MARIETTA — Four Republican candidates for Georgia governor shed some light on their political platforms Tuesday night at a debate sponsored by the Cobb County Republican Women’s Club.
They shed some heat, too, mostly directed toward former state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, who was the target of several attacks from his opponents.
The four candidates were Hill; businessman Clay Tippins; state Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, and Marc Urbach, a Dunwoody resident who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016. The other three Republican candidates, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and restaurant owner Eddie Hayes, were not available to attend, according to moderator and Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Galloway.
The night got off to a rowdy start during the opening comments, when Williams, rather than introducing himself, unloaded on the Cobb Republican Women for asking his wife to leave the audience.
“One thing that you will learn about me is that I am very direct and very bold,” he said. “I have to say right now that I am highly offended. I have been up here watching as my wife was asked to leave this audience because my child was making a noise. She was not being disruptive, she was making a noise. I am doing this with the support of my family because I love my family, and if my family is not welcome here, I will get up and leave. I am so glad my wife walked back in here because it was uncalled for that to happen.”
Attendees reported the child was crying and was a distraction for the people in the audience as well as viewers watching via Cobb TV channel 23.
The other candidates took the opening opportunity to lay out their biographies. Urbach cast himself as a political outsider in the mold of President Donald Trump.
In Tippins’ opening statement, he called himself an outsider, referred to his military service, referenced the Bible and said he wants to cut the national debt.
Hill cast himself as the true conservative in the race.
The candidates were asked a series of questions by a panel of political experts. The subjects ranged from religious liberty to medical marijuana, but most questions ended with at least one candidate, usually Williams, attacking Hill.
The complaints were about topics running the gamut from gun rights to lactation consultants, but Hill maintained a calm demeanor throughout the night.
The first question came from political science professor and director of Kennesaw State University’s School of Government and International Affairs Kerwin Swint. He asked how the candidates would balance the desires of big businesses with those of more conservative voters.
Hill said he thinks Georgia can satisfy both groups.
“Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” he said. “We believe in God-given rights. We need to be sure we defend them because the reality is when you talk about less government, less taxes and more freedom, when you talk about the values that made our country great, they made us prosperous. They need to be stood up for and defended so we can continue our prosperity. I think that we can have both the protection of our constitutional God-given rights and economic prosperity, in fact, I believe in having a more limited and focused government that delivers results for taxpayers.”
Hill said he would attract businesses by eliminating state income tax, investing in infrastructure and pushing school choice.
Tippins took a swipe at Lt. Gov. Cagle, the frontrunner in the race.
“Let me talk about what I think the right role of business and political leadership is,” he said. “Businesses shouldn't dabble in politics. They should focus on making their customers happy and providing great service. Leaders, on the other hand, shouldn't pick winners and losers in business within the political sector. That's what was troubling to me about the Delta NRA flap. I think both went on, I think Delta decided to exercise a political opinion and I think the lieutenant governor turned that into a quid pro quo transaction and intervened in the marketplace.”
Tippins said his plan to attract businesses to Georgia involves improving the regulatory environment and lowering taxes. He also said he thinks Hill’s plan to eliminate income tax would not be feasible without greatly increasing sales tax.
Urbach touted his experience as a small businessman as a sports photographer in Austin, Texas.
“I'm possibly one of the most morally upright business people you will ever find,” he said. “I always carry the Bible with me everywhere I go. The citizens of Georgia, the Constitution, we the people of Georgia, are the first branch of government, and as your governor, you will have full transparency so you the people of Georgia will see all the records that will bring in large corporations such as Amazon. You have a say in this. This is your government.”
Urbach said he will cut regulations for small businesses if elected.
Williams took the first of several opportunities to attack Hill.
“I don't believe the two have to be separate,” he said. “I believe very strongly we can protect our social issues, our 1st Amendment freedom of religion, that's why I sponsored the religious freedom bill that was in the Senate. I also feel that government does not need to be out there picking winners and losers, that they have a very limited scope. Unlike Hunter, who talks about the limited role of government, it got mentioned in the last debate, that he voted for a bill that would allow for eminent domain for economic development purposes, so again, if Amazon or any other company like that wanted to come into the state of Georgia, the state of Georgia could take your property under the guise of economic development because Hunter Hill voted for the eminent domain bill.”
Williams held up a copy of the bill he had brought.
Hill said Williams was mischaracterizing the bill. He called it a small government solution and said it applied to houses in blighted areas.
APPEALING TO MINORITIES
The next question came from the national committee woman for the Republican party of Georgia, Ginger Howard, who asked what the candidates would do to bring new voters to the GOP, particularly minorities.
Tippins and Hill said their conservative ideals would produce results that would please voters of any background.
“I served in a lot of color blind organizations, businesses, the Navy SEALS, so I think we can have a governor that resonates with all voters in the state of Georgia,” Tippins said. “Number two, if you look at the accomplishments that are coming out of Washington D.C. right now, the tax cut bill, 3 percent growth, we haven't seen 3 percent growth in over 10 years. I think these are things that are good for all Georgians.”
Tippins gave the example of early childhood education as a priority that would help all Georgians.
Hill also touted his military background in his answer.
“I define leadership as moving a diverse group of people forward toward a common goal, whether it was playing football in high school and college or taking my troops on my three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “People came from all walks of life. Leadership is about taking a diverse group of people and moving them toward a common goal, so the first thing you've got to do is cast that vision that is that common goal, and then you can move people towards it... We can cast that vision to people of all different walks of life, and I believe we can win that argument.”
Williams gave a similar answer, then he clapped back at Hill.
“We have to have an ear to listen to their concerns,” Williams said. “One of the things that I have prided myself on as a state senator is going to events that are led by Democrats so I can sit down, so I can listen to them. I think another very important aspect is actually having a leader in the governor’s office that stands up, fights and defends our conservative values because our conservative values cross party lines, especially when you talk about economic freedom, freedom of religion and freedom of government… I don't know if y'all just heard, but from Hunter Hill's mouth, he believes that eminent domain for economic development purposes is part of a limited government. I don't know about y'all, but that is not my interpretation of a limited government.”
Urbach called the government a vicious machine to oppress the people.
“I love talking to all types of people,” he said. “We need to realize here in Georgia that both parties, the political system is broken. We're dealing with a bunch of people in the Gold Dome and other statehouses across this nation where they have an R or a D in front of their name, but honestly, they act like oligarchs. They act like a vicious machine to oppress the people. So Georgians need to realize, they need to put a G in front of their name, we're all Georgians, they need to put an A in front of their name, we're all Americans.”
He added that, as governor, he would be willing to sit down with all types of people, even Democrats.
The candidates were then questioned by GOP activist Justin Tomczak, who asked what they would do to advance school choice.
Urbach said public schools were created by the founding fathers to protect citizens against the tyrannical governments.
“And that's exactly what we have,” he said. “To say that Common Core has crushed our schools and our students' minds is an understatement.”
Williams also went after Common Core, then he went after Hill again.
“Now Hunter is going to talk to you about his education savings account, but I want to draw your attention to that bill because on lines 155 through 160, it actually advocates for bringing Common Core into private schools,” Williams said. “If you believe in eliminating Common Core, you cannot support the education savings account that Hunter Hill introduced into legislation.”
Replied Hill: “I appreciate Sen. Williams being the second signer on that bill, he was a co-sponsor. But the bottom line is we have to improve and infuse the free market principle of competition into K-12 education, because that's how we're going to elevate all boats.”
Williams wasn’t having that.
“Had Hunter not quit being a senator and not gone after his own ambitions, he would have known that I withdrew my name from that bill when I figured out what it was doing,” he said.
Tippins said all of the Republican candidates agree on school choice and Common Core, but work also needs to be done to improve the state’s public schools.
“In addition to providing market-based choice competition in education, we've got to also, this is the twin tower next to it, reform our public school system as well,” he said. “There are some real things that are problematic we need to address.”
He said those things include low wages for teachers and the state’s teacher pension fund, which is underfunded.
The next question came from Galloway, who asked whether the candidates would favor expanding the state’s medical marijuana program to cover more conditions in light of a University of Georgia study finding states with medical marijuana saw less opioid abuse.
“Absolutely, this past legislative session, I actually introduced a bill that would allow for the growing, processing, distribution and cultivation of medical marijuana to those who need it,” said Williams.
Williams said expanding the program would help people with post-traumatic stress disorder and help fight the opioid crisis. He said he's talked to people who have been helped by cannabis oil and was moved by their stories, then he went after Hill once more for good measure.
“Just to drive home this point one last time, when Hunter talks about limited government, understand again, here's another bill he voted on,” Williams said. “Lactation consultants!”
Williams was likely referring to legislation Hill voted for that required lactation consultants, who help new mothers breastfeed their babies, to register with the state.
Hill didn’t bite on that one.
“As a three-combat-tour veteran, I understand there are soldiers that have PTSD, they go through the VA, they get a ridiculous amount, basically a cocktail of drugs that don't deliver any results,” Hill said. “I also understand that Obamacare really drove the opioid crisis because it incentivized hospitals to manage the pain of folks in their hospitals above all else, so people were becoming addicted to opioids while in their hospital stays.”
Hill said he supports medical cannabis oil, but cautiously.
“I think we need to continue to look at options to expand it, but I'm not in favor of violating federal law and order to do so,” he said. “I think we need to proceed with caution on this issue, and that's why I would work as governor to get Congress to remove it from Schedule 1, test it for medicinal purposes and make sure that it actually has a medicinal benefit. There's a lot of doctors that I've talked to that are not believers in the long-term benefits of THC.”
Tippins called medical marijuana an issue he feels very strongly about after meeting with families whose quality of life has greatly improved after cannabis oil helped them with serious medical issues.
“Our state Legislature made this product legal to use and possess,” Tippins said. “We now are passing laws to expand the conditions that it can be used for, but in an act of absurdity I guess you can only understand if you've been in political office, it's not accessible to these families.”
Urbach said he is fully in support of growing marijuana, then he said the opioid epidemic came about because liberals have taken God out of schools.
“We also have to realize, why are so many Georgians having so many mental problems where they want to take these prescription pills, opioid pills? Because the Supreme Court of the United States illegally removed our five religious freedoms from schools, thus bringing to where we are today. Removing God and the Holy Bible from schools. A person's heart and mind, they'll do whatever they want,” Urbach said.
The final question was how they would fix the traffic situation in the metro Atlanta area.
Hill said his vision of a small government would prioritize transportation in the budget.
“This is one of the key reasons that drove me to run for governor,” Hill said. “If you have a more limited and focused government that delivers results for taxpayers, you're going to be focusing, prioritizing transportation in the budget process… My first commitment as governor is to fund transportation. I want to double our investment over the course of my first term without raising taxes.”
Tippins also said he will make transportation a priority. He wants to build a bypass around Atlanta, invest in the Savannah harbor and synchronize traffic lights in cities to improve traffic. He is not too keen on bringing MARTA to Cobb County with state funds, however.
“I believe regional control, regional coordination, but I don't believe in state funding for transportation,” he said. “Folks in Willacoochee, Georgia shouldn't have to pay for MARTA in Cobb County when Cobb County's not sure they want it.”
Urbach said he wants to build a high-speed monorail across the state, then he accused his opponents of being criminals.
“These other candidates are unindicted felons with proof,” he said. “They will not apologize to the parents of this state for the billions and billions of dollars that have been sucked up in property tax dollars.”
Williams gave Hill a break and touted his math skills and closeness to President Trump.
“I am a CPA and uniquely qualified to handle the budget, a $26 billion budget for the state of Georgia,” he said. “I'm able to actually dive in and go into audit reports, budget reports to figure out where we're going to take money from, where it's being wasted... Also being the first elected official to come out and support Donald Trump, I'm uniquely qualified to work with the White House and get part of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment that DC is going to spend over the next four to eight years.”
After a bonus question about their favorite founding father (they all said Washington was their first choice, but Hill switched to Adams), it was time to wrap things up with closing statements.
Here’s what Urbach had to say:
“I greatly care and believe in our future, and the best hope we have is that you believe in your future, but more importantly, that you believe in your children’s future, and their future. For if we do, we the people of Georgia, the first branch of government, will succeed beyond all expectations. And these other candidates up here know all about the billions and billions of dollars in my legal case with my attorney… Folks, the key to our success is going through the courts, and that’s the grand jury. If you’d like to drain the swamp like never before, the grand jury is the way to do it. And if you’d like to see President Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Clinton in the grand jury, I have the documents that I filed three years ago with Obama, and last year … with Hillary. I have no fear.”
Tippins closed out by taking a dig at Hill.
“You talked about not being a career politician, Hunter, you talked about being pro second amendment,” Tippins said. “You sat in February on a stage with Stacey Evans and you said in Georgia, you should have to be 21 years old to buy a long gun. When your handlers pulled you aside and said you got a C rating from the NRA, and that’s not something that’s consistent with Georgia values, you contradicted yourself, reversed yourself, you cut an ad that said all the exact opposite things. If you’d lie and say and do anything to get elected, where’s the bottom of that, especially something so important as a constitutional right?”
Williams spoke next and joined the dogpile.
“I just got to follow Clay Tippins and say Hunter is out here, to me, he’s campaigning like Ronald Reagan, but he’s governed like Barack Obama… I am sick and tired of candidates who stand up here, run from their record and not willing to own up to what they do down at the Capitol. I for one will do what I say I’m going to do. I’ve been very bold today. I’ve called out the Republican Women’s Group for kicking my wife out, I will stand up for the people of Georgia.”
Hill got the last word for the evening, and if he was fazed, he did not show it.
“This is very encouraging, this is more encouraging than looking at polling data because clearly we’re doing very well if we’re all being attacked against here.”