Five candidates seeking to unseat Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson in November vowed June 22 to create jobs, secure American borders to keep out terrorists and illegal immigrants and improve regional transportation.
The Champion Newspaper and the League of Women Voters of DeKalb County hosted a candidate forum for the fourth congressional district. Moderated by Champion Newspaper columnist Bill Crane, the evening included Democratic candidates Vernon Jones and Connie Stokes. Republican candidates were Victor Armendariz, Liz Carter and Cory Ruth.
Johnson and Republican candidate Larry Gause did not attend. A summary of each participating candidate’s responses to questions on major issues follows.
ON JOB CREATION
Jones: The former county CEO and state representative said he believed Congress and the federal government were too focused on bailing out major corporations rather than smaller, Main Street business and individuals during the recent recession.
“More people are out of health care now because they lost their jobs,” he said.
Ruth: The minister and business consultant said he would reduce the corporate tax rate to spur job growth and work with state officials to lure major business to DeKalb County, which he said was uniquely positioned in Atlanta to support growth.
Stokes: The federal government must increase small businesses’ access to capital to give job creation a boost, she said. There needs to be a greater focus on “micro-businesses,” which she said are key to growth. Congress has most of the power to do that, Stokes said.
“The regulations are created by legislation,” she said.
Carter: The small business owner said she would cut corporate and payroll taxes and better enforce immigration laws to prevent foreigners from working illegally.
Armendariz: The publishing sales manager said he would also cut the corporate tax. Business is rushing from California to Texas, he said, because they have no income tax and low corporate taxes.
“This is not rocket science,” he said. “Every time taxes are cut it (job growth) flourishes.”
ON PRESIDENT OBAMA’S HEALTHCARE REFORM
Stokes: She said she is well-versed on healthcare issues because she served on the state Senate’s Health and Human Service Committee for 10 years. Stokes was elected to represent the state’s 43rd Senate district in 1994. She said the bill could be improved, including opening its benefits to businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
“It was a good start,” she said.
Carter: She called Obama’s bill “2,700 pages of garbage.” The reform legislation did not address the loss of an estimated $150 billion yearly in Medicare and Medicaid to fraud, she said, and it made health care more expensive for small businesses, forcing them to lay off employees.
Armendariz: Armendariz, who said his father immigrated to the United States legally from Mexico, said he has visited the country many times and believes Obama’s reforms will make the American healthcare system more like Mexico’s, which he said serves more people but does a poorer job of it. He said he believes the private sector should have greater control over healthcare innovation and reform.
“It scares me. It brings down the quality (of healthcare),” Armendariz said of the changes. “You can’t tell me that (American citizens) can’t come up with a better plan.”
Jones: President Obama and Congress should have been focused on creating jobs instead of reforming healthcare, he said. The new laws will cause healthcare costs to increase, Jones said, and illegal immigrants will unfairly benefit.
“They missed the boat,” he said of Congress.
Ruth: The federal government should allow states to find their own healthcare solutions, he said.
ON TRANSPORATION IMPROVEMENTS
Ruth: Transportation improvements are necessary to help families with parents who commute to work. Commuters are less likely to be involved in their community and their children’s education, he said. It also should be easier to improve DeKalb County’s transit system because of its abundance of existing roadways.
Jones: MARTA’s train system should expand to include Stonecrest, which would create jobs and serve a greater number of residents.
Stokes: The county receives only a paltry amount of federal dollars dedicated to transit improvement, she said. Stokes said she would demand more.
Armendariz: The government should play a role in improving public transportation, but the private sector has not been invited or included to the extent that it should, he said. He also said the county must demand a greater share of federal transportation dollars.
Carter: After the county gets more federal money, it needs to take a more integrated approach to transportation design, she said. Georgia’s transit system pales in comparison to more progressive cities such as San Francisco and Salt Lake City, which have well-integrated rail and bus systems, Carter said.
Armendariz: American borders must be strengthened, and then the government can figure out how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants already here, he said. But he said he didn’t agree with giving remaining immigrants blanket amnesty.
“I’m an American first,” he said of being a second-generation American. “It’s just not right to take someone who broke the law and put them at the front of the line.”
Ruth: American borders must be strengthened, but as much focus should be placed on the country’s northern border and its other access points, including airports and sea ports, he said. Then the government should figure out what to do with remaining illegals, Ruth said.
Carter: The federal government must get tougher on immigration, and she said she supports the strict and divisive law Arizona enacted in April that made it a crime not to carry immigration papers while giving law enforcement broad power to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.
“When you break a law, and you’re here illegally, you need to go home,” she said.
Jones: He said he didn’t agree with granting amnesty to remaining illegals and believed the federal government should work with Mexico and other foreign governments to develop economic policies that will bolster countries feeding the wave of illegal American immigration. If illegal immigrants are more likely to find jobs in their home countries they’re less likely to leave, he said.
Stokes: The U.S. border patrol needs more funding, she said, and immigrants should receive work visas so they can pay taxes. The government also needs to develop a plan for the native-born children of illegal immigrants so they’re not separated if their parents are deported.
Crane also asked the candidates if they would vote for new immigration laws in Georgia similar to those enacted in Arizona. Armendariz, Carter and Ruth said yes. Jones said he had not read the Arizona laws and could not say, and Stokes said no.
Crane then took written questions from audiences members. The candidates’ responses follow.
ON SECTION 8 HOUSING
Stokes: Section 8 housing landlords must be scrutinized more, she said.
“We have to make sure to hold them accountable to make sure they take care of their property,” Stokes said.
Carter: Job creation and better cooperation between government and useful agencies will decrease the need for low-income housing, she said.
“We can’t brigade areas of hopelessness and despair,” Carter said.
Jones: Low-income housing should be left to county and municipal governments to consider, he said.
“I think the feds have gotten too much into local government’s business,” he said.
Ruth: The government should work with outside agencies and nonprofit groups such as Habitat for Humanity to help build low-income housing for people, he said. The private sector should be included more as well, Ruth said.
Armendariz: He agreed with Jones: “(The federal government) needs to shrink.”
ON NATIONAL SECURITY POSITIONS DIFFERENT FROM JOHNSON’S
Carter: The government must maintain a strong national defense to the terrorist threat, she said, but the United States is spreading itself too thin across foreign conflicts.
Stokes: The government must do a better job designing exit strategies before it commits to foreign conflicts, she said.
“We’re spending so much money abroad when we really need to improve education,” Stokes said.
Jones: The federal government needs to recruit more full-time soldiers and better support first responders, including local police and fire departments.
Armendariz: “The exit strategy is simple: victory,” he said.
Ruth: The government needs a strong military and diplomacy skills so it can fight domestic “epidemics” such as poverty.
After the forum, The Champion Newspaper interviewed a selection of audience members who said they were not aligned with any of the campaigns.
Jeff Meeks, 40, of Lithonia said he’s been to numerous forums and been fascinated by the way the candidates tweak their messages for different audiences. The Champion Newspaper forum was in downtown Decatur. Meeks said he thought all the candidates were more moderate in their tone. He also said he’s unsure who he’s voting for but favors Stokes and Carter.
Shari Netzeley, 53, of Tucker said she was there to support Carter. She said she’s a converted conservative and has attended several Tea Party events after souring on liberal politics.
“I’m just not a bleeding-heart liberal anymore,” she said.
Netzeley said she thinks Carter is articulate and organized and seems willing to work rather than show off.
“There’s a difference between a show horse and a workhorse,” she said.
Philip Thomas, 30, of Atlanta said he thought Jones seemed the most polished of the candidates and thought he could be a good replacement for Johnson. Thomas said he found a number of the congressman’s comments embarrassing, particularly when he famously said in March he feared growth in a military base on Guam could capsize the island due to overpopulation. Johnson has since said he was joking, but many pundits called the comments embarrassing.
“(Jones) would have the most style points, which we haven’t had in a while,” Thomas said.
Still, he said he favors Carter or Armendariz.
“They seem more or less common sense-type of candidates,” Thomas said.