Republican candidates featured in political forum
Published 11:32 am Wednesday, April 25, 2018
By Ken Gustafson
AMERICUS — Several Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) students, faculty and people from the community gathered 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.
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 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 relecommunications. “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 the 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 the 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.