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Candidates clash during runoff debates hosted by DeKalb Democrats

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Candidates clash during runoff debates hosted by DeKalb Democrats

File Photo courtesy of Dena Mellick
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This story has been updated. 

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Decatur, GA — Dekalb Democrats hosted a series of three debates Monday night that included the candidates of the Dekalb County Board of Education, Super District 1 and 6 Commission, and House District 86, all of whom will be on the ballot for the runoff election August 11. The debates were held on Facebook Live due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The candidates are Dierdre Pierce running against Willie Mosley for Board of Education, Ted Terry running against Maryam Ahmad for Super District 6 Commissioner, Robert Patrick running against Cynthia Yaxon for Super District 1 Commission, and Zulma Lopez running against incumbent Rep. Michele Henson for House Representative 86.

Cynthia Yaxon was unable to participate in the debate due to a family emergency.

Gloria Moore moderated the Board of Education debate.

In the Board of Education debate, the candidates addressed concerns about the COVID-19 crises and reopening schools. 

DeKalb County School Board Debate

Q: How would you make decisions relative to schools reopening?

Pierce praised Dekalb Schools for the decision to continue remote learning and their plan for moving forward in the pandemic.

“I was impressed with the fact that they did make that decision. I was hoping that we would be the ‘lone ranger’ to do something different. … I’m thankful that DeKalb County did make that decision to stay with distanced and remote learning,” said Pierce.

“This virus is very, very deadly and I don’t think we’re prepared to bring our students back in. Right now, I don’t think we are — we don’t have enough nurses, we don’t have enough staff to cover what we need in our schools,” Mosley said.

The candidates were asked about how they would deal with the much-reduced budget.

“I’m really disappointed in our school board,” Mosley said. “We have spent money, but I have nothing to show on the Southside of Dekalb County. We need to have good leadership, … accountability and discipline. There has not been no accountability at all in this district.”

Pierce stated that Dekalb Schools would be able to save some money by not reopening the buildings.

Q: Dekalb County School System has a contract with the police, and you have police in schools. Is that something you have an opinion on?

“I’m thankful that they’re there. They are our school resource officers, we couldn’t make it without them,” said Dierdre Pierce. “We hope, of course, on any given day, that there’s nothing to have to deal with, but we know that’s not a reality all the time. … We always have an excellent relationship with our police officers.”

Mosley said, “We do not have enough resource officers in our school right now. They are there to protect the students, teachers, staff, and parents. We need more officers there before and after school is open.”

He said he is himself a security officer and is concerned about the security of school buildings.

Q: What is the #1 issue you expect to deal with on the board?

Pierce’s biggest concern is having students and faculty members come back to school. “It will have to be well-thought-out, and it will have to be science-based on the figures and facts of COVID-19,” she said.

Mosley is concerned about having more police in schools. “We are gonna have to secure our building and make students, staff, and faculty feel safe.”

In her closing statements, Pierce quoted President Barack Obama, stating “Change will not come when we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” 

Mosley emphasized holding the members of the Board of Education accountable for their decisions and the importance of secure school buildings.

DeKalb County Commission Debates

In the Dekalb County Commission Super District 1 and District 6 Debate, District 1 candidate Robert Patrick had the forum to himself while District 6 candidates Ted Terry and Maryam Ahmad debated each other. The moderators were Karli Swift and Kenneth Royal.

Q: What differentiates you from your opponent, and why should voters vote for you?

Maryam Ahmad described herself as an activist and public health worker who “understands health on a population level.” She created a survey that measures affordability and accessibility of public health. She attended Emory University and has lived in Dekalb County her whole life.

Ted Terry highlighted his experience as Mayor of Clarkston and described it as an experience of “advocacy and activism.” He noted that he fought against Georgia Power, fought to expand solar energy, and recapped his accomplishments as Mayor.

Q: A lot of people talk about the North/South divide in Dekalb County. How would you as commissioner work to make sure all parts of the district feel heard and valued?

“The crux of why there’s a divide in Dekalb County is a result of segregation, racism, and discriminatory housing policies over the last 50-plus years,” Terry said.  “I think actually, in fact, there are a lot of things between North and South Dekalb that we have very much in common. We want to see economic development, we want to see preservation of greenspace, we want to see affordable housing, we want to see expansion of transit. These are investments that can be done county-wide that I think will actually bring the county together and not divide us.”

Ahmad said that her plan to survey community members and make them feel heard “addresses this exact issue.”

“When we’re actually focusing on creating health equity for all people in the entire county, that really is asking what are they lacking in their communities?” she said. “It’s not just from people in leadership deciding what is better for people without actually finding out first what is better for them, or attempting to speak for people, or represent people without really figuring out their needs. … Where is there a lack in health equity? That is what we need to continue to flourish as people.”

To see Terry’s policy positions, click here.

Q: What are three specific things you would advocate to improve the elections process as a commissioner?

“Some of those changes that have been made for the November election are really positive and I would want to see those changes implemented permanently,” said Terry. “We need to make mailing out absentee ballots a permanent policy going forward.”

He said he would like to implement a nonpartisan independent redistricting committee that would provide recommendations to the Dekalb delegation “in terms of re-drawing all of the county-level districts in Dekalb County.”

Q: What should the county be doing to flatten the curve of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases across the state, and what recommendations would you make as a commissioner?

“The thing about this situation, unfortunately, is that when it was time for prevention we needed it very quickly, but due to a lack of leadership and intelligence and resources of the federal government, we have issues even going then to state government and the lack of resources there, and there was never a unified message for everybody,” Ahmad said. “Really, misinformation is a really big problem, I think, in how we have not even flattened the curve whatsoever. … What can be done on a county level is providing an easy place to access resources and other things that are available for businesses and people.”

Q: Who is focusing on senior citizens in Dekalb County?

“Seniors are a vulnerable population,” said Ahmad. “We really need to ensure that we are safely delivering food and other services [to seniors].  Find out what they need, what they feel is lacking, what they feel can be done for them.”

“I love our seniors, so much so that in college I worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant in a long-term care facility that had dementia patients and aging-in-place residents,” said Terry. “I had a firsthand look at our healthcare system and how we treat our elders and seniors in the end stages of their lives, and I’m here to tell you that it’s in shambles. That was in Florida and here in Georgia it’s no different. … It’s really important that we need to support our seniors, but we also need to ask our candidates and politicians what they’ve done.” Terry also said he has volunteered for Senior Connections Meals on Wheels program for 7 years and that Clarkston will have an affordable senior living facility funded by affordable tax credits.

Candidates were then allowed to ask each other a question.

Terry asked Ahmad, “I put forward a detailed policy platform on criminal justice and police reform, and I want to ask Maryam if she’ll support the policies that I put forward to increase pay for public defenders, end cash bail for nonviolent crime, fully fund a non-police responder unit made up of social workers and mental health specialists, while defunding the militarized part of the Dekalb Police Department.”

Ahmad responded, “Yes, of course, those are very basic ones that are well-known in the Democratic Party as well, so I definitely support those. And I also want to point out that it’s also very important to focus on the fact of making sure resources are allocated correctly. Because when a lot of people say, ‘defund the police,’ you’re not really describing fully for a lot of people. … There are actually a ton of organizations and people who have been working on this in Dekalb County, and having their voices heard as well would be very essential.”

Ahmad asked Terry, “Mr. Terry, why did 12 current and former council members endorse me and our other opponent in this election when most of them have sat with you on the [Clarkston] city council and have worked with you for years?”

Terry responded, “When I came to Clarkston in 2012 and 2013, we had a city councilman, a mayor, who banned refugees from being welcomed in the city. I ran against that mayor and defeated him, and over the last four years defeated other council members who, quite frankly, had problematic, anti-refugee, racist, and toxic behavior, not just to the public but to fellow councilmembers. So if you’re talking about people who were problematic who I defeated and are now not supporting me, I don’t think that’s surprising, I think they’re upset that I beat them.”

He noted that he was re-elected as mayor with 58% of the vote and won Clarkston’s precincts in the June 9th primary.”

Ahmad responded, “I definitely understand that of course along the path there’s gonna be people that are difficult or have discriminatory policies, but when it comes down to it, 12 — and you know I’m all about data, I’m a data analyst, I know all about statistics as well — that’s a very high number. I’m just concerned about all the constituents of District 6 because this does say something about the ability to create working relationships. In all honesty, 12 people that have worked directly with you endorsed me and the other candidate specifically.”

“Can you name all twelve, please?” asked Terry.

Ahmad pulled up a list of council members who did not endorse Terry and read them out, saying, “I don’t want to leave anybody out.”

Terry responded, “Well, Laura Hopkins and Debra Johnson just got elected, so working for them for two months I guess is kinda scant. The previous people that you mentioned, three are former council members or did not serve on the council.”

He noted that he is endorsed by two current County Commissioners, Larry Johnson and Mereda Johnson and that Steve Bradshaw was now endorsing him for the runoff, having endorsed Emily HaLevy in the primary.

“Yes, it’s very important to have relationships with the commissioners in order to work well together,” said Ahmad. “However, that’s not to say that we really want to create the type of environment for elected officials to have little groups and decide what is best. The most important part is, what are the people needing?”

Terry then asked Ahmad to provide more details about the issues on her website such as public safety, transit, housing, and development.

Ahmad stated that she didn’t want to make sweeping generalizations about the entire district and reiterated that it was a diverse district. “The primary issue has been that as community members, we have not been heard, and I know this because I grew up here … I think that needs to be focused on first.”

Ahmad then asked Terry, “Why did you decide to join this commissioner race when already had two progressive Democratic women who are specifically focused on Dekalb County, when your focus was on running for Senate on a national level?”

“Well, I think a lot of people were happy that I decided to run for County Commission, and quite frankly, the only person that anyone knew was running was Robert Murphy and Emily Halevy, so no one knew you were running. It’s not personal to you, Maryam,” said Terry.

Terry said although running for Senate was “a lot of fun,” his experience is in local government. 

“When people are encouraging you to represent your home county and to run on these issues and bring new energy and new ideas, it’s hard to say no,” he said. 

The moderators then took questions from the Facebook Live chat.

Q: Do you support increasing the budget for the Board of Election to allow for paid postage to be included with absentee ballot applications?

All candidates answered yes.

Terry wavered between “yes” and “no” and tried to provide an explanation, but Swift stated that detailed explanations were not allowed in this section of the debate.

Q: Would you support “banning the box” for hiring of Dekalb County employees?

Robert Patrick asked for a clarification of the meaning of “banning the box.”

“It relates to banning the question about whether you have a conviction, which often keeps certain folks from applying,” Swift said.

Patrick, Ahmad, and Terry all were in favor of “banning the box.” Terry added, “We did that in Clarkston four years ago.”

Robert Patrick’s closing statement highlighted that he is an immigrant to the United States, that we need to treat each other with dignity and respect, and his prior experience in leadership in Doraville. 

In his closing statement, Terry said that while infrastructure issues are the large issues that get talked about often, smaller issues such as neighborhoods paying for traffic calming also need attention. He highlighted many of the changes he was able to implement in Clarkston and said he was interested in making those same changes county-wide.

In her closing statement, Ahmad emphasized her status as a community member of Dekalb County and public health professional and said she is running to represent the community members. 

 

House District 86 Debate

The debate for House District 86 was between Zulma Lopez and incumbent Michele Henson. The moderators were Alisa Hamilton and Jana Miles.

Q: What is your plan to keep your constituents informed in a timely manner?

Henson cited Facebook, Zoom meetings and Nextdoor, and said she is also available by phone.

Lopez stated that she has been a resident of District 86 for 13 years and has spoken with hundreds of constituents, and promised to be involved in the community and have real conversations. Due to the pandemic, she looks forward to having virtual town halls.

Q: What are your opinions regarding cityhood in the district and what is our path forward?

Lopez said she does not support cityhood for cities such as proposed Vista Grove. She questioned what the new cities’ response to diversity would be, and how they would make sure they would still be affordable to everyone in the district.

“During COVID is not the time to move forward with cityhood for Vista Grove and Greenhaven,” said Henson.

Henson also denied Lopez’s claim that Henson had not attended homeowner association meetings.

Q: Our district is majority Black. What will you do to build relationships with Black constituents and legislators?

“I work very closely with my Black constituents and my fellow legislators who are Black. I’m a member of the Georgia Black Caucus and Working Families Caucus. We need to teach people to respect their neighbors,” said Henson.

“We want to have better schools, better opportunities, affordable healthcare, but that promise hasn’t been fulfilled for half of our district or almost 60% of our district. Those inequities precede COVID-19,” said Lopez.

She spoke about the contrasting college acceptance rates of Lakeside High school versus Towers High School. “There’s an opportunity to dismantle the institutions that keep Black and brown people of color from fulfilling this promise of prosperity,” Lopez said.

Q: What are your plans to limit or provide relief for residents who are facing evictions? 

Lopez responded, “Part of the issue is that the incompetence of this administration in handling this crisis means we are nowhere near this being over. This exacerbates the housing issues we have in our county and our state. We need to continue a moratorium on evictions while making sure those landlords and property companies are still protected. We have to put people first.”

Henson responded, “This is the core of Democratic principles in values, and that is looking to people at a time of need. We need to come together and begin looking at how we can help.” 

Q: What is your position on reproductive choice and what actions would you take to protect and extend reproductive freedom?

Henson described herself as having been an advocate of reproductive choice since the 1970s. She said she fought to keep Roe v Wade and fought against HB481 on the House floor.

“Of course I am a pro-choice candidate,” said Lopez. She stated her concern that Governor Kemp is “spending taxpayer money appealing a decision when we know that HB481 is clearly unconstitutional.”

She stated that we need to “call out Republicans”  on their “hypocrisy” about how this is not about protecting lives and that an example of protecting lives would be extending Medicaid.

Q: What is your position on LGBTQ rights?

Lopez stated that as an immigration attorney, 50% of her clients are LGBTQ.

“I will fight against any law that only outright discriminates, but that in the nuance and implication of those laws is intended to discriminate against those individuals and families,” she said.

“I have always been supportive of the LGBTQ community. … I have supported every single bill, I have been supported by Georgia Equality every year,” said Henson. She said that also has to include the transgender community and stated that she is a member of the Anti-Defamation League.

Q: Rep. Henson, what is your greatest strength and greatest challenge? 

Henson stated that her greatest strength was her ability to work with other legislators and able to have conversations with legislators with opposing viewpoints.

Q: Zulma Lopez, how will you build relationships across the aisle? 

“I will not shy away from calling out what’s right and what’s needed and what my community needs, but I think I will work very well with other people as I’ve worked as an immigration attorney,” said Lopez. She described herself as compassionate.

Q: Based on the voting record from the secretary of state’s office, Lopez, it appears that you may have pulled a republican presidential primary ballot in 2012 and 2016. Did you?

“I am a proud Democrat, said Lopez. “I voted for President Obama twice, for Hillary in 2016, for Governor Barnes, Jason Carter, Stacey Abrams, along with so many other Democratic candidates over the past 13 years.”

She says she took a Republican ballot in two primaries specifically to vote against “the anti-immigrant candidate,” but voted for Democratic candidates in the general.

Q: If the Democrats are to win the statehouse and the state senate in 2020, what is the first piece of legislation you’d want to pass that you think Governor Kemp would sign?

Henson responded, “Ideally I’d love to pass Medicaid Advantage and doing away with citizens’ arrest.”

She also spoke in favor of “plugging the hole” in public education which is affecting the budget “when we need money now more than ever.”

Lopez similarly spoke in favor of helping public education.

Candidates were then allowed to ask each other questions.

Lopez asked Henson, 60% of residents voted against you, a 30-year incumbent. What would you say to those voters that you have represented for the last 30 year and why are they not choosing you?

Henson responded, “This was without a doubt the most unusual and weirdest situation that any of us have ever been through. My campaign did not move forward.”

She stated that she was unable to fundraise after January because she is a legislator. She still feels that she has the respect and support of the district, and additionally clarified that she has not represented this district for 30 years, but that she was a state representative for 30 years and this district only for 8 years.

Henson asked Lopez why she hadn’t contacted her and why she had not been more involved.

Lopez responded, “I have been representing immigrants as an immigration attorney. Since 2016, waking up every day that you are representing immigrants, sometimes it feels like you are about to give up. I have been on the front line defending clients against these cruel policies that are un-American. I have also been raising my children.”

Lopez thanked her supporters in her closing statement and emphasized her 13-year residence in Dekalb County and her work as an immigration attorney and as a small business owner.

In her closing statement, Henson highlighted successes of her career like the HOPE scholarship and the recent hate crimes bill. She discussed her work with Medicaid patients and noted that she is part of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust which makes sure teachers educate students about the Holocaust. 

The runoff election is August 11, and Dekalb County residents can now request an absentee ballot at DekalbVotes.com

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