In true political nerd fashion, I spent my Saturday morning in Milledgeville attending the first Republican gubernatorial debate. I also had the pleasure of sitting front and center on the panel to ask questions of candidates. In all my cynicism, I can still say the forum was informative and a mechanism for distinguishing candidates.
In a surprise to even myself, I found that I agree with each candidate on at least one issue, though the disagreements were plentiful, too. But below I’m going to offer a preliminary analysis of debate #1, highlighting their strong points and offering points for reflection for improvement.
Listening to one-minute responses on issues that are sure to affect us all is not ideal and, if I had it my way, I would interview each one on camera for an hour for a comprehensive and well-rounded picture. But I’m neither the boss nor the scheduler, so my compilation of thoughts is based on what I saw Saturday and not what I know of the candidates prior to October 7.
Phil Kent and I each had the opportunity to ask 3 questions. Phil went with illegal immigration, casinos, and transportation while I tackled tax exemptions, cannabis oil, and rural health care. They also answered two audience questions on education and religious liberty.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Senator Hunter Hill, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Marc Alan Urbach and Senator Michael Williams were all present. Clay Tippins was not in attendance.
In terms of staying on topic, we didn’t get off to too great of a start. Williams was the only candidate to answer my question about whether or not Georgia has too many tax breaks for large corporations. The others diverted to income tax discussions and tax reform generally, despite my question’s specificity.
All of the candidates seemed to agree on illegal immigration enforcement and the blocking of in-state tuition for undocumented students. While I do not doubt the difficulty in discussing immigration without including the federal government, they all muddied the waters on what “should be done” versus “what can actually be done” in Georgia.
I was disappointed across the board with their positions on cannabis oil and in-state cultivation. Only Williams and Urbach said they were in favor of expanding the list of conditions for cannabis oil use, while Kemp said he was open to listening. None support in-state cultivation for any reason, citing a pathway to recreational marijuana. A recurring justification was federal law and consistency: if we are going to enforce federal immigration laws, we should also enforce federal drug laws. Similarly, they were all firm NOs on casino gambling in Georgia.
Each candidate seemed to excel on the question about the rural healthcare crisis – though only one actually addressed the rural health care crisis. Each offered valuable points on health care overall, but my takeaway was that Kemp has the greatest sense of clarity on rural healthcare – and rural issues overall. He was able to offer solutions that have a chance to be implemented– and in the short term. His proposal of telemedicine by way of broadband Internet and recognizing medical infrastructure as the lifeline for young people to return back to their communities after getting an education demonstrated that Kemp won’t have to wait for local government leaders to explain problems. My hope is that, as we get closer to election time, they’ll all focus less on the Affordable Care Act and more on what work can be done in the state legislature without federal involvement.
Cagle is comfortable in front of an audience and he’s no stranger to the political arena. It works in his favor as long-winded answers seem to roll off his tongue as if he’d rehearsed for hours. His ability to cite relevant statistics – and even cater them to the crowd he’s addressing…in this case, Baldwin County – surpasses that of anyone else on stage.
Hill is direct. He is honest about tough issues like transportation and education as well as from where he thinks the money should originate. When he speaks, you can’t help but feel he is telling you the truth. He offers personal stories in his answers to illustrate that he actually does understand the issues being discussed.
Kemp is seasoned, sincere, and delivers his message in a very relaxed manner. He is good at making voters feel like they’ll be a part of the process and that he is ready to listen. It is clear he is already familiar with the difficulties different counties across the state experience, so he is past the learning curve.
Urbach, whether you agree with him or not, is memorable because he’s entertaining to watch. While awkward for most of us, his praise for Senator Hill was heartwarming. Urbach acknowledged agreement with other candidates far more than any of the others, which shows he does not compare himself to them. He is comfortable in acknowledging similarities, which I’m sure is due, in part, to political naiveite – not a bad thing.
Williams is consistent in his responses. He has a campaign message of an “conservative outsider” that he manages to insert into every answer without being blunt and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether you agree with what he is saying or not, it is clear he honestly believes in his message and his platform. He is not simply trying to mirror the campaign or the success of our President.
Cagle struggled to outline his focus on rural healthcare and instead defaulted to metro healthcare and problems in insurance. Cagle’s focal point in the rural v. metro discussion was one sided and seemingly unconcerned with the far-
reaching corners of the state. He also struggled to identify specific issues he championed as a legislator or as Lieutenant Governor and focused more on what “Republicans” have done.
Hill, even in his directness, wasn’t assertive. He had a few opportunities to say more by using fewer words, but left the opportunity on the table. Hill has a lot of great ideas based on very conservative values, but did not offer a way to implement them. Given the short amount of time, I wouldn’t expect that on every question, but of the 8 questions ask, no answer focused on ways he already has accomplished something or ways he plans to in the future.
Kemp needs to show more passion while sharing his views. While I haven’t always agreed with his positions over the years, I’ve never questioned his character – and that is something many others will say, too. I don’t believe we saw his true character reflected in his responses on Saturday.
Urbach needs to watch out for the double-edged sword of being memorable. He cracked a lot of jokes and spent a substantial amount of time talking about things not brought up as part of the question posed. He is right on issues and needs to laser in on seriousness so people actually listen to what he is saying.
Williams spent a lot of time attacking Cagle. At one point, Williams mentioned that the establishment and the media have been after him.I believe that if he is battling to set a narrative about himself, he should spend more time articulating who he is, step away from the shadows of President Donald Trump, and focus less on the problems stemming from inside baseball with Cagle.
I am still an undecided voter, but I know exactly what I’m looking for in a candidate. No one deserves my vote or your vote – all of them must earn it. So over the next seven months, I encourage you to decide what your core issues are and keep a close eye on each of these candidates.
Jessica Szilagyi is a writer for AllOnGeorgia.com