The questions posed to candidates who hope to fill the vacant 16th district covered the gamut from gun control, faith, lobbyists, the Savannah Port, same-sex marriage, Fayette’s possible membership in the Three Rivers regional system and what their feelings were on faith, family and the TEA party.
When it came right down to answering questions, there wasn’t a lot of difference among Fayette County attorney David Studdard; Griffin attorney William Johnston; Tea Party activist Marty Harbin; conservative Peachtree City resident James Clifton; Fayette County builder D.R. “Bob” Barnard; Peachtree City-based project manager Erick A. Manning; and Tyrone resident and pilot Gil B. Williams, with all six maintaining a solidly conservative front. At one point, candidate Harbin noted that “I hate to say it, but you can’t really make a bad choice here.”
One of the most vigorous topics of conversation of late has been House Bill 60, called the Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014 and the “guns everywhere bill” moniker it received from opponents. The recently signed bill specifies where Georgia residents to carry weapons and includes a provision for concealed carry permits for churches, school zones, government buildings, specific areas of airports, and bars. Additionally, according to the legislation, “a person carrying a weapon shall not be subject to detention for the sole purpose of investigating whether such person has a weapons carry license.” So the question about each candidate’s stance on HB 60 wasn’t a surprise to audience members or candidates.
“The second amendment is incredibly important as it protects us from the government,” said Clifton. “You really have to look at the amendments to weigh that out. I think the final version of the bill, which says churches can decide for themselves is a happy medium.” He also noted there was a Supreme Court decision which backed the portion of the bill stopping authorities from detaining a person.
“Our right to bear arms has nothing to do with hunting, it has everything to do with defending ourselves,” said Harbin.
“I support the bill totally because you should not be subject to not being able to protect yourself. And when a person has a weapon on him, he shouldn’t be stopped and searched for no reason. There’s no sense to that at all.”
Manning also agreed, saying the bill “protects property rights. If the property owner doesn’t want to have a gun there, they don’t have it.”
Studdard pointed to his time as a firearms instructor with the Atlanta police department, noting he was a big proponent of the second amendment.
“I’ve been a defense attorney, I’ve been a prosecutor, so I’ve seen both sides of it. As an officer, it might make me nervous a little bit. I’m a police officer, I want to watch them a little bit. You have the right to wear a weapon openly and not be harassed or intimidate or approached by law enforcement.”
Williams, as a former member of the military and current Pentagon senior liaison to NATO, also fully supported the bill.
“Challenges come as to who can carry and who can’t and we have to fight those off tooth and nail and never allow that right to be challenged.”
“I’m in full support of the second amendment,” said Barnard. “It’s very important to provide protection for our families. There are good people carrying guns for protection. Bad guys don’t care about laws. If they walk in a room and they think possibly that room is loaded with a bunch of guns, than they may think twice about what they’re doing.”
Candidate William Johnston was a latecomer to the debate, missing several of the initial questions asked candidates.
The candidates were also asked how faith factored into their decision to run and how they viewed the integration of your faith into their responsibilities.
Each candidate noted that, though they realize their own personal faith can’t interfere with how duties are carried out, each admitted they would also be influenced by their beliefs as they navigated their way through the Senate.
Another point of agreement for all six candidates was whether they were members of the Tea Party. Each pointed out that though not card-carrying members of the party, they identified strongly with its political stance of turning the country back to the people and the rights of local government.
“We have to take what is rightfully ours as citizens,” said Barnard.
“My views align very closely with the Tea Party,” said Clifton, pointing out that the Founding Fathers wrote [the constitution] with a purpose to carry out and, “through the years that has been undermined by Supreme Court divisions, big government, lobbying, and big business.”
Harbin noted that he took the stage in Peachtree City on April 15, 2009 talking about taxation.
“It has been said that the power to tax is the power to destroy. If we don’t speak and stand up we will be destroyed and enslaved. We believe in freedom. We believe in the constitution. We believe in limited government and we can do it better than the government. It’s time to tell the federal government we created them, they didn’t create us.”
“I’m not a member of the Tea Party, I’m a member of the Republican party. I believe much of what I’ve read and I agree with 100 percent. It’s based on the constitution. Who in the room doesn’t believe in the constitution?” asked Johnston. “It’s the oldest document in the history of the world for purposes of a continued government. I support everything in it. I’m against everything that’s going on in Washington. I think we need to do a clean out in Washington. Everybody up there needs to go home. We need term limits. This wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were supposed to send them up there, then they go home and go to work. We need to send them home to work.”
“I’m in complete agreement with the Tea Party,” said Manning. “We’re taxed enough already. I think it’s time to embrace the Tea Party members coming on board here. I think they bring a lot of value, a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
“I’m a conservative Republican,” said Studdard, “and if that’s a Tea Party person than I’m aligned with them. What the Tea Party did was reignite a passion and debate in this country about what the federal government’s role is in our everyday life. I’m not interested in going back. I’m interested in going forward. This is the greatest country on the face of the earth that will ever be. I’m interested in lifting everybody up. We have to figure out how to get everybody on board.”
Williams pointed out that “I’m an American. All this party, that party-- I think it divides us. And I think that’s wrong. We have to be able to work with all parties. I’m a pragmatist. When I look at an issue, I’m a critical thinker. If the Republican Party says something I don’t agree with, I’m not going along. It doesn’t have a monopoly on great ideas. We have to take great ideas from all parties, regardless of where they are. That’s what the military taught me. Don’t take things on face value. Take what’s good and leave what’s bad.”
Candidates were also asked whether they would support or oppose Fayette membership in three rivers regional commission?
“Anytime we go into another group of people with regional control, we lose local control,” said Harbin. “We have to be very careful not to jump into something that looks good and end up with the short end of the stick. We’ve seen that with T-SPLOST, when the ARC was taking our money and we weren’t sure what we were going to get back. What do I have control over as a district or a county?”
“My understanding is that some people in the county want to be in it and some do not. I don’t think it’s something that needs to be left up to the voters, I think it’s something that the county commission has to decide,” noted Johnston. “You elected people you trust and I believe they have to make that decision. I think they’ve decided they don’t want to be in it. I don’t know enough about it, but I’ll tell you it’s important. It’s important because of the future of transportation and other things that have to do with the port and highway system. And it’s important to Fayette’s industry and people. I would say there needs to be some very difficult study done and the county commission will come up with the right answer.”
“Before making any decision, we have to talk to all sides and hear the positions, because everyone has walked a mile in their own shoes and until you do that you can’t make a decision on just a few facts,” said Manning. “I would have to ask constituents.”
“It’s a complicated issue, but here’s what I know,” Studdard answered. “Progressives and liberals love regionalism. That tells me I don’t like it. I had a very wise law school professor and he gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever had and it overlays every issue. Forget about everything else and follow the money and you will understand what’s going on. If you follow the money on these regional issues, it will all come to light. I’m not for it, I haven’t been convinced that Fayette needs to be involved in any regional commission. We were forced to join the ARC and we’re a long way from the capitol and we’re a long way from the northern counties. As a baseline proposition, liberals love it and I do not like it.”
“My mom would always say ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’. When you see something like this, you have to look at it critically, weigh the pros and cons and when all the facts come in, that’s when you make your decision. We have to get the facts. What’s the end game,” Williams said. “In the military, that’s all we talk about. What’s the desired end? We start with that and put the plan forth. If the plan doesn’t get to the end dire, I’m not going to move forward and the plan is dead in the water.”
“This regionalism thing---it usually is a very liberal thing. There is one important thing we have to remember,” said Barnard. “You have your friends close, but hold your enemies closer. We’re not involved in creating it the way we want it done and we’ll have no say-so in it and it will go on whether we want it or not. We have to be at the table to help create the direction it goes.”
“Regionalism isn’t going to work,” said Clifton. “Local control is always going to be the best answer. Leave it up to the counties. We don’t need to be lumped in the region. Has anybody looked at the ARC budget? It’s ludicrous spending on absolutely nothing. If you looked into the T-SPLOST proposal, you would know why it was voted down so tremendously. We need to have somebody at the state capitol who will stand up for local control.”
Candidates answered questions officially for almost two hours and then stayed on hand to talk individually with the audience.