Republican candidates featured in political forum
Published 2:04 pm Tuesday, April 24, 2018
By Ken Gustafson
AMERICUS — Several Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) students, faculty and people from the community gathered Tuesday night, April 17, for a political forum to hear Republican candidates Herschel Smith and Mike Cheokas discuss their views on issues such as education, the use of medical marijuana and adoption among other issues.
Cheokas and Smith are running against each other for the State House of Representatives District 138. They are running to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Bill McGowan, D-Americus, who is not seeking reelection.
Jason Berggren, Ph.D., associate professor in the history and political science department at GSW, moderated the forum. The forum was held in the Nursing Amphitheater at the Rosalynn Carter Health and Human Services Center on the GSW campus. Berggren began by explaining the format for the forum. The panel that would be asking the candidates questions on various issues was made up of three GSW students involved in student government.
After Berggren’s opening remarks, he gave the microphone to Herschel Smith to make his opening statements. Smith began by thanking Berggren for moderating the debate, the Sumter County GOP for organizing the forum, and the audience for coming out to hear the candidates. He also thanked the panel of students who would be fielding the questions.
“There are four counties involved in this election and 53,000 constituents: Chattahoochee County, Marion County, Schley County and most of Sumter County,” Smith said. Early voting begins April 30 and goes through May 18, with the primary election on May 22.
Smith told the audience why he is running.
“Quite frankly, I’m not satisfied with the representation we’ve been getting in Atlanta, and I think I can do a better job,” he said. Smith said that the late Zell Miller once said that it is a privilege to serve the people of Georgia correctly. Smith said he interpreted “correctly” as serving with integrity and fairness. After Smith’s two minutes were up,
Berggren gave the microphone to Mike Cheokas for his opening two-minute statement.
Cheokas thanked the panel of students who were selected to field the questions to the candidates. He also thanked the audience.
“You’re what makes democracy work,” Cheokas said. He said he agreed whole heartedly with Smith’s assessment that the representation in Atlanta was poor.
“For the last two years, we’ve had zero representation in Atlanta,” Cheokas said.
After Cheokas made his opening two-minute statement, it was time for the candidates to answer the first round of questions.
“What does it mean to you to be a Republican?”
Cheokas responded, “The Republican Party stands for individual liberty, which is what our nation was founded upon … personal responsibility.” He said he believes in smaller government and that government can’t solve all the problems. He also stated that the Republican party believes that families are the nucleus that can solve the problems. He stated that to be a Republican is to believe in less taxes. “With more money in our pockets, we’re able to stimulate the economy and create more jobs and more opportunities for not only our neighbors and friends, but for our children.” Cheokas said.
Smith began his answer by stating that back in 1966, he was a member of the teenage Republicans in Americus, and that he and a friend of his would go out and knock on doors to drum up support for Bo Callaway, who at the time, was running for governor against Lester Maddux.
“I’ve always identified with the Republican Party because I kind of agree with their mission, a mission of being a fiscal conservative,” Smith said. He said when he became a naval officer, he swore allegiance to the U.S. Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. He said in January, he would swear an allegiance to the Georgia Constitution.
“I’m an American first. I’m a Georgian second and I’m a Republican third,” Smith said.
Question: “What would you say to the GSW students in the room about the state of higher education in Georgia?”
Smith responded that education is extremely important. He said that he has two daughters that teach in the public school system, and that they always give him feedback about what’s going on in the schools. Smith said that they recommended to him that classes should be smaller, that there should be less focus less on testing, and that there should be more attention paid to the problems children may have.
“Education is extremely strong here,” Smith said. “I applaud the fact that you continue with your education here at Georgia Southwestern,” Smith told the students in the room.
Cheokas said that he is committed to higher education and that his background proves that. “When I first was elected, I got put on the higher education committee,” Cheokas said. He said when he was put on the higher education appropriations committee he was able to put money in the state budget for the construction of the very building the forum was taking place, as well as the neighboring building.
“It was almost $25 million for the planning, the construction and the equipment,” Cheokas said. “I was very proud to get that accomplished. I got that accomplished at the height of the recession.” Cheokas asked his wife Gaynor Cheokas who was in the audience, to stand. She is a business professor at GSW. “If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do for higher education, you know who’s going to have my ear,” Cheokas said.
He said that not everything can be done in the university, and that South Georgia Technical College (SGTC) has to be included.
“Our technical college system is vital to the future of our community and our state,” Cheokas said. He told the students in the room that they will need skills that will require a certain degree of technical knowledge once they graduate. He also mentioned that he was instrumental in helping SGTC become reciprocal as far as the SACS accreditation process was concerned, so that courses at SGT could be used at GSW. He also said he worked tirelessly to defend the HOPE Scholarship. “When we had budgetary problems, we had to make sure that we could save the HOPE Scholarship,” Cheokas said. He said the HOPE Scholarship is used by 29 percent of the students in Georgia. “You have to have a B average to obtain it,” Cheokas said. “It is not a needs-based scholarship. It’s for the moms and dads to push their children to make sure that they have a B, and we were able to save that because we had growing numbers. In our university system right now, we have over 318,000 students and that is continuing to grow.”
The next question was on tariffs on imports and exports. The student panelist said that Georgia is the seventh largest importing state and the 12th largest exporting state, this according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The panelist said that earlier this month, President Trump imposed select tariffs on China, Georgia’s third largest trading partner, and that China responded by raising tariffs on more than 100 U.S. products.
Question: “Do you support or oppose the President’s move? What do you think the impact will be on this state?”
Cheokas responded by saying that the tariffs are a federal issue, and that he understood why the President was doing that. However, he said Georgia has a “secret weapon.” He was referring to former Georgia Governor Sunny Purdue, the current Secretary of Agriculture. “He has the ear of the President,” Cheokas said. “He (Purdue) is discussing the issues as far as the tariffs on steel and the other tariffs that are mostly on agricultural products.” He said that Savannah actually exports more products than it imports. “How this affects us directly is through the inland port in Cordele,” Cheokas said. He said that there is a direct link between Sumter County and Americus, with products that are produced locally, to go overseas. “I’m concerned. I’m very concerned about the tariffs,” Cheokas said. “I’m concerned about the reason that President Trump has done that to secure American jobs, to make sure that we aren’t exporting American jobs. I also realize that there is a balance to that. As I said, it’s a federal issue. I would just like to leave it at that.”
Smith responded by saying that fair trade affects growth in the economy, and that the PRC to China has been a bad actor in fair trade for a long time. “It’s about time that we stopped kicking the can down the road and address fair trade with China,” Smith said. “I think that’s what is happening. I think this is partly sort of a business negotiation where you come out hard and then you compromise.” Smith said that the United States needs to stand firm with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) so that they will back off on their unfair practices, especially towards the United States. “I think this is all going to balance out in the end,” Smith said. “I think that China has more to lose than the United States. We just need to be patient.”
Question: “What steps would [the candidates] take to safeguard and protect elections in the state?”
Smith responded that the integrity of voting and the ability to vote are significantly better than it was 50 to 100 years ago. To Smith, it was not a significant issue.
“I don’t think the people have been disenfranchised. I think that when you go to vote, when you register and go to vote, you should be able to identify who you are,” Smith said. “As an airline pilot, we did not let people on our airplanes without identifying who they are. I think the same thing should apply when people go to vote.”
Cheokas responded, “Voting and the integrity of our election process is critical to the success of the democracy,” he said. “I am in favor of paper receipts for our ballots. I can tell you that right now.” He said he is in favor of voter ID. “When I served in the legislature, I supported Voter ID,” Cheokas said. He also stressed that diligence is extremely necessary as far as identifying who is eligible to vote and who is not. “I’ve been at the courthouse. The Secretary of State would sit people down to monitor the election here in Sumter County,” Cheokas said. “I’ve seen people being taken to the courthouse and being given provisional ballots because they did not have an ID, and they had to come back the next day to prove who they were so their vote would be counted.” Cheokas went on to reiterate his support for paper receipts in the voting process.
Question: “Do you favor medical marijuana?”
Cheokas thanked the panelist for asking the question and went on to say that when he served on the Health and Human Services Committee, they studied medical marijuana. “The problem with medical marijuana is that it’s the only Schedule I drug,” Cheokas said. “All the Schedule II drugs are opioids: heroin, cocaine and those things … The difference between a Schedule I drug and a Schedule II drug is research,” he said. “Medical marijuana cannot be researched. It cannot be researched in the United States. England is currently doing research on medical marijuana. I’ve been there during the committee meetings with the children that have seizures that need this product come in, but unfortunately, it’s being manufactured in other states illegally, and sold to these families without any quality pharmaceutical synthesis and scientific research.”
Smith responded to the same question by saying that he supports research and the use of medical marijuana for health reasons, but not for recreational reasons. “This can be easily abused and we need to have very tight restrictions on that,” Smith said. “I do not consider depression a health reason for using medical marijuana.”
Question: “If elected, would you support an adoption reform measure that restores a religious liberty provision?”
Smith responded, “I really support anything we can do streamline and simplify adoption. I think that will give mothers in distress who have unwanted pregnancies a better option than abortion. I think that’s really the direction we ought to go.” Smith said as far as same-sex adoptions are concerned, as long as the federal government recognizes same-sex couples as couples, then they should be afforded the same responsibilities under the law.
Cheokas responded, “You have rights and laws that protect your personal religious beliefs. Then you also have laws to protect the rights as a citizen of the United States, and if your religious beliefs prevent you from recognizing same-sex marriage, then I don’t think that we need to impose and circumvent someone’s faith.”
Cheokas said he was president of the Greek Orthodox Church in Macon, and that he is a strong believer in protecting religious liberties. “That was what the founding fathers wanted us to do … no persecution whatsoever for our faith,” Cheokas said. “By the same token, we as a society, and as individuals in the society, have individual rights and liberties. That’s a delicate question. It requires a lot of study. I don’t mind telling you. There are people looking at it both ways.” Cheokas said the bottom line is adoption and what’s best for the child. “I see our responsibility in the legislature as what we can do to protect the children,” Cheokas said. “The born, the unborn, we need to move forward and protect the children. The other thing that I’m in favor of is parenting training and parenting skills so that we don’t get there. We need to stop this conveyer belt of dysfunctional families, and I think that we need to train our children growing up on the responsibilities of parenting.” Cheokas emphasized that people shouldn’t just go out and have a baby without thinking of the responsibility of raising and nurturing the child. He emphasized to the audience that children have to be nurtured and taught to behave properly. He said that parenting training can be done partly through education, through faith-based ministries and through counseling.
Question: “Should the state legislature use its authority to move confederate symbols and monuments, or continue to protect them?”
Cheokas responded, “That’s something that has been heavy on my mind for quite some time. You can’t rewrite history. Taking a monument down does not rewrite history, so I’m in favor of leaving the memorials where they are. Every day, we create history and things change, so what’s popular today, or in the future, I’m sure that we will be able to create a monument or create some type of recognition.” He mentioned that there are many streets throughout Georgia named after Dr. Martin Luther King, and that before 1960, that did not occur. “Our history is constantly changing,” he said. “We’re constantly updating. We’re constantly recognizing individuals of greatness.” Cheokas told the audience that at the time these monuments were created, those individuals had made sacrifices. He also said that we need to look at how it affects us locally, and he used the Andersonville Civil War POW camp as an example. He then reiterated his opposition to changing, moving or destroying the monuments. Cheokas also referred to Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Stacy Abrams, who is advocating the destruction of the carving on Stone Mountain, as well as other confederate monuments in Georgia. “As far as the Gubernatorial Candidate who is running on that platform, she (Abrams) is definitely using that to excite the base,” Cheokas said. “Several years ago, when we were having legislation promoting the Civil War history, and we put, I think, $6 million in the budget because there are a lot of people that come to the state of Georgia because of our Civil War history, she (Abrams) voted in favor of that,” Cheokas said. “How could she be voting in favor of a history that she opposes now? I think that’s a political ploy.”
In his response, Smith said that there are no Confederate monuments in Andersonville. He said that he does not support the removal of any Confederate monuments. However, Smith did say that he supports additional interpretation, when needed, to talk about when and how the monument evolved. “We can add to the history of our nation,” he said.
Question: “What measures will you take to keep Georgia schools safe and prevent a mass shooting?”
Before Cheokas responded, he disputed Smith’s claim that there are no Confederate monuments in Andersonville. “In the city of Andersonville, there is a Confederate monument honoring Colonel Wirz, the Commandant of Andersonville,” Cheokas said. He also said that many of the streets in the city of Andersonville are named after Confederate military leaders.
Smith was asked to give his answer to the question on school safety. He said he fully supports law-abiding citizens the right to bear and hold arms. “The constitution is very clear on this, but we should make sure that that right is only taken away through due process,” he said. He addressed the issue of school safety by first saying that school should be a safe and comfortable environment of learning and not an armed camp. “There are many different methods that can be done, but I think the role of the government, especially the state government, is to provide resources, training, assets and the rules for how you use those systems,” he said. “I think the local school districts need to be able to make the decisions on what’s most appropriate for their schools.” He said that schools vary in location and size, and that there is no one answer that is good for everybody. He said that he would defer to the school systems to determine how best to protect their schools, and that the state provides the wherewithal for that. He finished his answer by stating that nobody should be forced to carry a weapon if he or she is not comfortable doing so.
Cheokas responded that at the state level, they are looking at ways they can secure the schools. “In Florida recently, they put in the budget money to provide 150 police officers that are POST-certified, so that they know what to do,” Cheokas said. “These are not just people with guns. These are people who are trained in the use of arms to defend our students, our most precious resources” he said. “We are looking at that in the state of Georgia. There are 180 school systems in Georgia. I would support arming 180 individuals, making sure that they got trained so that they could be at any of the school systems.” Cheokas said that school climate needs to be addressed. In reference to the shooting in Florida, Cheokas said that the students at the high school where the shooting occurred knew who the problem child was. “It was a breakdown of law enforcement to be honest,” Cheokas said. He went on to say that the shooter’s fellow students reported him to law enforcement months in advance and that the FBI was notified months in advance and nothing was done. Cheokas also said that mental health needs to be addressed, but he clearly said that the issue is school climate. He mentioned the issues he had brought up earlier in the forum, such as rebuilding the family. He communicated to the audience that a strong family structure will reduce the threat of a mass shooting.
At this point, the forum moved to the second round of questions. Berggren asked the first two questions.
Question: “How do you feel Governor Nathan Deal did in his eight years in office?”
Cheokas said that it was an honor working with Governor Deal and that he tackled some very important issues, especially the recession. Cheokas said Deal didn’t handle the recession by raising taxes. Instead, he did it by promoting industry. “Five of those eight years, we were the number one state to do business in,” Cheokas said. “That’s because we had a consistent predictable tax policy.” He also mentioned the Quick Start program, which guaranteed an education for employees of potential businesses coming to Georgia. He said that under Deal’s leadership, criminal justice reform became the model for which other states aspire to.
Smith responded that Governor Deal will not be in office when he is elected to serve District 138 of the State House of Representatives. “I prefer to look forward instead of back,” Smith said. However, Smith said that he applauded Governor Deal’s simplification of the tax code. He said he hopes the new Governor will take more seriously the problems in rural Georgia than Deal did.
Question: “What should be a priority for the new governor?”
Smith responded that the new Governor should take very seriously the problems occurring here in South Georgia. He said that the population in South Georgia is dwindling. “More of our residents are living in poverty. Everyone is moving to Atlanta. We’re having a very difficult time in rural Georgia.” Smith said. “There is a House Rural Development Council that has been formed which I would really like to participate in.” Smith said that there are 15 members from rural districts on the council that want to focus on things such as jobs, education, industry and other things, but Smith specifically cited broadband as one. Smith mentioned that he has a master’s in telecommunications. “I think that when you live in rural Georgia, you should have access to broadband so that you can telecommute,” Smith said.
Cheokas said the new Governor should prioritize the issues and problems of rural Georgia. He mentioned that many businesses are located no more than an hour and a half from Atlanta because that’s where they take their products. He said he would like to strengthen the One Georgia Authority that can provide incentives to bring industry back down to South Georgia. “I’d also like to use money that we get from Atlanta be used to strengthen our education system here in Americus,” Cheokas said.
Question: “What is the most pressing issue in the state as far as K-12 education is concerned?” Cheokas responded that it is failing school systems. “We have school systems in which our children are not being educated properly,” he said. “They’re not learning what they need to be learning, and we’re losing them.” He said education is the key to success. He also mentioned that the tax payers are having to pay for failing school systems.
Smith began his response by stating that he sat down with all four school superintendents to discuss the most pressing issue in K-12 education in Georgia. “The most significant common problem, I think, is the parents’ participation in the child’s education,” Smith said. “The students that are doing well are doing well, but the ones that are having problems, the parents don’t seem to be involved.” Smith said if you take a child’s cell phone away, the parents will show up, but if the parents are asked to come to a school counseling session, they don’t come. He said that those families need to be reached and the parents need to realize that their child’s future depends on how well educated they are. He added that the school teachers need to be well-compensated.
Question: “Do you favor the recent legislative effort to cut early voting to one Sunday before Election Day?”
Cheokas responded that early voting is a good thing, but that it doesn’t need to start six months before the election. He said there needs to be a defined, limited period of time so that it adds an importance. “The reason I say that is because when you expand the length of time, it also adds additional costs for our counties,” Cheokas said. He mentioned that the counties have to pay the people manning the voting booths, which costs the counties additional money and places a burden on tax payers. Cheokas also mentioned that it also adds the potential for illegal activity.
Smith replied by stating that early voting has its place and that the three weeks of early voting that Georgia has is appropriate. “By having early voting, it encourages participation,” Smith said. “I’m not terribly concerned about voter fraud. I think we have probably the best voting system in the world.”
Question: “Should Delta Airlines receive the Jet Fuel Tax Break that it didn’t receive this year?”
Smith responded first. Being that he is a retired Southwest Airlines pilot, he said, jokingly, that he should recuse himself from answering the question, but continued on with his answer. “When I heard that this was happening, I don’t think that’s exactly free enterprise. Do you? Southwest Airlines flies out of Atlanta. Should they have gotten a tax cut as well?” Smith said. “I think the chickens came home to roost on this $50 million tax break when they took it away from Delta because of an NRA issue.” Smith said Delta should not get the Jet Fuel Tax Break. He said that all industries should be treated on an even, fair basis. He said that there are a lot of fine employees who work for other airlines other than Delta and that everyone should be treated equally.
Cheokas disagreed. He said that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has 104 million passengers a year going through that airport. “By passengers, it’s the busiest airport in the world,” Cheokas said. He mentioned that Cancer Treatment Centers of America wanted to locate within half an hour from the airport. “That was a huge medical investment so we could have medical care,” Cheokas said. “That’s just one of the many industries that has come to our state because of Atlanta Hartsfield.” Cheokas said that the first time Delta asked for the tax break was when the economy was not doing so well, and they were actually losing money. “The thing that is significant is that they employ over 50,000 Georgians,” Cheokas said. “The allied industries, you’re looking at another multiplier of five, so you’re looking at quarter of a million people working either directly or indirectly because of the airport and because of Delta.” Cheokas said that he would support a tax break for Delta, but a measured tax break with significant guarantees to make sure that they stay in the state of Georgia, employ Georgians and grow because jobs need to be created.
Question: “Do you support a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, which is what Mississippi approved last month?”
Cheokas responded that abortion, as defined in Roe v Wade, allows a woman to have an abortion within the first trimester. “I personally am against abortion,” Cheokas said. “The law of the land says we have to do the first trimester.” Cheokas then posed a question of his own to the panel and to the audience. “How much time does a woman that is pregnant need to decide? That’s where it boils down to.” Cheokas shared his experience dealing with abortion while working on the Health and Human Services Committee. “What they do to the child when they abort it is cruel,” he said.
Smith responded by saying that the question of abortion is a settled issue and that it has been decided by the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Smith, however, said he has his own personal opinions about it. “I believe that abortion should be allowed in situations of rape, incest and the health of the mother,” Smith said. “The mother should be making that decision, and not the government. I support anything we can do to encourage mothers to carry to full-term and put their child up for adoption if they don’t want to keep their child.” Smith said ideas like having a ban on abortion after 15 weeks are great ideas, but are unenforceable and will be thrown out in court, unfortunately.
Question: “What committees would you like to serve on if elected to District 138?”
Smith said he would like to be on the rural council that he had mentioned earlier. “Primarily, I would like to serve on the Education Committee,” Smith said. “As I’ve said before, education is the most important subject for the state.” He added that he would also like to serve on the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee because of his background.
Cheokas said he would like to serve on the Appropriations Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee, committees that he has served on before. “The issue right now is effectiveness, not what committees we are assigned,” Cheokas said. “What can we do in the legislature to improve this district? As I said earlier, I was able to put the money in the budget to build this building to create nurses.”
At this point of the forum, it was time for the candidates’ closing remarks.
Cheokas went first. “Effectiveness is the issue in this election,” Cheokas said. “Who can get the job done? Who has the experience? Who has the track record? If I’m successful and able to get back into the legislature, I’m going to hit the ground running.” He went on to say that he wants the children of this community to come back to Americus because they have jobs, they can raise a family and have a successful life here.
Smith said that both he and Cheokas are strong advocates of education. He mentioned that Cheokas is a member of the Georgia Board of Education and was appointed by Governor Deal to serve a seven-year term. “He (Cheokas) is one of 14 people in the state,” Smith said. He said that if Cheokas is elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, he has to resign his position on the Georgia Board of Education. “If you think about, wouldn’t you rather have two advocates for education in Atlanta, one on the Board of Education and one in the House pulling for you than just one in the House? That’s something you need to consider if education is that important to you,” Smith told the audience. Smith said that the longer you’re in Atlanta or Washington, the longer you are disconnected from your constituents. “Even a compost pile needs to be turned over every now and then,” Smith said.