By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
On the surface, the final pre-Nov. 6 series of political debates among candidates for the three remaining contested elected offices in Dade County might seem in danger of getting a little same-old-same-old. In fact, Sept. 25’s debate in Wildwood held several points of interest that had not popped up in the previous sessions at New Salem and New Home.
In the race for Georgia House of Representatives, District 1, John Deffenbaugh, the Republican candidate who emerged victorious from the August primary, appeared for the first time against Democratic contender Tom McMahan. At New Salem and New Home, McMahan had had the stage to himself as Deffenbaugh was in Europe for most of September.
In the coroner’s race, Democratic incumbent Johnny Gray had sharpened his overbite somewhat as he touted his qualifications over those of his opponent, Republican Danny Hall.
And the higher-profile sheriff’s race was hotter and heavier than ever before as supporters of Republican Ray Cross crowded the room, applauding thunderously virtually every time their candidate ended a sentence – and as “Republicans for Philip Street” signs cropped up around the county, heralding not only bipartisan support for the Democrat who was Dade’s top lawman for 20 years previously, but trouble in the ranks of the local GOP.
As at earlier locations, the Sept. 25 debate played to a full house, and moderator Philip Rodman reported the audience had submitted too many questions to get to in one sitting.
In the Georgia House contest, Democrat McMahan, a teacher, again set forth his basic agenda of restoring the schools to their full calendar year – “It looks pretty sad that most of our schools can’t even afford to operate full-time”; opposing the Charter School Amendment, which he condemns as a corporate attempt to grab school tax dollars; and restoring the HOPE college scholarship to full tuition for middle- and lower-income families.
Republican Deffenbaugh was more general in his opening remarks, just touching on his credentials – “I know the county. I know some of the needs the county has” – and stressing the need for jobs, with the party-line caveat that government can’t create them, only the conditions favorable for attracting them.
In answering a question about the charter school amendment, Deffenbaugh was inclined to dismiss it – “I don’t think it’s as serious as presented” – but hazy on particulars: “If a group of parents wanted to do it here, I would not be the one to say no, they can’t,” he said. “I look forward to reviewing it, looking into it, being very positive about it.” He said he was not ready to condemn charter schools “until I find out exactly what other options there are available.”
McMahan, on the other hand, was unequivocally opposed: “It’s an issue of local control,” he said. Whatever they thought of Dade’s board of education and schools superintendent, he told attendees: “They’re our superintendent and they’re our board of education. They live here in our community in this Dade County. They’re not a company down in that other Dade County down in Florida, looking to make a buck off our kids.”
At an earlier debate, McMahan had said that the push for the amendment was in large part financed by a for-profit school management company in Florida.
Both candidates were asked what they would do first if elected to the House. McMahan said he would lobby Georgia to furnish once-a-month driver’s license sessions in Dade. Deffenbaugh said the first thing he would do is get better acquainted with his fellow representatives. “As a freshman, I’m going to have very, very little input until I get to know them,” he said.
They were also asked what each would do to bring jobs to Dade. Deffenbaugh repeated that governments can’t make jobs and that Georgia was at a disadvantage against states with no income tax. But he said if Dade maintained good schools and a good work force, those would attract business. “It’s going to be a constant struggle but I think we can accomplish it,” he said.
McMahan said he’d go after tourism, mentioning Lookout Flight Park and Cloudland Canyon, concluding: “The natural beauty of our area is something that we haven’t fully capitalized on.”
Asked about zoning, McMahan said there was no need for it in Dade. Deffenbaugh admitted he’d uttered the Z-word long ago, but: “I’m not going to ever bring it up again.”
Asked if he was satisfied with the level of services Dade gets from the state, Deffenbaugh said the county gets a fair shake mostly but could use more representation. “I anticipate letting people know that we exist and know what we need and improve what we’ve got,” he said.
McMahan answered, “Obviously not.” Georgia doesn’t address many of Dade’s needs, he said, but he acknowledged the problem went beyond the county. “There’s great dissatisfaction statewide with our roads and our schools,” he said.
The Coroner’s Race
In another contested race, 20-year incumbent coroner Johnny Gray, a Democrat, urged the audience to consider his experience – 560 training hours, he said – over that of challenger Danny Hall, a Republican who held the office for one term previous to Gray’s election. Gray said Hall had 120 hours of training.
Gray said he’d made the coroner’s office more professional – “The coroner’s office over here was always a laughingstock” – and boasted of his record: “To this day, I’ve never made a mistake.” He urged the audience to ask his opponent: “Where was he at for the 16 years?”
The audience did ask something along those lines, questioning Hall why he had left his job as a Hutcheson EMT (answer: He got a car dealership job at triple the salary) and a later one in fire and rescue (similar answer). Hall was terser than Gray in his own address to attendees, simply asking for their votes and sitting down. “You need someone with warmth and compassion,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Race
There was talk of warmth and compassion in the debate between the sheriff candidates, too, as they described how each would reunify the county after this nasty campaign. Republican candidate Ray Cross reminded the audience of the way neighbors came together in last year’s tornado, only to let election year tear them apart. “We’ve got people who won’t even talk to people when they go to the grocery store or a restaurant,” he said. “I don’t like the dirtiness of politics at all. I do not like what happened to Patrick Cannon in this race.”
Two-term incumbent Sheriff Patrick Cannon lost to Cross in the Republican primary.
As sheriff, concluded Cross, he would do his best to bring Dade back together, and the audience applauded thunderously.
Democrat Philip Street stressed his experience running the office: “Everybody that’s been in this race got their start under me. I know these folks,” said. He said if elected he would continue running the department fairly and justly as he always had, but win or lose, he loved the county and its people. “When this is over, this is going to be home,” he said.
But much of the debate was less warm and fuzzy. One audience member asked Street how he felt about Dade citizens going to other counties to spend their money because they felt “targeted” by the sheriff’s department at home.
“I don’t think anybody was targeted. I don’t know where you come up with ‘targeted,’” Street shot back. Yes, he said, he did road checks, but: “Do you want drunk drivers on the road? Do you want people that drive with no insurance on the road?”
Street admonished the questioner to obey the law: “If you go through a road check and you’ve got a valid driver’s license and you’ve got insurance, ain’t nobody going to bother you.”
Street shrugged off a question about lawsuits under his former tenure: “The insurance company handled all that.” There will always be lawsuits whoever’s sheriff, he said, and only the lawyers won.
In fact, the Sentinel reported only in 2009 about a $285,000 settlement made to Edward Reese, a businessman in his 60s who sued after Street’s deputies beat him, pepper-sprayed him and mangled his arm when he asked them to move their patrol cars, which were blocking the entrance to the apartment complex he owned. Reese amended his complaint to sue the individual lawmen who had sent him to the hospital, not the sheriff himself, but he continued to blame Street for the culture of brutality he believed led to the 2003 incident.
Ray Cross also fielded some unfavorable audience questions. How, asked one attendee, could he handle the sheriff’s department budget when he couldn’t handle his own? Cross’s personal bankruptcies have loomed large in the race since the primaries.
An angry Cross supporter hissed, “Get a life,” but Cross himself answered more gently that he’d explained that one repeatedly in previous debates but would go over it again if the questioner cared to see him after the debate.
Another audience member asked whether, if Cross did as promised put more emphasis on major crime than traffic, more people wouldn’t die from speeding incidents. He answered that it was a matter of priorities: speeding was bad but drugs and burglaries were worse. “You’ve got to put the bad stuff first on your list and then go from there,” he said.
The applause was deafening.
The candidates, as they have previously, sparred over specific personnel – no, Street won’t hire Tim McDonald, and yes, Cross will hire Howard Doyle, who will have other duties, but Cross doesn’t see what’s so awful about his just being a grant writer; and about specific budget matters: Cross said he would supplement revenues by going after interstate drug traffic, and Street said drug money could not be used to pay salaries.
But both ended amicably: “When this thing’s over with, me and this gentlemen are going to be friends,” said Street in closing.
And: “If you did vote for some other candidate, please, let’s still be friends,” said Cross.
West Brow will host the next debate at 6 p.m. Oct. 11.