From left, Steen Miles, Branko Radulovacki and Todd Robinson, Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Moultrie Republican Saxby Chambliss, take part in a candidate forum Thursday night at Albany State University. (Staff photo: Terry Lewis)
ALBANY — Except for a few skirmishes, candidates for national, state and local offices were congenial toward each other at a forum hosted by the Albany State University Student Government Association at ASU’s ACAD Auditorium Thursday night.
The goodwill did not extend to candidates who were not at the forum, though.
State House District 153 candidate Darrel Ealum chastised incumbent Carol Fullerton for her absence, and U.S. senatorial candidate Steen Miles did the same in a thinly veiled reference to presumed Democratic front runner Michelle Nunn.
“I’m disappointed that there’s an empty seat here tonight,” Ealum said at one point during the forum, which was sponsored by the Dougherty County Democratic Committee. “I thought this would be the one opportunity for all of us to have a real conversation about the issues.”
Ealum said after the forum that Fullerton, who, according to Dougherty Democratic Party chairwoman Constance Burkes had a “scheduling conflict,” missed an opportunity to tell voters why she deserved another two years in office.
“This was really the first forum set up so that candidates had an opportunity to show their knowledge of the issues, to have a real conversation about the things that matter to the voters of not just our district, but the whole state,” Ealum said. “I’m disappointed — and the voters should be disappointed — that Carol was not here tonight.”
Miles, who with Dr. Branko Radulovacki and Thomasville-born educator Todd Robinson are challenging Nunn for the Democratic nomination in a quest to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Moultrie Republican Saxby Chambliss, said Nunn has been conspicuously absent from numerous similar events across the state.
“Dr. Rad (Radulovacki), Todd and I have been together all over the state of Georgia for events like this,” Miles, an Emmy-winning Atlanta TV journalist, said. “But there are four of us running for the Democratic nomination. We’re out talking to the voters of Georgia, while the other candidate always has other things to do.
“We can ill afford to send someone to Washington who doesn’t have the experience needed to make a difference. Being a former state representative, I’m the only Democratic candidate with legislative experience.”
Radulovacki said he is equipped to be a “strong voice in Washington” and help break the “extraordinary gridlock that has left us with a dysfunctional government.”
Robinson said the state’s leadership had “forgotten rural Georgia” and told the ASU audience, “We can survive the economic crisis, but we need to send a fresh face to Washington to do so.”
Former Dougherty County Commissioner Muarlean Edwards, who is also challenging Fullerton for the House 153 seat, said education and veterans issues are among her priorities. Edwards also said education issues impact economic development in the district.
“A low-skilled work force negatively affects economic growth in our region,” she said. “It’s important that we work with our schools to help them teach the skills needed to prepare our young people for the job market.”
Asked for his take on a call to cut benefits for the elderly, Ealum said, “Only an idiot would support any kind of cuts to our seniors’ benefits.”
District 4 Dougherty School Board candidate Aaron Johnson said his “diverse background” and his love for young people were among the factors that made him the better candidate in that race, but his opponent, Melissa Strother, said there are no restrictions that would keep her from serving the citizens of the district.
“I’m a sixth-generation Albanian,” Strother said. “I don’t want to get into race because that’s why we have some of the issues we have today, but I will work with all citizens of our community to make our school system stronger.”
District 6 School Board candidates Shirlette Davis-Marcus and Princess Milledge disagreed over the issue of zero tolerance in the school system.
“It’s important that students obey the rules, but there are some students that I believe at times need a second or third chance,” Davis-Marcus said. “It’s going to depend on the circumstances.”
Milledge, however, said she believes in strict adherence to zero-tolerance rules, noting that, “When I was an administrator, I carried the (student handbook) with me at all times like it was the Bible.”
County Commission board chair candidates Chris Cohilas and Gloria Gaines talked extensively about plans to help bring jobs to the community, Gaines touting her “vast experience on the world stage,” and Cohilas extolling his “history of getting the job done.”
Democratic District 4 County Commission candidates Pat Garner and Tracy Taylor got in their shots at incumbent Ewell Lyle, who was the only Republican candidate to take part in the forum. Garner said, “Consolidation is Republican-speak for eliminating jobs,” and Taylor said Albany and Dougherty County would benefit from approving Sunday liquor sales.
“Why should dirt-road bootleggers be allowed to take county tax money?” Taylor said.
Lyle pointed to recent prolonged city/county commission local-option sales tax negotiations as justification for his support of consolidating the Albany and Dougherty County governments.
Anthony Jones, who is challenging long-time County Commissioner Jack Stone for the District 6 seat on the commission, said, “We need to begin the conversation of why our young people are leaving this region.”
Stone has health issues that kept him from attending the debate, and District 4 School Board candidate Dean Phinazee said he had a medical emergency in his family earlier in the day.