Advance Adairsville Inc. -- a nonprofit civic group formed last year to support, promote and engage in organizations and activities aimed at bettering the city -- sponsored Tuesday a public debate in the auditorium of Adairsville High School. The event featured the contenders for State House District 14 and State Senate District 52; the former race features Republican Christian Coomer facing Democrat Dan Ledford, while the latter has Democrat Mike Burton squaring off against Republican Barry Loudermilk.
The first question Coomer and Ledford faced asked the two how they would be better suited to serve the people of District 14 given their lack of experience in state politics. Coomer, an attorney from Cartersville, said that in addition to bringing to the table the experience of being a small business owner, he has demonstrated "a long-time capacity for listening," and from that, experience with working with people one might not always agree with.
"As a member of the Bar, I have plenty of opportunity to work with people that I don't agree with on many issues and to work with those people in very emotionally charged situations and still work productively and come to reasonable solutions that people can live with," Coomer said. "That's what it's going to take, that's the kind of mentality it's going to take [in the Legislature] -- a kind of person who can listen and work constructively with people, even though you don't agree with every little minutiae, every detail of some particular issue."
Ledford, a Euharlee resident who works as an account specialist, said he brings with him 32 years of customer service experience in one facet or another, a career that has had him dealing with people from all income levels.
"I understand that there are fears right now, I understand people are scared and worried. So am I because I work an average job just like a lot of people, and I'm blessed to still have a job, but that doesn't mean I'll still have it next week ... or next month. We need to do things that are going to ensure that that doesn't happen, that we create more jobs and stabilize the jobs system," Ledford said, adding if elected, he hopes to hold open town hall meetings online once a month and devote time to his constituents.
Forum panelists Gary Floyd and Wade Wilson presented to the candidates questions provided to them by audience members. The two throughout the night said they received several questions on a few choice topics -- their first inquiry to Burton and Loudermilk combined several audience questions on the topic of education.
Burton, a retired teacher from Cave Spring, said one of his education proposals involved suspending Local Option Sales Taxes, and after their expiration, until the state economy gets back to where it once was, raise the state sales tax by 1 percent and use the extra funds to boost education funding. The shift, he said, would not involve raising taxes.
"Before I gut education, I would strip the gold off the [state capitol's] dome in Atlanta," Burton said. "If we gut education, we have our kids go to school 146 days like they're doing in some counties, they're going four days a week but they're having an extended day. All of us who are in education, all of us who have been students, know that that is very difficult to learn if you have to extend the day -- you get overwhelmed with information, you get tired. This is not an effective way to educate kids in the state of Georgia."
Loudermilk, a Cassville resident who owns two small businesses in northwest Georgia and served as the state representative for District 14 before qualifying to run for Senate, said his answer to the education issue was to give school districts more local control.
"I've made the statement in the past that class sizes, I think, should be decided by the local communities. We've gotten into an era in education to where we have tried to make 'one size fits all.' We have our own culture. People learn differently in the United States than they do overseas -- foreign models have not worked in the United States," Loudermilk said, adding that he also felt students were being overtested, citing the administration of both end-of-course tests and the Georgia High School Graduation Tests to high schoolers.
Transportation was a topic all candidates had a chance to expand upon. Coming up in their talks on the issue was the U.S. 411 connector, a proposed four-lane highway that would connect U.S. 411 at the U.S. 41 interchange with Interstate 75 near its intersection with Georgia 20. The topic had candidates for one office voicing disagreements with the stances of candidates from the other.
"The 411 connector has to be done, and it has to be done now," Loudermilk said. "There's a lot of discussion about changing the route. There's a problem with that -- one, if we change that route, we lose our federal funding, it goes back to square one, and in the conversations I've had with the Department of Transportation, we've spent too many millions of dollars over the past 20 years dealing with this, and if we don't build it now, it's not going to happen. And if we change the route right now, we're going to lose the 411 connector.
"The other problem with the new proposed route by the Rollins family, is it would impact 94 private homes, instead of one family's hunting property. So we have to really look at things realistically," Loudermilk added.
Ledford said he has studied the 411 connector issue and feels that the current route proposed by the state, route D-VE, is not the best choice.
"The current route that GDOT proposes is right now $280 million. It involves six to seven bridges, it involves an interchange that is not user-friendly. ... Route G would only cost about $110 million. You're talking about a difference of $170 million of taxpayer money, which has to come from somewhere to finish Route D-VE," Ledford said.
"What GDOT told me was simple -- they said the only reason why they don't want to do Route G basically, bottom line, was because it's 3 miles north and it's going to take 24 more seconds to travel, and they said no one would use it, while everybody I've talked to have said that if it's there, they would use it," he added. "It's a more direct route, it's going to save taxpayers [money] ... and we can reinvest those funds into other things -- job incentives, back into education, and into other roads."
Burton said he has watched state officials try to move forward on the connector project for 30 years, adding that his interest in the transportation issue lies in a light rail system.
"I'm very interested in a rail system. I think that right now we have a major problem in our carbon footprint," Burton said, adding that current infrastructure and the lack of local farms has the state requiring trucks to go to California to pick up produce that could perhaps be grown locally.
"The light rail that I've talked about before, wouldn't it be great to have something going from Cartersville to Atlanta, so that when I got on there, when I've got a job down there, I can get my laptop out, I can do a little work, I can read the newspaper, and I arrive in Atlanta, Ga., and I am fresh. Can you imagine that?" he added. "We need to plan for the future -- we need something that's going to help us save our resources so we're not so dependent on foreign oil, and save our environment."
"I think light rail's a great idea ... the problem is cost -- how do you pay for it?" Coomer said. "The money comes from my pocket and your pocket. That is money that we as taxpayers have to fork out to pay for light rail, because light rail does not pay for itself. Even when the light rail is built and it starts moving people up and down the system, anywhere in the world, it has not generated enough revenue to pay for itself -- it has always had to be paid for by taxpayer subsidies.
"I do not believe in burdening taxpayers further. We're taxed enough already. We cannot afford every pie-in-the-sky project that comes down the line," Coomer added. "It sounds like a great idea, that would be a wonderful idea if we had the money, [but] we don't have the money."
Voting for the general election began Monday, and will run weekdays until Oct. 29 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Bartow County Voter Registration Office, 105 North Bartow St. in Cartersville. The Cartersville Civic Center will become a second polling place in the county the week of Oct. 25 when advanced voting is rolled out there; its hours of operation also will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
All county polling locations will be open Tuesday, Nov. 2, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.