Moore, who took office in February after a special election, is going against Meagan Biello, a Cherokee school teacher, and Wes Cantrell, a young adult pastor in Woodstock, for the District 22 seat. The district includes parts of Cherokee and Forsyth counties and a small piece of Fulton.
The forum, held last Monday at the Historic Cherokee County Courthouse, was hosted by the Cherokee County Republican Women.
The candidates are competing in the primary for the Republican nomination, and whoever takes the nomination will sail into office, because no candidates from other parties have signed on to run in November. The May election could lead to a runoff.
While many people, and fellow lawmakers, have criticized Moore since he took office, he spoke to the crowd of a few dozen with pride of his brief time in office.
“In the short time I was there, I sponsored bills that covered the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Amendments. I voted against the budget that increased spending 5 percent. I turned down the benefits, I turned down all the lobbyists’ gifts, food, everything else like that. I’m beholden only to the voters,” said Moore, 37, a lifelong Cherokee County resident and Georgia Tech grad.
Moore’s criticism has mostly come from a bill that critics decried as a danger to children, because it would have overturned the law restricting sex offenders from going to schools, daycares and other places where children are. Moore has said the bill was misunderstood, though he originally said he didn’t see the danger in sex offenders who served their time simply being present at such places. Dangerous offenders should be in jail, he said.
Biello, who lost to Moore in the special election, said she works in the district, raises her kids in the district, and has “skin in the game” when it comes to seeing it succeed. The University of Georgia grad and 32-year-old mother added she wants to listen to the constituents and be “an effective leader, who can work with others to get our conservative values taken into account.”
Cantrell, 52, one of the founders of Woodstock Christian school King’s Academy, said he wanted to “restore” the legacy of the late Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Canton). Moore was elected to finish Hill’s unexpired term after the longtime lawmaker died in October.
The pastor, a former teacher and father, also noted his support of term limits and his ability to be effective.
“I know how to work with people and get things done,” he said.
Pressing issues, Common core
With a wealth of challenges ahead for District 22, the candidates were asked to name the most important one.
For Biello, it’s a combination of education, economy and transportation, which she said are intertwined.
“I feel like we need to work on how we prepare these students to be productive citizens in this country,” she said. “We also need to maintain and expand our infrastructure to support job growth, to support local businesses.”
Cantrell was quick to answer.
“The most important issue facing our district is the economy,” he said. “We need to create jobs.”
He added that new businesses need to be drawn in to increase the tax base, benefiting rates.
Moore said the biggest hurdle for District 22 to jump was the federal government, and he countered Cantrell’s idea about job creation.
“The government doesn’t create jobs; the government destroys them. At best it’s neutral. If you want to have jobs, then get out of the way,” he said.
Moore said he also wants less government in education. Asked about his stance on Common Core standards, Moore said he was against “any sort of top-down mandates.”
“What we need is local control of education, local school boards saying what standards we want, what sort of textbooks we want,” the incumbent said.
Biello, though, said Common Core is misunderstood.
She said her experience as a teacher has shown her the standards, which are similar in many states, can be valuable when students move from out of state into Georgia. Students are learning consistent material and can pass required course completion tests.
But she added: “I am not in favor of a top-down approach to education. I believe that if we opt into something we need to see it through and see if it’s effective. It becomes cost prohibitive at some point to continue to change.”
Cantrell said he wasn’t willing to “hurt the majority of the students” for the benefit of kids moving into town. He said he wanted local control of the standards.
“When I say local, I mean the person who’s sitting next to the student doing homework at night,” he said.
Curriculum decisions, Cantrell said, shouldn’t be made by “bureaucrats at the state Capitol or in Washington D.C.”
Taking each other to task
While the candidates did take time to discuss issues of importance to District 22, it didn’t take long for Moore’s time in office to come up.
Cantrell questioned Moore’s “leadership.”
“We essentially have an empty seat chair representing us right now, because of Mr. Moore’s introduction of the anti-loitering bill,” Cantrell said. “He may have been treated unfairly; I don’t know all the details about that.”
Cantrell was referring to House Bill 1033, Moore’s harshly shot-down proposal that would have lessened restrictions on sex offenders.
The bill was originally intended to make it so law enforcement could never force people to identify themselves. Due to a complicated web of existing legislation, the bill would have done away with the crime of loitering and ended the ban on sex offenders going to schools, daycares and other places with children.
Moore has since claimed the public backlash was due to the media and an ambush by fellow lawmakers, who criticized him on the floor of the House.
Moore was asked to respond to Cantrell’s insinuation that he was now an ineffective legislator.
“Most states, you don’t have the loitering law, including Texas,” Moore responded. “That’s all for my rebuttal.”
Cantrell later responded calling Moore’s rebuttal “misleading.”
“He’s not being straight,” Cantrell told the crowd. “He says Texas doesn’t have loitering laws. That is accurate, but municipalities in Texas do have loitering laws.”
Moore’s proposed bill, which he withdrew, would have barred municipalities from having loitering laws.
Asked to respond to Cantrell again, Moore shook his head.
“It’d be a broken record,” he said.
Cantrell also answered to criticism when an audience question asked him why he didn’t vote in the February special election for the seat he is seeking.
“I looked at the options we had, and frankly I wasn’t pleased,” he said. “I’ve talked to many, many voters in my district who sincerely regret the vote they cast in the special election, because they did not understand what was about to happen.”
Cantrell added he pulled the voting records of Moore and Biello, and he had voted in more primaries than they had in the last decade.
When the candidates were able to ask their opponents a question, Moore asked Cantrell about a rumor he heard about children from the school Cantrell helped start going around telling voters Moore introduced a bill allowing sex offenders at schools.
Cantrell said if kids are doing that, they aren’t doing it with his campaign’s permission.
“We specifically instruct our team not to speak of (other candidates),” he said. “I for a fact do not believe that to be true. The story’s been told to me three times now. It’s changed every time.”
Cantrell asked Biello why she previously pledged to the Cherokee County Republican Party that she wouldn’t take money from political action committees and then broke that pledge.
“We knew that in order to be effective and to be a good leader, I had to get elected,” Biello answered. “It’s not that I’m compromising my values. I’m not beholden to anyone who gives a donation or makes an investment in this campaign, but it is of the sheer fact that I’m a teacher, and I run in circles with teachers, and we are not a wealthy bunch.”