Sen. Jeff Mullis (left) and challenger Colton Moore (from video).
In Dade, the regular candidate forum, such as the one staged May 14 by local news station KWN and hosted by the Dade County Public Library, is always called a debate. Really it's no such thing, because rather than engage in direct argument with each other, the candidates sedately and in turn answer the commentator's questions.
That did not apply, however, to the segment of the evening devoted to the Georgia Senate seat. There was plenty of direct argument and sedateness? Not so's you'd notice. There were nonstop vituperation, multiple accusations of lying, and dislike so thick in the air it sizzled. "Debate" is probably still not the right word for the three-candidate event but the term "dogfight" comes to mind. Imagine the burly head sled dog being jumped by a yapping young pup, with an old hound dog ambling slowly up now and then for the occasional butt bite.
Because of the COVID-19 situation--the library under social distancing guidelines can only seat 48--the debate was available to most voters solely by livestream or TV broadcast, and one thing that could be said about the state senate fight was that it was good television. Though the debates ultimately stretched out from 6:30 p.m. until past midnight, frying eyeballs and fraying nerves, the dogfight was early in the evening while viewers were still alert and the popcorn still hot.
The three candidates for Georgia's 53rd District senate seat were Jeff Mullis, the 20-year incumbent; Colton Moore, who two years ago at age 24 ousted incumbent John Deffenbaugh from the Georgia House of Representatives and now seeks to spread his conquests farther; and Todd Noblitt (right), an insurance agent from Chickamauga seeking office for the first time.
In opening remarks, young Moore painted himself as an adventurer traveling Europe as an international auctioneer then, at home, as a sort of cowboy driving cattle across the American West in big trucks. He said as state representative he had vowed to bring power back to the people but: "As I got to Atlanta and began to legislate, what I realized was our state senator does not share the same ideologies that I do." Therefore, he had decided to take his place.
Mullis said he used his position as incumbent state senator to improve qualify of life for the citizens of the 53rd District, working with the elected local officials--"It's all about relationships"--to address issues that mattered to people. "I have a history and a record to make that happen," he reminded voters.
Todd Noblitt declaimed, slowly: "Liberty and justice flow through the veins of our great republic, but socialism, debt and corruption are silently clogging those arteries." His conservative values were rooted in the Bible, said Noblitt. "I'm stepping forward as a citizen legislator to protect our freedoms," he told voters."I will represent Democrats, Republicans, Independents."
The candidates started out by dithering cautiously in response to the obligatory debate questions about COVID-19--had it been handled correctly? Was there governmental overreach? Both Mullis and Moore were careful to praise the governor though Moore noted, "As a state representative, I was a bit reluctant to grant the governor that much power." Noblitt said he'd rather people be allowed to make their own decisions though he allowed, "Nobody wants to see mass amounts of death."
"Nobody knows whether we're doing right or wrong because we've never done this before," concluded Mullis.
All pretty equable, but it was when gun rights came up that the barks and snarls began. Why? As in the state representative debate before this one (see previous article), all the candidates were ferociously pro-gun, but in this case they were even more anxious to shoot it out as to who was the most ferociously pro-gun.
"I'm the only candidate here that is endorsed by the NRA," said Mullis.
"The only reason is you're the only incumbent," said young Moore.
Moore brought up a gun show they'd both attended. "You got heckled off state and do you know why?"
"Because of your lying?" suggested Mullis.
The details of the gun show must remain murky, but it all sounded very Wild West and in fact after that the tone at the debate degenerated into Saloon Brawl. Moore huffed that he stood on his record, and as for young Moore: "He has no influence, he has no ability, he has no relationships to make anything happen," said Mullis. "He has done nothing for Dade County, and that's pathetic."
Moore said he'd tried to turn Georgia into a Second Amendment "sanctuary state," but: "Where was my senator?"
"Mr. Moore is deceiving the people of Dade County again," said Mullis.The problem with Moore's bill, he told him, is: "You made it go nowhere because you have no influence and you have no ability."
Noblitt entered the fray here. Mullis had been in office 18 years, he said. "You're one of the most powerful people in the state of Georgia and yet we don't have constitutional carry." Why is that? he asked.
Gun rights were a particularly explosive issue but the night was still young. Even discussing budgetary matters Mullis and Moore managed to have exchanges such as this, as Moore complained about what he called an "omnious" budget (The Planet could find no such word, but Moore appeared to be talking about a budget that included multiple items so that to vote against one he would have to vote against the whole budget.):
"Well, why haven't you been able to change anything?" asked Mullis. "Because you don't have any influence. You don't have any ability."
"It's because people like you, who have all the influence, don't have the same ideology that I do," said Moore.
That was the mantra he chanted throughout, just as Mullis repeated his own about Moore's lack of influence and ability; but really there was no discernible difference between Moore and Mullis, or in fact among the three candidates, in anything that could be called ideology Just as all had tried to out-fer each other on guns, they then proceeded to out-agin each other on abortion. Mullis came out against it but not enough against it for young Moore, who asked where Mullis had been when Moore and other legislators were pushing through their heartbeat bill. Noblitt tried to top them both by trotting out his dead child for public consideration: The infant had been so horribly birth-defected he had only lived for 11 months, but Noblitt assured viewers he had never--not once, Noblitt emphasized--wished him aborted.
The candidates were invited to opine about school vouchers but there wasn't much juice in that one. "I don't think it's something we should support," said Moore.
"It takes our local community schools and reduces their quality," said Noblitt. However, there might be a medium ground, and why not give home schoolers a fair shake? Maybe a tax credit for the money spent on their kids' education?
Finally Mullis pointed out that private schools are so thin on the ground in Dade that this really wasn't much of an issue locally [so that one wondered, parenthetically, how the question had found its way into a debate structure that was already taking too long.]
Another debate question asked the candidates: If a local governing body, say a school board, asked them to get an issue approved by the legislature to go before the public in a referendum, would they stand in the way of letting the people have their say?
If it was something he was solidly against, said Noblitt, no way would he take it before the legislature. Otherwise, of course he'd let the voters speak: "One of the assets that Todd Noblitt brings to the table is that I'm going to listen to people," he said.
No, he wouldn't stand in the voters' way, said Mullis: "But I believe there should be a process." There should be a super majority of approval for the measure on the requesting governing board, he said.
"Absolutely," said Moore, about taking the issue before the legislature, and in fact he'd done just that when the Dade County school board had asked him to get a referendum approved for reforming Dade's so-called 65-5 school tax exemption, he pointed out. He'd had a town hall meeting on the subject. "There was a lot of backlash in the community," he said.
What Moore did not include in the story was the part where he betrayed his friends on the school board at the first sign of trouble, withdrawing his support for the income cap on the exemption they'd requested before the town hall, to which he rather pointedly did not invite them, and earning himself a shocked and wounded rebuke from the board for "disrespecting" it. (You can read the contemporaneous Planet story by clicking the photo.)
But he did go on to relate the part where he took the 65/5 reform referendum proposal, stripped down to the residency requirement he had proposed himself, before the legislature where it died, which he blamed on Mullis's influence. "There's no proof of this," he specified.
There was another minor skirmish here as Mullis accused Moore of making things up and Moore accused Mullis of doing a similar dirty deal in a LaFayette local issue.
"Keep talking," said Mullis. "That's all you do."
And so it went on. Asked what to do to trim the budget in the wake of the damage done to the local economy by COVID-19, Mullis said cuts would have to be made "somewhat across the board."
Moore, though, took aim at what he called the "film subsidy," which, he said, "Sen. Mullis has supported from the beginning." Georgians, said Moore, are paying to subsidize the movie industry in the state.
Moore had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick again, said Mullis: "It brings in $10 billion a year and it employs 92,000 Georgians."
Noblitt spoke firmly, and slowly, about the need to deal with debt in response to the budget question, and as to the film industry weighed in to the effect it was "smut." "We've got to stop that stuff," he said.
If pinch came to shove, the candidates were asked, would they raise taxes or reduce services? No one, predictably, waved any pompoms for a tax hike. Cut services, said they all. "There's a time to raise taxes when we've cut spending as much as we can and we still have debt," added Noblitt.
Asked if they would support funding for tornado shelters, the senate candidates, like the state representative hopefuls before them [and really for that matter whoever drafted the question], evinced no evidence of knowing Dade had shelters approved from FEMA awaiting Emergency Services Director Alex Case's completion of a bid proposal for their construction.
Noblitt said sure, Todd Noblitt was in--Noblitt intermittently referred to himself in both the first and third persons, sometimes both in the same sentence--as long as it didn't mean more debt.
Mullis dropped a list of names he'd called --"It does take relationships"--to get state help for Dade after the Easter tornado.
Moore took credit for having been the only person to warn his father of the aforementioned tornado, and said he would support both shelters and sirens. [The Planet cannot leave this point without noting that, however dilatory Case has been about storm shelter construction, he proudly unveiled Dade's first emergency warning "sireen" in December 2016 and has since then installed two more around the county.]
Candidates were also asked about economic development, a question perhaps meant to draw special attention to the incumbent Mullis, who directs and champions the regional ec dev association, the Joint Development Authority (JDA), about which Dade leaders have recently begun asking, So, what has it done for us lately?
Mullis did leap to defend JDA. It has brought in over 5000 jobs in the first few years, he claimed. He also said he was the only candidate endorsed by an association of mom-and-pop businesses.
"Economic development has become a means to punish smaller businesses," said Moore. In Dade, he said: "What we end up getting is Vanguard." The truck trailer manufacturer that Mullis and the curent ec dev structure had delivered Trenton, he pointed out, did not pay "wages that you and I would appreciate." Development was important, of course, he said, but the current system just didn't work. "If I'm elected I'll start a new team," he concluded.
Noblitt also questioned conventional ec dev wisdom: "That route has got us where?" he said. Local efforts should focus on small businesses, he opined. "That's the basket I want to put a lot of eggs in," said Noblitt.
One question that was, weirdly, asked every candidate at the May 14 forum was whether they'd been cited for ethics violations in the election process, even the board of education candidates, and even the ones seeking office for the first time. When it was Colton Moore's turn to answer it seemed that the question had perhaps been crafted with him in mind, because he was the only one to have to say yes.
Yes, said Moore, last January [after being elected to the statehouse] he'd been cited for "less than $2000" in campaign contributions that he'd failed to file. He'd immediately corrected the mistake, he said, but he'd compounded the error by telling Mullis in confidence about it, whereupon the incumbent "and his cronies" had trumpeted it about to make their new young colleague look bad. "Our senator was very deceitful," said Moore. Anyway, said Moore, he had only failed to report about $1500. Mullis had failed to report $5000.
There was another angry exchange here. He'd never had an ethics violation, said Mullis: "He made that up."
"I didn't make it up," said Moore. "He told us."
[The Planet could find no reference to Mullis being cited for an ethics violation.]
Noblitt, asked the ethics violation question, answered: "Most of you guys knows this is the first time I've ever ran."
Noblitt in his closing remarks pointed out again that Mullis had been in office almost 20 years and that during that time, "It's been very concerning the things I've seen." This brought to mind his reference in opening to "corruption," and highlighted the fact he had not during the debate said a word more about that, or about what "concerning things" he had seen. But, maintained Noblitt, "We can no longer go down the path we have with our elected officials."
"Politics should never be a profession," said Colton Moore (as he seeks the first promotion in his own political career). "That's what we've made in the last 20 years out of our current senator." Why doesn't Georgia have the economy of Texas or California? he asked. Could it have anything to do with the fact that our state senator is one of the most sought-after men in the state by lobbyists? he demanded. "What's really going on?" said Moore
"My opponent has been trying to deceive you the whole night," said Mullis in his own closing. "That's his whole campaign, to be negative, to lie, to be obstructionist. I think it's more important to elect people that can get the job done."
He was that person, said Mullis; he had the experience and the relationships with other leaders to make things better for people in northwest Georgia. It would be especially hard to rebuild the economy after COVID-19, said Mullis, and: "It takes people with influence to get that done."
The Republican primary for the state senate seat is June 9. There are no Democrats running for the slot.