In a sometimes combative televised debate Tuesday, candidates to lead the state Department of Labor pledged to make the agency more efficient while tarring each other with either personal or political bad judgment.
During the 30-minute, three-way face-off, Republican state Sen. Bruce Thompson, Democratic state Rep. William Boddie and Libertarian Emily Anderson all vowed to use technology and staffing improvements to bolster the performance of the agency responsible for handling unemployment claims.
While differing on their approach, the candidates agreed that the agency must prepare for a possible recession next year.
“Crisis management is not waiting until there’s a crisis to respond,” Thompson said, who has touted his experience as an entrepreneur.
The debate was held at Georgia Public Broadcasting studios as part of the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.
Current Labor Commissioner Mark Butler did not run for a fourth term, but his performance and that of his agency for its handling the deluge of job claims during the pandemic were the focus of harsh criticism from all three.
“As a state legislator, I took phone calls from citizens across the state of Georgia that could not get their calls answered by Department of Labor,” Boddie said. “We are going to be proactive, we are going to make sure that the Department of Labor is fully staffed.”
He said he wanted to return to the staffing levels the department maintained during the 2007-09 recession, when the agency had more than twice the number of employees it now has.
“I would focus my time and effort on working with the budget that we have, but I’d also advocate that we would have more money in our budget,” Boddie said. “How can you adequately serve the people of the state with a skeletal budget?”
Thompson said he would start by cultivating the staff to encourage better performance while upgrading the software and other systems.
“When you bring technology in, you don’t need to balloon the staff — a department that has not been efficient with taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Anderson, who is a printer working for a publishing company, promised to “get her hands dirty,” if that was required to improve the agency.
“I’d answer the phones myself,” she said.
Anderson has no government experience, but she does have executive skills, she said. “I run a household with an 8 year-old, a dog and a ferret. It’s complete chaos.”
Boddie charged Thompson with “reckless” behavior for his actions early in the pandemic when he was among the first public officials in Georgia to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Thompson traveled to his beach home in Florida after being hospitalized.
Thompson on Tuesday said he went to Florida to quarantine himself and had followed the advice of doctors at the time.
Thompson countered that Boddie was tied to the policies of President Joe Biden, which he said were responsible for “out of control inflation.”
The agency, low-profile in good times, was often vilified during the pandemic as staffers were overwhelmed with an unprecedented number of claims for jobless benefits. Officials struggled to process claims, manage new federal programs and make payments, while screening thousands of fraudulent claims.
Butler defended the agency, saying staffers did the best they could in impossible circumstances. After announcing he would not run for reelection, during the primary, he endorsed Republican Mike Coan, who was defeated by Thompson.
Butler has not endorsed a candidate in the general election.
Watch a replay of the debate