By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
It was another packed house Thursday night at West Brow for the latest in a series of political debates among candidates for local political office. As always, the two candidates for sheriff were the main focus, with the Georgia House of Representatives District One race thrown in for contrast and the coroner candidates adding an occasional glint of comic relief.
As at previous debates, cars overflowed the community center parking lot and lined the road out front, while inside attendees were hard put to find seating. Moderator Troy Duble, a vice president at Covenant College, said there were too many audience question cards to get to and warned those who had submitted them that if they didn’t hear him read the whole thing, it was because they’d filled too much of their index cards with opinion rather than genuine inquiry.
Duble visibly struggled to maintain order as audience members noisily supported their candidates. “This clapping thing’s killing me,” he said after one thunderous round of applause. He’d asked audience members to hold their applause until the end, but as Nov. 6 draws closer, so has risen Dade’s level of participation in the democratic process, to the point it is unlikely the audience would have paid much mind had Duble begun yodeling.
The most dramatic exchange of the night came as Democratic sheriff candidate Philip Street waved one set of papers and the wife of Republican candidate Ray Cross waved another, both in reference to the Crosses’ much-discussed personal bankruptcy.
The drama began when Cross explained in response to an audience question about his “bankruptcies,” plural, that there had not been two separate bankruptcies but that his Chapter 7 bankruptcy had been filed to take care of any liabilities left from the original Chapter 13.
He said his financial problems had come about not because he ran from obligations but because of medical problems suffered by his wife, his daughter and himself. He said it could have happened to anyone, and that it wouldn’t affect his performance as sheriff.
“As sheriff of this county, I won’t run from problems either,” said Cross. “You can manage things when you have the money.”
And he got Duble-forbidden audience applause with a concluding: “I’ve tried to live my life the best I can.”
Cross told attendees if they had further questions they could consult Cindy Cross, who had brought the family’s financial paperwork. But Street, responding, said that wasn’t necessary. “I went and looked for myself,” he said.
Street told the audience he’d gone to the federal courthouse for a gander at the Crosses’ bankruptcy filing. If, said Street, Cross had gone into debt because of medical bills for his family: “I’d support him 100 percent. [But] the information at the federal courthouse does not match what my opponent says.”
Mrs. Cross at this point began protesting that she had tax returns showing what she’d paid out of pocket, and Duble began admonishing her that Cross would have an opportunity to rebut. Meanwhile Street said he had nothing but respect for Cross, whom he’d given his first job –
“Not my first job,” said Cross.
– and Mrs. Cross asked how Street had gotten access to their records. Street explained the public records process and challenged attendees to go to Chattanooga to look for themselves, while the audience began interjecting pell-mell, Duble struggled to make himself heard and for a while nobody got to finish a sentence.
“Ya’ll fire bullets at me and y’all fire bullets at my family, you put stuff out on me,” said Street toward the end of this. “I went and got the proof.”
Duble allowed Cross to rebut. “Ray gets a response, not the crowd,” he specified.
Cross responded by again inviting the audience to examine the papers his wife had brought. “I’m not here lying to you. I’m not a liar,” he said.
Nor did Street emerge from the audience unscathed by matters fiscal as the audience questioned him on his own record managing the sheriff’s department budget. Street was Dade’s top cop for 20 years before losing his slot to Patrick Cannon in the 2004 election.
“I’ll stand here and tell you I was over budget some,” said Street.
And he couldn’t say no to the audience question: "Did you ever threaten to sue the county for more money when you were over budget?”
“Probably,” he answered that one. But he added the explanation – “I’ll give you Basic Sheriff 101” – that a sheriff frequently has to fight the county commission to get enough money to operate. He never really had sued, said Street, but all sheriffs considered the civil suit threat a useful tool in their belt, learning early on the principle: “The commissioners are your friends, but …”
And on the subject of civil suits, Street answered questions about the ones against the department during his tenure along the same lines he has before: That he had not been found personally responsible for any wrongdoing and that if he had erred it was in trusting subordinates who had.
In the Georgia House race, Democratic candidate Tom McMahan, a schoolteacher, once again explained his vehement opposition to the Charter School Amendment: “There’s companies that see a lot of taxpayer money they’d like to get their hands on and make a profit off your kids,” he said.
Republican candidate John Deffenbaugh said he was still undecided on the amendment – he’d gotten a copy of it but: “I have not read through the complete thing yet,” he said. “Tom is more experienced in that area.”
McMahan also made it clear, as before, that he is running on the need for change from a regime that he says has proved not just hostile to schools but to roads and other public initiatives. “Across the board we’re seeing a gradual deterioration of services in this state,” he said.
Deffenbaugh, meanwhile, reiterated his own intention to get to know the other guys in Atlanta before he tried to make major changes. “I have learned as a salesman you can’t tell a group of people what they’re going to do,” he said. Rather, he said things must be presented in such a way that it made people want to do them. “I think that’s going to be the most helpful way of getting things done,” he said.
An audience question challenged McMahan on being a Democrat, and an audience member angrily told him he’d lost his vote for the Obama sign in his yard.
The affable Deffenbaugh, meanwhile, indicated the small elephant he had brought as table décor to the debate. "enjoy being a Republican," he said.
Moderator Duble called upon the coroner candidates intermittently as if to defuse a buildup of tension, and rarely did they disappoint. Republican candidate Danny Hall explained the business of determining the cause and manner of death thus: – “If a person’s layin’ there dead and there’s a gunshot to the head, that’s what did it.”
Hall stressed that the job also entailed people skills as the coroner must deal extensively with grieving families. “I just feel like I’m the guy who can do that the best,” he said.
Democrat Johnny Gray, a 20-year incumbent, responded, “I agree with that, but I don’t feel he can do that the best.”
Gray said he didn’t mind getting woken up at 3 a.m., that was part of the job, as was anything else that enabled him to help the people of Dade County. “My job description covers everything,” he said.
This series of Democrat vs. Republican debates was to have wound up this week with a final forum Tuesday at the American Legion.