By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
As the last series of political debates in Dade County before November’s general election kicked off in New Salem last week, there was more drama than could be reasonably anticipated in the square-off between Democratic and Republican candidates for part-time coroner; about what might be expected in the high-profile sheriff’s race; and not a quivering drop in the contest for the District 1 Georgia House of Representatives seat.
Tom McMahan, the Democratic candidate, had the stage to himself during the debate for the House seat, the first of the Sept. 11 forum, as John Deffen-baugh, the Repub-lican candidate, vacationed abroad.
“I forget what country he’s in,” said Angela Young, head of Dade’s Republican Party, contacted later for tidings of Deffenbaugh. She said she had not spoken to him since the night he won the primary runoff in August.
Asked if Deffenbaugh was pretty sure he had the seat sewed up, and felt no need to debate, Ms. Young replied: “I wouldn’t know his thoughts on that.”
But she did subsequently contact the candidate, who in turn emailed the Sentinel that he was in Slovakia and having a wonderful time. “My Slovakian trip was planned with my son Ethan over a year ago,” wrote Deffenbaugh. “I decided that I would seek the District 1 office only last April. My commitment to my son and this trip is very important to me.”
He said he planned to fly back at the end of this week.
In any case, Tom McMahan seemed to enjoy having a solo act at last Tuesday’s debate. A Cherokee Trail resident, McMahan was at home and among kin in New Salem, with his mother and sister in the crowd, and questions submitted by the audience seemed designed to allow him to show off his pro-education platform. “We need a teacher in Atlanta,” said McMahan.
A Dade native who grew up on Sand Mountain and in Rising Fawn, McMahan teaches in Catoosa County. He said his experience as a trainer in the U.S. Navy had made him realize he wanted to become a teacher – and his experience as a teacher clearly influenced his decision to run for the House.
McMahan said his first priority if elected would be to restore Georgia schools to the full school year they kept before budget cut after budget cut led administrators to shave off every possible minute. “I think that’s the biggest shame and disgrace on our state,” he said. “It’s not good for the economic prospects of our state, either.”
His other top agenda item is also educational: restoring the full HOPE scholarship to eligible students, thereby shoring up Georgia’s college graduation rates.“We’re losing qualified, good students from the lower income bracket, and we need to stop that,” he said.
McMahan also attacked the current Republican-dominated state government on ethics, saying a study had named Georgia the most corrupt state in the nation. “We even beat out Louisiana,” he said.
Elaborating at the invitation of an audience question, McMahan referenced the scandal that is currently keeping U.S. Rep. Tom Graves’ name in the news – he and another Republican lawmaker, Chip Rogers, were sued by a bank for defaulting on a $2.2 million loan their company took out to restore a derelict motel in Calhoun – as well as older accusations against Gov. Nathan Deal for funneling money to a family business.
And he said that as a whole Georgia legislators are too receptive to special interests bearing gifts. “They call it lobbying. I call it bribery,” he said.
Asked to explain his opposition to the Charter School Amendment, McMahan said that the current schools were desperately underfunded; where would money come from for a parallel set?
Besides, he said, the amendment would allow the state to wrest control of schools away from local authority, awarding it to private companies, perhaps even to the extent of channeling questions to call centers in India. “It’s a question of who controls your schools, and I want the control to stay here,” he said.
McMahan said that for the past eight years District 1 has had no real voice in the House since Rep. Martin Scott – who is stepping down this year – ran afoul of Republican leadership and was sidelined by his own party.
“I think I can be that active voice in Atlanta,” he concluded.