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State Rep. Johnson faces criticism in District 75 race

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

State Rep. Celeste Johnson (D-Jonesboro) is facing questions about how well she has represented Clayton County as she seeks a second term in the Georgia General Assembly.

She is being challenged by Clayton County Police Officer Yasmin Neal and Hu Rays Cleaners owner Ray Johnson in the State House District 75 race.

Both of her opponents are running because they say they want to see the district represented by someone who does more to help the constituents.

"What has she done?" Ray Johnson asked. "I don't see anything she's done."

Neal, 23, has been a member of the Clayton County Police Department's Uniform Division since she joined the department in 2006. The officers in the uniform division are part of the first responders at a crime scene after a person calls 9-1-1.

Neal, who is single, is a former freelance reporter for the Clayton News Daily's sports department, and said she is working on a degree in journalism from Clayton State University.

She had planned to eventually run for the State House of Representatives, but always thought she would have more life experiences before she took a shot at an elected office. "The recent issues facing this community, such as the school system's accreditation issue, led me to decide the time is now," Neal said.

Her platform, she said, is C.H.E.S.S. -- children, health care, education, seniors and safety.

Ray Johnson, 64, is a "semi-retired" business owner, who has lived with his wife, Judy, in Lake City for 40 years. He was a military police officer in the Army National Guard, from 1961 to 1963. He started Hu Ray's Cleaners when he moved to the county. He operated Ray J's Barbecue in Morrow, from 1998 to 2001.

His daughters, Ginger Nichols and Julie Newman, are graduates of Forest Park High School.

He served on the Atlanta Regional Commission in the 1980s, and has also served on the Clayton County Zoning Board. He was a member of the Clayton County Rotary Club, from 1976 to 1996, and then helped start the Lake Spivey Rotary Club, of which he was a member for two years.

He also ran against Celeste Johnson for the House District 75 seat in 2006.

Celeste Johnson, 34, is the lead teacher for the Clayton County School System's fine arts department, according to the district's web site. She would not answer any questions about her employment with the school system. She is the wife of Clayton County Board of Education member Rod Johnson.

Celeste Johnson said she is running for re-election, "because of the thousands of people that have asked and supported me to represent them at the capitol." During her first term in office, she sat on the children and youth, interstate cooperation, and congressional and legislative reapportionment committees.

She declined to participate in a telephone interview with the Clayton News Daily, but she agreed to respond to a reporter's questions by e-mail.

Ray Johnson accused the incumbent of not sponsoring enough bills which benefit her constituents. Of the 26 bills she sponsored, 15 of them were either condolences or recognitions for students, sororities or athletes, like Hines Ward, according the General Assembly's web site.

"I like Hines Ward, I think he's a great guy, but the person who represents this district ought to do more than recognize athletes," Ray Johnson said.

Celeste Johnson responded to her opponent's criticism by pointing to several bills she co-sponsored, such as a new state law which established an ethics commission for the Clayton County Board of Education, and bills authorizing redevelopment powers for Riverdale and Forest Park.

Transportation, economic stability, the school system's accreditation, senior citizens and community safety are some of the needs the candidates say must be addressed.

Neal, and Ray Johnson, said rail service is needed to improve transportation in Clayton County. Neal said she is in support of the proposed commuter rail line, which would connect Lovejoy with downtown Atlanta.

"As gas prices continue to go up, it makes more and more sense to do this," she said. "The price of gas is having a negative effect on the way people live their lives."

Her opponent, Ray Johnson, would like to see the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) extend its rail service deeper into the county. It currently stops at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which is just inside the county line.

"We need more convenient, faster transportation," he said. "You shouldn't have to get on the bus at 5 a.m., just to make it to work at 8 a.m. Any time we expand our roads, we need to look at incorporating a rail system into the project. It's going to take a lot of tax dollars to do it, but a rail system is going to be the key to us having a prosperous future."

Neal, and Ray Johnson are also stressing senior-citizen-related issues. "We need to eliminate the property taxes for people over the age of 62, so those people won't leave the county and move to Florida," Ray Johnson said.

On Neal's web site (http://yaz-elections.tripod.com/id2.html), she says she wants to "support good legislation that ensures the well-being of seniors and the elderly ... I plan to explore their healthcare options as well ensure that they are aware of the options they already have available to them."

The school system's accreditation crisis was the No. 1 issue identified by Neal, and Celeste Johnson, however. "We need to put something in place, which says there is a penalty if you do not meet the qualifications to hold your office ... Not just a slap on the wrist, and a 'Please step down,'" Neal said.

"I plan to continue establishing an ethics commission to oversee the Clayton County School Board, to assist with the accreditation efforts," Celeste Johnson said. Under the new state law, the members of the Clayton County legislative delegation get to choose which residents will sit on the seven-member ethics commission.

Not everyone sees Celeste Johnson as the best person to help pick the members of the commission. "She's married to Rod Johnson -- that ties her to the school board," said Ray Johnson.

Despite some of the criticism, Celeste Johnson said she is the best candidate, because she is "sensitive" to the issues facing her constituents. "My leadership on several community service projects has afforded me to be the most qualified candidate for the state representative, District 75 seat," she said.