By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“What’s the difference between a Democrat coroner and a Republican coroner?” an audience member asked coroner candidates Johnny Gray (D) and Danny Hall (R) at a political debate at West Brow, not for the first time.
In that particular instance, Hall answered probably not that much, and Gray talked about his 22 years of experience. But put more broadly – what is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican in Dade County? It is a question that has arisen more than once in this long, hard-fought election, and one the Sentinel thought worthy of a few paragraphs here.
“We’ve always tended to have a one-party system, more or less, locally,” said Tom McMahan, Democratic candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives, at an interview this summer. “It used to be the Democrats. It became the Republicans.”
Indeed, so many candidates in once solidly Democratic Dade ran as Republicans this year that most races were decided in this summer’s party primaries. As Nov. 6 looms nigh, only three local races remain contested: the House seat for which McMahan will face Republican candidate John Deffenbaugh; the part-time coroner position for which Republican Hall is challenging incumbent Democrat Gray; and the sheriff’s slot sought by Republican Ray Cross and Democrat Philip Street amid considerable drama.
So what is the big difference between the parties on the local level? The fact that somebody, somewhere considered it a matter of morality was attested to this June by the advent along Interstate 59 of a huge, in-your-face billboard proclaiming: “Support gay marriage and abortion. Vote Democrat.”
No one came forward to put his or her name to the sign, whose twin soon sprouted up in Walker County as well. Finally an attorney for the person responsible did say publicly that the individual had decided to withdraw it and seek a more positive way to get the message across.
But that message, if negative, was bludgeoning in its clarity despite some pretty disingenuous speculation on local television that the sign was a genuine Democratic campaign plea. The throbbing emotional assertion was that gay marriage and abortion were bad, and Democratic, and thus that voting for Democrats was voting for evil.
The sign was taken down amid a general local feeling that whoever put it up, those weren’t very nice words to have billowing above the thoroughfare; but at debate after debate, the Democratic candidates have faced questions based on the same premise:
“Since you’re running as a Democrat, does that mean you support the DNC’s positions on gay marriage, abortion and gun control?”
By and large, in the face of this implied accusation, the Democratic candidates have not defended their party with any perceptible gusto. Tom McMahan has said over and over it was a matter of voting one’s pocketbook – he is running on education issues and Democrats are more education-friendly than Republicans. Philip Street, meanwhile, explained straight-faced to a Sand Mountain audience that he was running as a Democrat to avoid upsetting his elderly parents.
Sometimes the candidates’ answers have seemed not so much apologetic as automatic. Asked the do-you-believe-in-the-DNC-agenda question, Street replied at New Home. “I don’t believe in gun control. I don’t like the abortion stuff. What was the other one?”
And Tom McMahan, asked the gay marriage question at the American Legion debate, wasn’t touching it, either, answering that he believed marriage was a matter that should be regulated by churches, not the state.
In a couple of instance the anti-Democratic feeling in the air can be traced neatly to a visceral Southern rejection of the Obama presidency: At West Brow, an audience member told McMahan he wouldn’t vote for him because of the Obama sign in his yard; and at the Legion, moderator Dion Bradford rejected as too emotionally land-mined an audience question as to which way the candidates would vote for president.
Sheriff candidate Ray Cross, who defeated incumbent Patrick Cannon in the primary, capitalized on this anti-Obama feeling in his campaign, telling audience after audience that the president would love to take their guns away, that he had signed into law legislation allowing him to declare martial law in peacetime, presumably in order to disarm them, and that Cross himself would defend them against the Feds “if it’s the last thing I do.”
This seems rhetorical, and far-fetched – a Head River man asked Cross what evidence he had that Sam planned to invade Dade County – and the Sentinel was in any case looking for more basic Democrat v. Republican stuff. Here is some:
“I believe in the Republican values,” said John Deffenbaugh at the American Legion. “I believe in fiscal conservatism. I believe in a balanced budget. I believe in free enterprise. I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. I believe that abortion is limited to saving the life of the mother.”
It was a pretty thorough litany, though most of those issues are not local, and though as opponent McMahan pointed out, in Georgia, balancing the budget is not an issue at all: by law, the state’s budget must be balanced, he said.
So the Sentinel combed its notes for a similar statement in the opposition, and came up with this one, from McMahan. “It’s just a philosophy that says on the one hand, for the Republican Party, that if we take care of the wealthiest, most powerful among us, then the benefits will trickle down from them to the rest of us,” said McMahan. “The Democratic approach has always been to be more about focusing on working people, middle-class people … making investments in education, taking care of our roads, that sort of thing, and that benefits all society, it doesn’t just benefit a few.”
But in Dade, both sides can plausibly claim fiscal conservatism as well as the other kind, nobody is talking about reproductive or gay rights, and only a political suicide would profess to be unconcerned about the plight of working people.
The issue is blurred, moreover, by the fact that in time-lapse exposure the players are not just similar but the same gang: Patrick Cannon defeated Sheriff Philip Street in the 2004 Democratic primary, then lost to Ray Cross in this year’s Republican primary. Dade’s Republican county executive, Ted Rumley, was not that long ago a Democratic district commissioner.
He’s not alone – many, many Dade elephants began life as donkeys. Longtime incumbents like Tax Commissioner Jane Moreland explain their continuing Democracy as habit – “I’m not just one to switch parties, go back and forth” – but in Ms. Moreland’s a relevant element may be that she is running unopposed.
So what are parties even for in this setting? Here’s another McMahan quote: “At the local level, political parties are primarily civic groups whose purpose it is to go out and find candidates to run for office.”
In sum, more a matter of function than of ideology. Though party affiliation figures prominently in the national arena, said McMahan, it is less significant at the state level, where most business is functional as opposed to partisan, and even less so on the county scene. “The closer you get to the local, to where you live, the more functional it gets and the less partisan it gets,” he said. “I don’t know of a Democratic or Republican way of being sheriff.”
Or, as Johnny Gray put it on another occasion when he was asked – yet again – what a Democratic coroner would do differently from a Republican one: