready for it. And I say water and sewer is our biggest problem and issue.”
Crawford later rebutted, saying the lack of a countywide water strategy was “a little misleading,” as there is a monthly countywide meeting by a water group to discuss the county’s water plan.
“We have a monthly water group that talks about the countywide water plan, and they have been meeting every single month for five years,” Crawford said. “The city of Demorest has been to maybe five of those meetings, including during my challenger’s tenure on the city council. So to say we don’t have a countywide water strategy is a little misleading.”
Along with discussing the county’s biggest needs in infrastructure, the two were also asked how they would help Habersham County meet its goals without increasing taxes even with a reduced budget for the 2021 fiscal year due to the economic downturn from COVID-19.
If elected, Harkness vowed to take a close look at the budget to cut out any unnecessary spending.
“We need to look at the whole budget and revamp things,” Harkness said. “In our budget it’s calling for $750,000 for overtime … When we train these employees, keep them, appreciate them and pay them correctly, then we won’t be paying $750,000 per year in overtime.”
On the other hand, Crawford expressed her support for focusing on strengthening the county’s industrial base to offset the budget shortage.
“Things that we’ve accomplished that are going to help us reach those [budget] goals is the creation of the Economic Development Council, the buildout of the industrial park so that better recruit industries that fit in this community to that industrial park,” Crawford said. “So continuing to focus efforts on strengthening our industrial base and balancing that tax digest is how we do that.”
COUNTY DISTRICT 1
Bruce Palmer and Jeffrey Lunsford, the two candidates vying for the District 1 county commission seat, spoke on a variety of issues during the forum, including their plans for working with Habersham County’s municipalities and how they would work to balance growth with preserving the rural way of life.
“Habersham County has never had a sewer system or a sewer treatment system, and that’s going to be one of the big things to draw business and industry,” Palmer said. “Habersham County is going to have to work with one or more of the cities to provide sewer into the unincorporated areas of the county that way we can expand business and industry out into the county, and in doing that it will help offset the tax burden from the citizens who currently shoulder about 68% of the taxes.”
Lunsford agreed with Palmer, adding that he has noticed cooperation dwindle between the county’s municipalities and he hopes to rekindle that if elected.
“The cities and county have always worked together great until here recently. We’ve all had the same common goals. I’m not sure where along the lines we’ve lost that ability and lost our cooperation, but we need to reach out and start communicating,” Lunsford said. “I think a lot of it is a lack of communication between [the city and county]. We need to start trying to work together for the mutual interest of everybody.”
Lunsford also spoke on Habersham County’s zoning rules as the reason it will be able to balance industrial growth with its rural quality of life.
“Habersham County has always had really good zoning laws where everything is based on smart growth,” Lunsford said. “The biggest thing we need to be careful of is allowing changes to the zoning and looking at the impact it’s going to have in the future.”
Palmer instead pointed to the Georgia state Route 365 corridor overlay as a way to manage the influx of people and industry projected to come to the county in the near future.
“The county has developed a corridor overlay project for [state Route] 365. The whole point behind that project is to kind of say where business, industry and even some larger residential areas would be in that area,” Palmer said. “I think that’s a way we can control where out growth is going. That way the other areas of the county that are residential and farm areas can stay that same way.”
GEORGIA HOUSE DISTRICT 10
In the race for Georgia’s District 10 House of Representatives seat, Victor Anderson and Robert Crumley answered questions on the most prevalent issue constituents had mentioned to them while campaigning.
For Anderson, a Habersham County native and former chairman of the county commission, he said the biggest issue brought to him by constituents was COVID-19, and how he would work to move them out of the pandemic if elected.
“Right now, I think the biggest thing is safely going out of the coronavirus crisis that we’re in, and restarting our economy,” Anderson said. “[How we do that safely] is a critical question. It’s a question that kind of falls on the shoulders of our governor but it’s up to our state legislators to assist him and back him up. It also takes people who know that process and can speak confidence to him and his staff.”
For Crumley, a former Trump campaign worker and sheet metal salesman, the biggest issue raised by constituents to him were the lack of jobs and affordable housing in the area.
“As we turn into more of a touristic community, our industries are leaving, our textile mills are leaving, everybody’s leaving and nobody’s coming into the community. So people are losing their jobs, but they can’t afford to commute from their houses here to Atlanta, and they can’t afford the taxes to start their own small businesses.”
With both candidates mentioning jobs and the economy, both then fielded questions on their opinions of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response and what alternate revenue sources they would consider using to offset the tax revenue shortfall caused by the pandemic.
For both, the answer was to reopen the economy fully to allow businesses and individuals to support themselves and naturally come out of the pandemic.
“Given the opportunity our economy will come back strong, it will come back fierce,” Anderson said. “All the industry and backing people I talk to say that this time next year we will be back at about 125% of production and economic impact that we were at before this hit if we can get a handle on what’s going on with COVID-19.”
“The state could utilize its revenue stream by opening back up the economy. The economy was probably the No. 1 infringement on the state’s revenue upon the state’s revenue that had been done,” Crumbly said. “We fortunately and unfortunately overreacted [with the shutdown], but luckily I’m supportive of Gov. Kemp for opening our state back up.”
SENATE DISTRICT 50
In the tightly contested race for Georgia’s District 50 Senate seat, candidates Stacy Hall and Bo Hatchett almost immediately jumped in to discuss COVID-19 and the state’s handling of the pandemic.
“As far as how the stat’s handled the coronavirus, I’m very proud of Gov. Kemp for being a leader in the nation and opening the economy when he did,” Hatchett said. “We were the lighthouse state for the rest of the nation and I think that speaks volumes to his leadership and to his vision of government’s roles in people’s lives, which is limited.”
Hall echoed this, adding that as chair of the county commission, he also made the tough decision to keep businesses open despite pressure to close them at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Right before the statewide shelter-in-place by Gov. Kemp, we got a lot of pressure to shut down all the businesses, and I resisted,” Hall said. “I never want to take a man or woman’s ability away to provide for their family. I think it’s a delicate balance between maintaining the health of everybody and making sure people can provide for their living.”
Along with pandemic response, the pair also voiced opposition to legalizing gambling as an alternate revenue source to offset the losses from COVID-19.
“I would never be in favor of gambling or casinos. I don’t judge folks who do gamble, but for me personally, that’s not something I would ever support in any capacity,” Hall said. “They sell you on the revenue, but my beliefs aren’t for sale. There are certain things I will not budge on - pro-life is one of them, the constitution including the second amendment, and I’m not going to support gambling and casinos.”
Hatchett echoed this, saying he did not support legalizing new means of gambling, but he was in favor of keeping the lottery around as it is to continue supporting the HOPE Scholarship.
“I would never support bringing casinos or expanding our gambling in the state,” Hatchett said. “As far as casinos and sports betting, that’s against my values and I don’t think there’s a place for that here. But I would never work against the lottery. I think it has done a lot of good for education.”
With the two being pro-life, pro-Trump conservatives and in lockstep about so much, Hall closed the forum by stating the main differences between the two was experience.
“I believe the biggest difference between the two candidates is life experience. I have worked with the state through my position as county chairman with … many departments,” Hall said. “I just think my 12 years in education, 18 years in business, my role as chairman of the hospital authority, my role as chairman of the county commission, and all the other charity and boards I have been on have equipped me to serve as a state senator, and I think that’s a very important distinction.”
Hatchett conceded this, but added that his time as a law student at the University of Georgia and working under former Gov. Nathan Deal has well-equipped him to be District 50’s representative in the Senate.
“You’re electing someone to go down to Atlanta to read, write, interpret and vote on laws. I was educated at the University of Georgia law school, and I learned Georgia law there,” Hatchett said. “I think it very well prepared me to be your next state senator. I think that combined with my experience on the state level will help me make a difference for Senate District 50 on day one.”
U.S. CONGRESS 9th DISTRICT DEMOCRATS
The race for Georgia’s 9th District seat in the U.S. Congress will feature runoffs on the Democratic and Republican tickets.
On the Democratic ticket, Brooke Siskin and Devin Pandy are set to face off in the Aug. 11 runoff.
At the forum, the two were first asked their thoughts on transparency in government and how they planned to ensure transparency and accessibility to better serve constituents if elected.
“Accountability starts with speaking with and answering to the people who elect you I believe in town halls, I believe in having an open door, I believe in answering emails and letters and returning calls, and I believe in making sure that on the representative website will be my [information],” Pandy said.
Siskin echoed this, adding that her “core issue” would be transparency and openness. She added her goal would be to have an open-door policy to constituents.
“Right now I believe our current congressman doesn’t offer an open-door policy for his constituents to come in and speak,” Siskin said. “So transparency is an important issue I have; an open an honest government, one that can be for the people, by the people, is something I feel strongly about.”
The two also voiced a commitment to working across the aisle with lawmakers from other parties to pass laws and do what’s best for constituents.
“I would try to find bipartisan support for bills, and we could work on special issues when it comes to healthcare, housing or issues regarding women’s rights,” Siskin said. “So I want to work with my colleagues across the aisle so we can agree and disagree on some good questions and try to help our constituents and try to get valid questions answered for what they need.”
Pandy echoed this and added that partisan politics are “not good for this country.”
“One of the first things I want to do is make alliances on both sides,” Pandy said. “I really do not like the idea of parties working alone.”
U.S. CONGRESS 9th DISTRICT REPUBLICANS
The night’s final forum was a showdown between the two Republicans running to represent Georgia’s 9th District, Andrew Clyde, a 28-year veteran and gun store owner, and Matt Gurtler, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives.
To begin the night, both Clyde and Gurtler expressed their opposition to an additional COVID-19 stimulus package, as it would sink the country further into debt.
“Continued borrowing is going to put our nation farther and farther into debt. And government does not create jobs, the private sector creates jobs,” Clyde said. “I think the solution here is to open us back up completely and have businesses go back to work. … Across the country, I think we need to open back up and let the private sector bring those jobs back.”
Gurtler added that the previous stimulus package pushed the nation debt to $26 trillion, and he spoke on the need for people to fight against additional debt for the country.
“We need true fighters in congress that are going to stand up to debt and actually get back to running the government, and the only way to do that is to lead by example,” Gurtler said. “I have proven that in my time as a Georgia’s most conservative legislator over the last four years by opposing those big government policies, and I’ll do the same thing as a congressman.”
Among constituents, Gurtler said that the national debt is one of the main concerns brought to him along with pro-life and second amendment issues.
“Pro-life issues are really big in this district. As Christians, we know life begins at conception and we should always work to protect and defend life, and I have a record of doing that at the state house,” Gurtler said. “Second amendment issues, upholding our God-given and natural rights [are a big issue], and I’ve done that as well with the most pro-gun legislation on constitutional carry.”
For Clyde, the biggest concern to constituents he’s talked to has been over-reach in government.
“I think over-reach in government is what I’ve heard from voters. That can be broken down into a number of different areas,” Clyde said.
He also mentioned hearing 9th District constituents voice concerns over pro-life and second amendment issues.
To listen to each forum in its entirety, visit The Northeast Georgian’s Facebook page.