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Bell absent from forum

By Justin Boron

Despite drawing a standing-room-only crowd at the Morrow Tourist Center, the anticipation of seeing the two county commission candidates answering questions side-by-side fell unfulfilled Tuesday after Democratic nominee Eldrin Bell declined an invitation to a political forum sponsored by the Clayton County branch of the NAACP.

Bell's decision to attend a fund-raiser in downtown Atlanta instead of the event disappointed many who said they would have liked to hear Bell's response to Republican nominee Michael Onyemenam.

"I wanted to hear what he had to say about the other guy," said Antoinette Montgomery, an audience member.

Bell reneged on a commitment expressed Monday by his campaign manager, Frank Bailey, who said Bell would attend the forum.

Confusion over mail deliveries that contained the invitation and the prior engagement were the reasons Bailey gave for Bell's absence.

An invitation dated Oct. 17 was sent to Bell's campaign headquarters, but it was postmarked Oct. 24, said Kathy Adams, a campaign assistant to Bell.

The date of reception left too little time to reschedule, she said.

"If it was a day earlier, we could have backed out of the fund-raiser," Adams said.

Onyemenam said Bell's absence disappointed him.

Onyemenam's campaign manager, G.B. Osborne, scrolled down a list of implications, stemming from Bell's lack of attendance.

"His campaign is broke," he said, adding that Bell's organization was "plagued with all kinds of problems."

"The way he has managed his campaign exemplifies his poor judgment," Osborne said.

Adams defended the organization's integrity, saying Osborne's assertions were baseless because he would have no insight into the financial status of Bell's campaign.

Despite the Onyemenam camp's recent derision, she said Bell has held his ground on running a campaign focused on the issues.

"He still holds strong about his commitment to Clayton County," Adams said. "He has not wavered on his plans for economic development and zoning at all."

Despite Bell's absence, a number of other politicians still attended the forum.

Candidates for state House of Representatives and local school board candidates weighed in on their plans for the community's education, economic development and safety concerns.

Board of Education District 6

Republican nominee Joel Dixon, 26, took the microphone first, giving an opening statement that drew attention to his youth but characterized it as an advantage instead of a deficiency.

He provided a three-pronged plan for the county's education system that included moving it off the warning status of its probation, raising student achievement, and the retention of quality teaching in the county.

"Excellence doesn't come from lowering the bar, it comes from maintaining a very high standard," he said.

Democratic nominee Eddie White showed up in a white campaign shirt and jeans, while Dixon wore a gray suit.

White hit similar issues in his opening statement, playing up his ability to moderate conflict.

"I know how to disagree without being disagreeable," he said.

While both candidates addressed the issue of keeping good teachers in the county, neither specified a clear plan on how they would do so, avoiding the issue of pay and benefit increases.

Questioned by Clayton County NAACP President Dexter Matthews, White said he would work to include more minority contracts and employment in the system to better reflect the demographics of its students.

House District 74

Republican nominee Emory Wilkerson called attention to his family and work as a deacon in an opening statement that sought to portray his devotion to the community outside of party affiliation.

"I am a person who is committed to progressing our community," he said. "I am not a cheerleader for the Republican Party ? what I am a cheerleader for is the constituents of District 74."

Wilkerson said he would bring down the "runaway health-care costs" for senior citizens.

He also attached himself to a juvenile justice cause previously championed by the Democratic nominee Roberta Abdul-Salaam, promising he would work to repeal legislation that sends youths to adult prisons.

Abdul-Salaam responded by outlining three years of work on the issue with current legislators.

"My role is working with parents who have children behind bars," she said.

Abdul-Salaam also broached the health-care topic, saying budget cuts came when the public became distracted with media-emphasized issues like gay marriage.

"What I was very saddened about was while we were watching the flag and watching the gay amendment they were cutting the budget and evicting senior citizens from senior citizen homes," she said. "We don't need to be cutting senior health care."

House District 60

Democratic incumbent Georganna Sinkfield warned of what could happen if the Democratic Party lost its hold over the House during her time with the microphone.

"If Democrats are out, (Republican) winners take all," she said. "It's important that Democrats hold on to where we are."

She said hope would not be lost though because the shift would marginalize Democrats but would not disenfranchise them.

"I have dialogue with the Republicans," she said. "It's not enemy territory."

Republican nominee Ruth Braley Barr and Libertarian nominee Ralph Nobles did not attend.

Commission chairman

Onyemenam strayed away from his usual attacks on the opposition, focusing more on his plans to bring economic development.

Answering a question about the quality of real estate coming to Clayton County, he promised to halt the devaluation of homes.

"Because my campaign is not funded by developers, I'm going to have strong footing ? we can draw guidelines to prevent unfavorable development," he said.

When asked to be more specific about his economic development plans, he said he has been talking to a group of businesses outside of the county to see what he could do to bring them here.

A letter from Bell expressed his regrets and apologies for not attending the event.

Write-in candidate for House of Representatives District 77 Sherry Jefferson was allowed to speak in the absence of her opposition. She said she would make it her goal to root out the pervasive practice of predatory lending in the community.

Democratic incumbent Darryl Jordan did not attend.

Candidates from House District 76 and the 34th District of the state Senate were invited but did not attend.