Early voting began Monday in the Nov. 5 special election.
Matt Laughridge, Dwight Pullen and Christopher G. Nesmith attended the WBHF AM 1450 forum Monday night to field questions on topics ranging from education, economic growth, taxes and general quality of life from staff members of WBHF, the Daily Tribune News and the Cherokee Tribune.
Candidate Nicole Ebbeskotte of Woodstock replied at the time the forum was set that she had another engagement and Bruce Thompson of White decided Monday he could not attend.
Yet another candidate, Dean Sheridan, dropped out of the race Saturday, saying that he was worried the conservative vote would be split if he stayed in.
Laughridge is also awaiting a final decision from a judge expected in the next few days about whether or not his bid for the office is legal, after a Canton resident filed a complaint with the state alleging that the candidate had not lived in the district for a full year required by Georgia’s Constitution.
The three candidates who attended the forum Monday night had plenty to talk about.
The highly controversial topic of Common Core Standards, which have drawn political rifts throughout the state of Georgia in recent months,
was one of the first issues up for discussion by the candidates.
Nesmith, of Adairsville, was first to speak on the topic and said “time will tell” if the program is effective, but he would like more of a consensus before moving forward indefinitely with the standards.
“It hasn’t been really proven,” Nesmith said. “Have we been reduced to teaching tests? I think everyone would agree we’ve gotten to that point. We need to make it a little more personal and a little less like shuffling people through an assembly line.”
Pullen, the former superintendent of schools in Chattooga County, said some standards are needed, though he’s not sure if Common Core was the right way to go.
“You’re going to have to have standards,” said Pullen, a Canton candidate. “I’m not sure Common Core is the best we can have. We need to have rigorous standards for all students. I’m concerned as an educator when I get a student that transfers from another part of Georgia and they come in and they can’t keep up with the students we already have because there’s holes in their education. We need some statewide standards.”
Pullen added the school districts within state Senate District 14 were all performing well because they took state standards and added to them on the local level. Full funding is also important to schools, he said.
Cartersville candidate Laughridge said Common Core Standards were a “one- size-fits-all” brand of education.
“You put it on and it never fits,” he said. “All kids are going to learn differently. We need to get into a competitive spirit making sure our local teachers are able to get away from the shackles of assessments and regulations that keep them from creating a culture that’s going to give a kid individuality.”
Considering the conflicts going on in Washington, D.C. over the Affordable Health Care Act and the debt ceiling, the candidates were asked how they would work outside their party to accomplish goals in the best interest of the district as a whole.
Laughridge said the situation in Washington was “pathetic.”
“I use that (term) not cautiously; you have no leadership when you can’t get anything done,” he said. “The definition of a leader is having people follow you. And that goes to working with individuals that disagree with you also.”
Nesmith, the only Democrat in the non-partisan race, said he recently went to speak at a Canton Tea Party function because he believes in respecting different views.
“Lo and behold, guess what, they’re people, too,” he said. “We’re all people that want pretty much the same thing. Now, we may disagree. You might say this is a hostile territory, but really, no, it’s not. Spirited debate, not some foaming-at-the-mouth type argument, is probably going to be the most helpful thing.”
Pullen said he knew how to work with others.
“Well, you know God gives us all gifts and talents, and one of the talents he’s given me is the ability to talk to people and work with people,” he said. “We’re going to have to reach across the aisle and find solutions to our problems. But our biggest problem reaching across the aisle today is: people have lost their common sense. Where is common sense in Washington today?”
Pullen said politicians should look to former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to learn how to communicate outside party lines.
“Why can’t our leaders today take lessons from those two and work with each other instead of causing problems and trying to blame the other side?,” he asked.
The candidates spent Monday night discussing the economic development of District 14, which covers parts of Cherokee, Bartow and Cobb counties.
For Pullen, a big factor in economic development is education.
“We need to make sure that we’re producing quality graduates from our school system so that homegrown companies or companies that are trying to relocate will have quality individuals to perform the tasks that they need to perform,” he said. “If we’re producing quality graduates, we’ll get quality jobs. We need to look at impediments. We need to find out what’s being done to keep industry from coming in or keeping them from prospering.”
Pullen said taking care of things like parks and recreation, mental health and health care facilities would bring business.
“A wonderful community will attract wonderful business and industry,” he said. “Everything works together.”
Nesmith agreed there are things keeping business from coming in.
“(Pullen) talks about impediments and I’m inclined to agree,” he said.
Nesmith said he saw this earlier this year when a tornado came through Adairsville, leaving in its path a long line of destroyed businesses.
“What we found was some of those businesses weren’t going to come back,” he said. “And maybe (that’s) by design, because fees attached to the business license and the rebuilding permits and so forth stood in the way. Those are things that are impediments.”
Laughridge said there is no “one simple answer.”
Instead, the candidate said it’s a “tie-in” with factors like infrastructure, transportation, ease of living and education keeping the ground “fertile” for business.
The candidates asked if the state income tax could be done away with or reduced.
Laughridge said the state could “get rid of it.”
“I think we can go to a fair tax,” he said. “I think we can get rid of (income tax) and make sure we can bring in more businesses and people to come in the community and live.”
Pullen was more skeptical about the possibility.
“I would want to know what we’re going to replace it with,” he said. “If we’re looking at some sort of consumption tax, I could support that.”
At the end of the day, though, Pullen said the state has to bring in money.
“The bottom line is: it takes X number of dollars to run the state,” he said. “If we don’t get it from income tax, we’re going to get it from sales tax or property tax or somewhere. Personally, I think consumption tax is more fair.”
Nesmith said consumption taxes aren’t exactly “fair.”
“Let’s just be honest —it’s a terrible idea,” he said. “A sales tax is a regressive tax. It’s the kind of tax that falls disproportionately on the lowest income earners. Eighty percent of Georgians would see a tax increase with that, and that’s the bottom 80 percent. People are going to purchase elsewhere. In the long run, it’s a very bad idea to replace (state income tax) with a sales tax.”
At the close of the forum, each candidate was given a chance to ask their challengers a direct question.
Laughridge asked Pullen about his past with the under-performing Chattooga County School District, where he served as superintendent.
“Chattooga has failed in all performance categories,” Laughridge said. “How can the voters trust you on this matter of education, and job creation, since they tie in so well together?”
Pullen said Laughridge wasn’t looking at the right numbers.
“Mr. Laughridge, I think if you’ll look at the test scores prior to me getting there and the test scores when I left, I don’t think that you could call it failed,” Pullen said. “While they are not performing as well as we would like them to, there was a great deal of improvement there.”
Pullen said after the forum that high rates of methamphetamine use and teen pregnancies plagued the area, as did a lack of teachers available.
Nesmith asked both Laughridge and Pullen if elected, would they chose to work with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is an national organization composed of state legislators, business partners and other entities who model legislation.
Laughridge wasn’t sure what Nesmith was asking him but later said he would rather work with local officials.
Pullen also said he’d rather work locally.