The competitive race for a southwest Georgia state House seat that Democrats are trying hard to hold is about both legacy and the future.
One candidate, Bardin Hooks, the son of powerful former state Sen. George Hooks, describes himself as a middle-of-the road Democrat, a rare breed in today’s politically polarized environment.
He faces former state Rep. Mike Cheokas, who switched to the Republican Party midway through his 12 years in the state House and is trying to make a comeback after narrowly losing re-election in 2016.
The election for the district surrounding historic Americus will test the importance of rural needs and partisanship in a swing district that twice supported Barack Obama for president but backed Donald Trump two years ago. There’s no incumbent in the race because state Rep. Bill McGowan, a Democrat, isn’t seeking re-election after a single two-year term.
Hooks, an attorney, said he wants to fight for the needs of a district at a crossroads, with limited access to hospitals, a declining population and job losses.
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“I’ve always called myself a conservative Democrat. I’m hoping that still means something,” Hooks said in an interview. “When people say that today, it gets underscored as a joke, like it can’t exist anymore, but I think it can. I believe that there’s a need for that in politics today.”
Cheokas, a businessman who owns two liquor stores, 100 apartments and a mini-storage facility, said he best reflects rural Georgia. Cheokas touts his support for gun rights, abortion restrictions and Southern heritage while saying his position as a member of the state’s majority party would enable him to bring in more state government money.
“Does any one of us want to be completely forgotten? I’ve always promoted economic development for our rural communities,” Cheokas said this month during a debate at Georgia Southwestern State University. “I’ll be able to bring vital resources down here because our rural communities don’t have the population to warrant it otherwise.”
House District 138 includes almost 54,000 people in four counties near the Alabama border south of Columbus — Chattahoochee, Marion, Schley and Sumter. The district is 40 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic, according to the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.
As in many races, health care is a major topic in the race. Hooks supports expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act as a way to obtain more money for health coverage; Cheokas opposes Medicaid expansion, calling it “socialized medicine.”
“We’ve really got to think about health care in our rural areas because we might have to drive an hour to get it,” said McGowan, who is stepping down from the House at age 72 and supporting Hooks. “Bardin can work across the aisle. His opponent, on the other hand in my view, has had his chance and needs to retire.”
Cheokas emphasizes his experience as a member of the state Board of Education, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal last year to a seven-year term. If elected to the state House, he would have to resign his education position.
Cheokas declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he was too busy campaigning.
House Speaker David Ralston said Cheokas is the best choice for the district because he’d support business growth, boost employment, and support Georgia Southwestern State University and South Georgia Technical College.
“Nobody has more energy than Mike Cheokas. No one is more passionate about the community he represents than Mike Cheokas,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who campaigned for Cheokas this month in Americus. “He’s effective, he has credibility and he’s respected by the people he’s served with.”
If elected, Cheokas said in the debate he’d work to obtain taxpayer funding for a small livestock sale barn for agriculture students, and back legislation that would allow advanced practice registered nurses to conduct more medical procedures without a doctor.
During his time in the Georgia House, Cheokas became known for his recusals from voting on any bill dealing with liquor sales because he owns liquor stores. Because recusals for conflicts of interest are generally rare in the General Assembly, the practice was commonly referred to as invoking the “Cheokas Rule.”
Cheokas is currently being sued in federal court on allegations he sold more than $75,000 in aircraft parts he didn’t own. Cheokas’ attorney said in court filings that the allegations involve other individuals that have little to do with him and lack substance.
Cheokas said his prior experience as a Republican state legislator will position him to work for health care, rural internet and education at the Capitol.
“I’m not going up there to make a career,” Cheokas said in the debate. “I will be able to actually achieve those things. I’ll be a part of the Republican leadership. They write the budget.”
Hooks said the region’s revitalization starts with Medicaid expansion money to protect rural hospitals. When combined with high-speed internet and public education improvements, businesses will prosper, he said.
“It’s a great place to live down here, but you’ve got to have the right infrastructure to attract the jobs,” Hooks said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other — Medicaid or broadband — I think you have to do both.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.