One of the casualties of this blighted year of COVID-19 is local politics. Candidates have had little chance to campaign in a shutdown that forbids public gatherings, home visits and handshakes. But if anybody was missing politics, Thursday night's mega-marathon local debates were enough to cure that. Five and a half hours in, with midnight striking and the answers to vague questions getting stranger and wider-rambling, the weary viewer's only consolation was that it must have been even more nightmarish for the candidates.
Local political debates have always been lengthy affairs in Dade. But this year's version was endless--even though many offices are unchallenged this year so that there are fewer candidates. Why? The format had something to do with it. With public attendance impractical in this phase of the national reopening--the Dade Public Library, where the event was staged, can seat a maximum of 48 under the social distancing rules--the event was available to voters only as a broadcast or internet livestream from local TV station KWN, which organized the debate. That meant that for the at-home viewer the ordeal was prolonged by lags, livestream fadeouts and plenty of commercials, with the occasional tantalizing glimpse of a debate that hadn't even started for the viewer though at the library it seemed to have already been-done-happened.
It also had to do with the tenor of the questions. Perhaps in the interest of topicality, everyone was given a shot at criticizing the way the COVID-19 crisis has been handled. This gave the state-level candidates a chance to proclaim their deep love for President Donald Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp, as well as an opportunity for incumbent Dade County Executive Ted Rumley to remind voters he'd stood up to Kemp in their interests in the matter of closing Cloudland Canyon State Park.
It also gave House District 1 candidate Vikki Mills a chance to pooh-pooh the worldwide pandemic as "one little virus"--"You will not even know it's out in a month"--and county District 4 commissioner candidate Randy Stone to confide he had it on the best of authority--"I deal with a lot of important people"-- that the virus had actually started in British Columbia and been transported thence to Wuhan, China.
It killed some time. Similarly, board of education candidates were asked if they thought the Dade superintendent of schools should be elected rather than appointed by the board, though if there is any current movement to make such a change, or for that matter any notion of replacing what seems the most universally accepted super in decades, this is the first time it has bubbled to the surface. Again, perhaps it was a matter of making conversation.
Well, MacKWN hath murdered sleep; far be it from The Planet to abuse the corpse. Almost six hours of Q-and-A generated a huge amount of material and we must move on. The Planet will here synopsize debates one or two at a time, in installments, as scheduling and attention span allow. Let's start with the debate that perhaps Dade voters wanted to see most, the one between county executive candidates Ted Rumley and Nathan Wooten, which KWN featured last, beginning about 11:30 p.m. in Livestream Viewer Land.
"I'm running on my track record," said three-term incumbent County Executive Chairman Rumley. The Dade Administrative Building had been built with SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) funds during his term as a district commissioner, he reminded, and as county exec he had gotten the new courts facility built after it had been talked about and put off for years. "I handled it," he said.
The so-called Four Fields county sports complex had become the de facto Seven Fields during his watch, said Rumley. Head Start and the federal dollars it carries had been going to leave the county. "We kept that here," said Rumley. Under his leadership the county had built a jail kitchen, sparing Dade the expense of catering inmate meals from local restaurants. "That day we saved from $125- to 135,000 a year, cash money," said Rumley. Dade now has good relationships in the capital, said Rumley: "It took us years to get that."
Rumley has been Dade's top official for 12 years. After an initial term as district commissioner in 2000, Rumley won his first term as county executive pretty handily in 2008 and the other two hands down, in the 2016 election garnering more votes than both his opponents combined.
This election year, though--pre-COVID-19, anyway--seemed to be shaping up to be another story. Beginning in 2017, Rumley had faced noisy resistance not just from the voters but, eventually, fellow officials for his almost singlehanded drive to pay $500,000 for acreage along Lookout Creek for a proposed water reservoir. Rumley got his fellow county commissioners to go along but the fallout almost certainly contributed to the ouster of one of them in the elections of 2018. It also resulted in the reconfiguration of the governing board of the Dade Water Authority, including Rumley's own booting from its chairmanship. Former Trenton city commissioner Jerry Henegar is using his own successful opposition to the city's participation in the reservoir deal as a campaign point in his run this year for the county commission District 3 seat.
Rumley had also faced public humiliation for his handling of last year's heavy industry ordinance. After an ad hoc committee of citizen volunteers had ironed out the details over a period of months, Rumley inserted a last-minute clause governing chicken houses without consulting even his fellow commissioners. He had to take it back out after overwhelming condemnation by the citizens committee, chicken farmers and what looked like half the population of the tri-state area at an open hearing.
Enter Nathan Wooten, former chairman of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), former chairman of the Board of Education, the prominent local business owner who stages and presumably finances multiple public events in Dade, organized the Greater Dade Business Owners Association and bought and revitalized Trenton's abandoned Shaw factory building to house his trucking and warehousing company.
"I'm a planner and a visionary and we just make things happen," said Wooten at the May 14 debate. "Dade County has so much potential that has not been tapped."
Wooten declared his candidacy last summer and since then has run an organized and persistent campaign of public meetings and social media releases. He has made it clear in that campaign, and underscored at Thursday night's debate, that he is also running on Rumley's record. Where is the animal shelter that has been on the past two SPLOST project lists? he asked. What about the historic Dade courthouse renovation? Why are SPLOST projects deferred from year to year and decade to decade with no accounting? He likes Rumley as much as anybody, said Wooten Thursday night, but: "I want him to retire and I think I can capably take his place."
"I'll stand to my grave."
Asked about the reservoir issue, specifically what the next step on the project should be, Nathan Wooten quickly used the point to differentiate himself from the incumbent. "Until tonight, I've not heard one person who thought it was a good idea," he said. "For me there is not a next step."
But Rumley remained staunch in his defense of the project. "It's one of the most important purchases for Dade County in years," he said of the Lookout Creek land. The Dade Water Authority had been trying to buy the Lookout Creek acreage since maybe the 1980s, he reminded. "It's a matter of time--we'll need that water and we'll have that reservoir to fall back on," he said. "I'll stand to my grave and say that."
About the delayed SPLOST projects, there was more agreement. Wooten has made building the long-promised Dade animal shelter a campaign issue. Rumley said the county had become "overrun" with discarded animals and: "It's something we've got to move on."
As to why it hadn't been done before: "You've got to prioritize the money that you've got," said Rumley. That's also, he said, why Dade's historic courthouse continues to sit derelict on the Trenton town square after 10 years, but: "Tell me what we haven't done besides those two things," said Rumley.
Well, there was the community center at Davis, reminded Wooten, and actually money for the all the community centers had been included on the SPLOST list. Wooten said he'd learned serving on the school board that SPLOST ballot questions were worded vaguely on purpose. "They told you to do it so you could move money around," he said. The real reason SPLOST initiatives hadn't been completed, said Wooten was: "No commissioner has been willing to fight for the projects."
Asked which SPLOST projects he would himself prioritize, Wooten said the White Oak connector road was about to fall off the mountain, and Dade's water and sewer systems were crying out for help. "Lord knows how much money is going to be spent there," he said. The animal shelter also needed a plan, said Wooten. He'd tell voters: "OK, we get tornadoes again like we did in 2011, all bets are off," said Wooten, but otherwise, as far as approved SPLOST projects go: "You put a price tag on them and you go do them."
A question about economic development afforded former IDA chairman Wooten to remind viewers he had been instrumental in bringing the popular restaurant Jefferson's to Dade as well as the big IDA project Vanguard. He talked about the need to recruit new business to occupy 13 deserted commercial sites he said he'd counted. "I think it's very important that you be in their face," said Wooten,
Rumley was not as enthusiastic about Vanguard as his opponent. Vanguard, he said, had been vacillating between Dade and Floyd counties, he said, and then Floyd had decided it didn't want the truck trailer manufacturer because its pay scale was so low. "They came to us because they didn't have anywhere else to go," he said.
Wooten at this point seemed to imply that Vanguard had agreed to set its pay scale so low so as not to steal employees from other employers at the county industrial park--the first time that interesting tidbit made it to the surface of the economic development quagmire.
Asked where they stood on liquor sales on Sunday, a referendum question on the primary ballot, Wooten replied, "I stand wherever the voters tell me to stand. If they vote yes, I'll make sure it happens the way it's supposed to."
"It should be voted on," said Rumley. But, he added: "I'll vote against it." In fact, Rumley's steadfast opposition to alcohol has been evident, since the county voted overwhelmingly four years ago to become "wet," in the commission's subsequent campaign to effectively nullify the 2016 referendum. The commission has quashed efforts to serve booze with geographical limitations and seating capacity requirements, with Rumley and District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff persistently leading the resistance to any whiff of reform to the county's restrictive alcohol ordinance.
"I represent people that drink and people that don't drink," insisted the county boss at the debate. Those who have watched Dade's glacier-slow emergence from temperance might be tempted to venture, though, that he has represented the ones who don't perhaps a mite harder.
The Z Word, Et Cetera
Rumley and Wooten agreed that Dade County wasn't ready for full-frontal zoning yet, and both said the heavy industry the county passed last year would do for now, with tweaks added as they might become necessary.
They were asked about what would happen should SPLOST not be renewed in the upcoming referendum. "If SPLOST doesn't pass it's going to be devastating, frankly," said Wooten, but summed up the situation with: "You don't spend what you don't have."
Rumley discussed what services counties were required to provide by law and what might have to go, specifically ambulance service. But he pointed out the timing of the SPLOST renewal meant it could go back on the ballot in another year if it failed this time.
Asked about COVID-19, Wooten pointed out that many Dade residents were learning they'd had the virus well before the state government recognized the pandemic and opined that government seemed to have "missed the boat by a few months." He was also inclined to blame "the media" for "blowing it out of proportion."
Rumley also implied boats had been missed, but specifically by Gov. Kemp. Kemp was hiring 1000 "contact tracers" now to search out individuals potentially infected by identified virus cases, said Rumley; if he'd done that at the outset, perhaps a dent could have been made in the virus's spread before it claimed so many Georgia lives.
And again, the COVID-19 question allowed Rumley to bring up his struggle to close, over Kemp's objections, Cloudland Canyon State Park, on the grounds that tourists from hot spots could be bringing contagion to the county during the height of the pandemic. The governor slapped down Rumley's efforts--"He said the people in Atlanta had as much right to breathe the air in Dade as we did," said Rumley at the debate--just as he did attempts by other counties and municipalities statewide to close their beaches or parks. But it was not lost on the people of Dade that their county boss was willing to fight outside his weight to keep them safe, and his defiance of the governor brought him waves of love and approval in the "Independent State of Dade."
Which brings us to a debate question about communicating with the voters. Perhaps the question was crafted well before the COVID-19 crisis, and meant to target Rumley's much-criticized resistance to social media. Wooten, meanwhile, has since he announced his candidacy used it fluidly to get his campaign message out in weekly-or-better Facebook releases.
Since the lockdown began, however, Rumley has jumped into modernity with both feet. He and other county officials have been keeping the citizens informed with daily-or-better livestreams on Facebook. The COVID-19 briefings were expanded after Dade's Easter tornado to give news of the damage and ensuing cleanup. Only within the past couple of weeks has Rumley relaxed the regimen to allow for weekends off. The FB briefings have also been enormously popular with residents, drawing by county estimates 4-to 5000 viewers daily. Thus this enhanced communication enabled the whole county to watch Rumley's David-v-Goliath match with the governor, which is unlikely to hurt the incumbent's polling numbers come June.
In response to the debate question, Rumley admitted the county was slow to embrace social media--"We were back in time with that"--but pointed out how effectively it had managed to catch up. And he reminded all of how ritually he gives out his phone number and how faithfully he has answered it. Wooten, who, again, has never seemed to have any trouble getting his point across through cyber space, said in answer to the question that it's best to use all possible media. "The challenge is reaching those people who don't keep up," he said.
One debate question that seemed fated to do little but prolong the debate asked candidates for a job description of the position they wished to fill. But it did allow Wooten to make a promise to citizens to heed their will when he described the jobs as "being the sounding board for the voters." And it afforded Rumley the chance to remind them how hard he's worked for them: "You've got a tremendous amount of responsibility on you," he said. "It's a job that you never leave." He described the chill he felt when he heard an ambulance and worried some harm had come to Dade on his watch. "They are your people that you're in charge of and you've got to take it seriously," he said.
A couple of final points: Rumley took issue with references, throughout the long hours of debate preceding his and Wooten's, to the current county regime as being a "good old boy" network. What was a good old boy? he asked, and what was wrong with being good? "I was raised to be a good boy," he said. "I was raised to be good." What did people want, he askd, a bad old boy?
Again, he cited his record of accomplishments and told voters: "I'm asking for four more years because I've got a lot I want to finish."
Nathan Wooten reminded watchers of his decades of work in the community as a Boy Scout leader, economic development chairman, school board member and event coordinator. Wooten pretty much singlehandedly stages Dade's Small Business Expo in December and Independence Day bash in July. He had worked to grow Trenton with Lake Region and Jefferson's, he said.
"For the last 30 years, whether you know it or not, I've worked for Dade County," said Wooten. "I've been working for you, just never got paid for it." He wants to keep working for Dade going forward, said Wooten: "I ask you to hire me as your next county executive."
Early voting has begun in the Republican primary that will decide so much about Dade's future. Election Day is June 9.
The Planet will continue this series of articles about the May 14 debates later in the week.