Nicole Ebbeskotte had previously said she would not be able to attend due to scheduling conflicts, while a representative for Bruce Thompson said a scheduling conflict would keep him from attending as well. Dean Sheridan did not attend as he dropped out of the race last week.
During the nearly 90-minute forum moderated by Kevin Karel, the three candidates answered questions posed by Cherokee Tribune Editor Rebecca Johnston, AM 1450 WBHF Reporter Mike Garcia and The Daily Tribune News Managing Editor Jessica Loeding, as well as questions later asked by the candidates themselves.
Much of the initial discussion focused on how to better education, employment and the local economy, which all three candidates recognized were tied to each other. Laughridge believed the education system needed to work on preparing students entering the job force.
“As a businessman I’ve seen how the educational structure has failed a lot of kids who have come in and asked for a job with us,” said Laughridge, who is a vice president with Terry Reid Kia. “They are not properly prepared not only to speak in an interview, but to dress at the interview itself, and that starts at home as well. That’s also with the culture in the classroom. If we don’t have a good education system for our kids, then we won’t be able to have a fertile land for businesses to know Georgia’s a great place for labor and for growth.”
Laughridge also said education policies needed to be localized. Pullen and Nesmith agreed with localization to an extent. When asked the same question, Pullen said the education system needs additional funding and teachers were in need of a full school schedule to complete their work. Nesmith said he would push to get parents more involved with their child’s schooling.
After three questions alternatively focusing on employment, education and taxes, the three candidates were asked about Georgia’s cutback in mental healthcare, including the closure of mental health care facilities.
Laughridge, the first to answer, said he “doesn’t know the right answer” and he would not sit on the stage and make up an answer. Pullen believed more funds could eventually be funnelled into mental healthcare, but he emphasized it would not involve a tax raise. Nesmith believed it was a problem, and he hoped the state would be able to implement a type of integration program to help mental health care patients function within society.
A later question involved the Legislature’s recent ethics legislation.
“I have a problem with the fact that we have a committee that’s appointed by the executive branch of the government and it’s supposed to supervise the executive branch of government,” Pullen said in response. “I would propose that we have an ethics committee that is 100 percent independent that’s not appointed by any government agency.
“We could fund that through the campaign filing fees. You know, we have over 300 cities in the state. We have over 200 legislative people in the state Legislature. We have 159 counties that have various elected officials. We could fund that easily just by charging modest campaign fees and let them supervise all of us.”
Laughridge believed the ethics committee, now known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, needed to go back to its older, shorter name. He also supported an independent ethics board. Nesmith questioned Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign finances and he believed some things were being done that were “downright dishonest.”
Near the end of the forum, the three men were allowed to ask each other a question. Laughridge, who did not have a question for Nesmith and was unable to ask Thompson his question, asked Pullen why the Chattooga County School System failed in all performance categories when Pullen was in charge. Pullen responded, saying the system’s scores improved while he was in charge, even though the scores were not where they needed to be. He also said principals needed to hold teachers accountable and remove underperforming teachers before they could damage the working environment.
Pullen, in turn, asked Laughridge what his vision of a fair tax was. Laughridge said it would be a transparent tax with no loopholes and a set number. He also believed it would be advantageous and attract businesses.
For Nesmith, Pullen’s question focused on how he would get parents involved with their child’s schooling.
“So, again, if you don’t get that parent involved, part of that may come down to extending that school day to some degree, bringing in more people. If we’re going to add money to education, maybe it doesn’t just need to be more teachers,” said Nesmith. “Maybe it needs to be ways that they can extend the day and engage these students that have nowhere else to go. Maybe it would be enticing enough that other students would want to participate. We don’t even try to enrich them anymore. We’ve become so focused on teaching this standard, this test, this number, this metric, that we’ve lost sight of what it is to create a well-informed human being.”
For his question, Nesmith asked if Laughridge and Pullen would work with the American Legislative Exchange Council. Both men said no, as they preferred to work within their district and listen to their constituents.
During their closing statements, the three men thanked their hosts and urged voters to come out for the special election on Nov. 5.