Candidates look to fill vacant House seat

By Billy Corriher

With the July 20 primary less than three months away, four candidates have filed this week to qualify to run for the seat of state Rep. Victor Hill, D-Riverdale, who is leaving his seat to run for Clayton County Sheriff.

Republican Emory Wilkerson, a former candidate for state Senate, said he has been involved in the community for years and running for office was the next step.

"I decided that it was time to offer my skills and leadership to the community," he said.

Wilkerson said he is a supporter of strong public schools, and the community needs an effective voice in state government.

"With the continued development in the South side, we need someone who can help keep our communities strong," he said.

Wilkerson will face whichever Democrat emerges from the July 20 primary. So far, three Democrats are vying for the spot.

Jonesboro attorney Johnny Castaneda is also seeking Hill's seat.

"I think it's time for me to do something for the community," Castaneda said.

Northcutt Elementary Principal George Jeburk has also thrown his hat into the battle for Hill's seat.

Jeburk has said that as a state Representative, he would focus on education issues like cuts to the HOPE scholarship and teachers' pay raises.

Riverdale resident John Jones, an airline pilot, has also filed to qualify to run for Hill's seat.

In addition to the newcomers running for the vacant spot, six Clayton County incumbents have filed to defend their seats in the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, said voters in November are going to be concerned with how well the state handles the budget during this "economic crunch."

"We need to make sure we work together to make sure the state's needs are still met," she said. "I'm hoping that we can continue with the $1 million we have left (in the state budget for operating costs) for the Atlanta-Lovejoy rail line."

Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, also said he hopes the state budget can keep money for the commuter rail line, despite the state's tight budget.

"We're in critical times and I've been working (in the House) on the budget and education for a long time," he said.

Starr said he thinks voters will also look at the candidates' position on smaller class sizes and instituting caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Starr, who has served in the Senate for 36 years, said his experience will be an asset in his reelection campaign.

Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, has served in the House for three terms and also said his longevity makes him an effective legislator.

"Probably the most important thing you can look at when you're electing a legislator is experience and seniority," he said. "I'm the best qualified because of my budget experience and I have a vice-chairmanship on (the Appropriations Committee)."

Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, is also running for his fourth term.

"It takes a couple of years to really get adjusted," Dodson said.

As this year's election gets nearer, Dodson said he thinks voters will be concerned about cuts to funding for health care and education.

"The Medicaid cutbacks in the budget his year have already affected a lot of people," he said. "The House put back some of the Medicaid money and made (the budget) a little better? but I guess that's a battle we're going to be faced with in the next couple of budgets."

With Georgia's economy still struggling and state revenues lagging, Dodson said there could also be discussion in the legislature next year about taxes.

"Sooner or later you're going to have to see income coming from some place," he said. "We would just want it to be as fair as possible."

Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, has been in the House for 14 years, and she said the effect of the tough economy will be a big issue in November.

"I think the citizens are going to want to know how we're going to address education, health care, and transportation," she said.

Buckner said she has achieved a lot since taking office, and she thinks her long tenure makes her a more effective legislator.

"With the high turnover in the legislature, I will continue to move up the ladder of seniority," she said.

No one has qualified yet to challenge the incumbents except Libertarian Ken Parmalee, who is trying to get on the ballot to challenge Buckner.

"(The Libertarian Party) has been looking to reduce the size and scope of state government and give some money back to the taxpayers," Parmalee said.

School board incumbents, challengers file

Two incumbents and three challengers also filed to run for the Clayton County Board of Education on Tuesday.

Incumbent Barbara Wells, who has been on the school board for eight years, filed Tuesday to defend her seat.

Wells said her experience will be an asset to her reelection campaign and will help her work with the system's new superintendent, Dr. Barbara Pulliam.

"I'm running on my voting record and the things I've done in the past eight years," she said.

But Wells said the controversy surrounding the school board will also be on voters' minds in November.

"It was a tough year, but I think it made me stronger," she said. "I will continue to fight for our kids."

Running against Wells will be Pastor Wendell Rod Johnson and Cobb County teacher Jermaine Dawson.

Johnson, the pastor of New Ambassador's Church in Fayetteville, said he wanted to run for school board because of concern for the system's students.

"I believe that Clayton County students have a bright future," he said. "By becoming a school board member, I can personally assure the success of our students in the future."

School board member Carol Kellam also filed to run for reelection and will face competition from David Ashe, a retiree with experience in local Parent Teacher Associations.

Cheryl Singletary, who is running for the seat held by School Board Chairwoman Nedra Ware, said she also has experience with local PTAs and the Georgia PTA.

Singletary said she is interested in the welfare of the county's children, and the school system being on probation will be a big issue for voters.

"The reason I located here is because? we had a great sense of pride in the school system," she said. "This probation concerns me."

Ware so far has not filed for re-election.

Tax commissioner not running, supporting deputy

Clayton County Tax Commissioner Patricia Hussey has decided not to seek reelection in November, saying she wanted to devote her time to helping raise her grandchildren and working on her genealogy.

Hussey said she plans to stay involved with Arts Clayton and Rainbow House.

"Our young people are our future generation and we should, as a county, exhaust every effort to educate them to see the many different opportunities that are available to them," she said.

Hussey said she is supporting the county's deputy tax commissioner, Terry Baskin, in his bid to run for her seat.

"I put my trust in (Baskin) to carry on with the quality of service in the Tax Commissioner's Office that I have tried to uphold," she said.

Baskin said he ran for state Senate in 1997 and has served as deputy commissioner for four years.

"Tax commissioner is not a position where anyone can come in and take over," he said. "My experience shows the public that I can handle this position very effectively."

Incumbent Judges qualify

Probate Court Judge Pamela Ferguson, who took office after a special election last November following the retirement of former Judge Eugene Lawson, has qualified to defend her seat in November.

"I feel like I'm doing a good job representing the county," she said. "The probate court has run smoothly since I've been here."

Forest Park attorney Bobby Simmons filed Tuesday to challenge Ferguson.

"I think the compassion and concerns I've always had in probate work, especially with minorities and dealing with minors? makes me a good candidate," he said. "I have a good temperament for being a probate judge."

Clayton County's three state court judges, Harold Benefield, Morris Braswell, and Linda Cowen, have filed to qualify to defend their seats. No opponents had filed by Tuesday to challenge the incumbents.

The county's incumbent Judges of Superior Court, Deborah Benefield and Matthew Simmons, have also filed to defend their seats. Benefield has held her seat since 1992, when she first ran for office.

"I will continue to fairly and impartially hear all cases assigned to me for the benefit of every citizen of Clayton County," she said. "The court is open to anyone who would like to observe."

Jonesboro attorney Michael King also filed to run for District Attorney against incumbent Bob Keller.

Party switching continues

Republicans picked up another party-switcher Tuesday, further eroding the Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives.

State Rep. Tom McCall of Elberton, formerly a Democrat, qualified to seek re-election as a Republican. The switch had been expected.

McCall is the fifth Democrat to change party allegiances this month, and leaves Democrats with just 103 seats in the 180-member House. Republicans hold 76 seats and there is one independent who usually votes with the Republicans. A majority is 91.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report).