Independent candidate Alexander Hernandez makes the move to be the first of 18 hopefuls in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to speak to the crowd at a forum Wednesday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Marietta. The special election is set for April 18. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Photo: Henry P. Taylor
Photo: Henry P. Taylor

An 18-candidate debate shows how jumbled Georgia special election is

The vast field of candidates racing to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District kept the escalating feuds with each other largely beneath the surface and instead focused on a range of competing ideologies on tax overhauls and health policies Wednesday at the first major event featuring all 18 contenders.

The leading Republican candidates backed proposals ranging from reducing corporate income tax to a dream of eliminating all taxes. And Democrats in the April 18 special election voiced support for tax breaks that would help startups and smaller businesses.

There was outspoken criticism of the failed House GOP health plan from much of the field, aside from several candidates who said they would back the plan and cast blame on House Speaker Paul Ryan — and not President Donald Trump — for its implosion.

Some candidates struggling for attention and fundraising dollars tried to break from the pack with calls for sweeping proposals and catchy introductions to an audience of more than 100 executives at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Others just kept an understated profile during the event.

The BrandBank forum was the first major gathering of all the candidates in the race, and it underscored how jumbled the contest is. Eleven Republicans, five Democrats and two independents will all share the same ballot, and they’re scrambling to land what would likely be a single spot on the ballot in a runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The district, spanning from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, has been in Republican hands since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But Trump barely carried the district in November, and the special election to replace Tom Price in the U.S. House is an early test of the president’s popularity and his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Ossoff, who sat in the middle of the extended stage, has given Democrats hope he can flip the district with his “Make Trump Furious” campaign. He’s raised more than $3.5 million for his bid, and as his lead in the polls has solidified, Republicans have spent more than $2 million to cast him as inexperienced.

Meanwhile, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the president would be willing to “support the team and help the team” if his campaign muscle is needed in Georgia.

‘We’re actually dying’

The behind-the-scenes sparring between Republicans scrapping for an expected June 20 runoff spot stayed largely out of focus as the candidates honed their answers about tax policies. Some candidates took an ambitious approach to the question.

“I believe in getting rid of all the taxes,” said Bruce LeVell, a jeweler who led Trump’s diversity coalition. “That’s how we grow our economy. We have to attack all the taxes. We’re actually dying and we’re taking care of all these programs and entitlements on our backs.”

Several Republicans hewed to traditional conservative themes by saying they would take aim at corporate tax rates and reducing regulations.

Former state Sen. Dan Moody said the nation has been “delinquent” in not overhauling the Internal Revenue Service sooner. Republicans Judson Hill, Bob Gray and Karen Handel all backed sweeping tax cuts as well to jolt the economy.

“We’ve had, in the 6th, a pretty good economic recovery, but it’s not great,” said Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state. “It was more of a reset or a recalibration. Because post-Great Recession salaries for most people haven’t fully recovered.”

Ossoff embraced a familiar Democratic strategy by calling for the elimination of tax breaks for special interests and new incentives for startups and smaller organizations.

“A country says a lot about its values by how it balances its books,” he said, adding: “We absolutely can find ways to tighten the belt in federal government, but we can do so without imposing those costs” on the poorest residents.

‘Making sausage’

The candidates also clashed over the scuttled House GOP health plan, which has divided politicians and residents in Price’s home turf.

David Abroms, a GOP newcomer running as a business-minded outsider, said the measure was “ill-conceived and poorly run” because Republicans failed to reach out to their constituents.

And Amy Kremer, a tea party organizer, said Ryan was to blame for not cobbling together enough support for the bill. Her solution, she said, was simple: “You make Congress live under the same rules as you and I and it will get fixed real quick.”

Several others wholeheartedly supported the health proposal. Gray, an ex-Johns Creek councilman, said he looked at it through a “business point of view” and praised the plan for reducing premiums. Citing his legislative experience, Moody cast it as a first step.

“It’s like making sausage — you have to perfect it once it starts. This was the beginning of a three-step process that the speaker rolled out. I would have supported it and worked hard for it,” he said. “I would have voted yes.”

The left-leaning candidates in the contest were eager to pan the bill. Ossoff said lawmakers need to “break out of this partisan trench warfare to do the nuts-and-bolts legislating. And Democrat Rebecca Quigg, a physician, slammed Georgia Republicans for refusing to expand Medicaid.

“The math shows we need that Medicaid expansion money,” she said. “These are real people, and they are suffering because of the decision.”

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