By Joel Hall
Political office seekers, and their representatives, showed up in large numbers at the Charley Griswell Senior Center in Jonesboro for a weekend forum hosted by the Association of Christian Ministers of Clayton County.
But only a few members of the general public were in attendance. Of the 150 people at the forum Saturday, the overwhelming majority of them were candidates, their family members, or campaign staffers.
Otis White, political action committee chair for the ministers' group, said the forum offered a chance for the public to study the people they may be putting into office.
"We want our parishioners and our community to be well-informed voters ... that when they cast their ballots, they will be well-informed," he said.
More than 50 candidates for state and local positions were given about a minute to illustrate their platforms and additional time to answer questions fielded by the ministers' group.
Candidates were asked about their plans to address transportation issues, rising crime, keeping taxes moderate and property values up. They were also asked more specific questions, such as their thoughts on the role of a school board member and their views on consolidating public safety under the sheriff's office, a concept promoted often by incumbent sheriff, Victor Hill.
No questions were taken from the general audience, due to time considerations.
The local races that seemed to garner the most attention were the hotly contested races for district attorney, sheriff and the Clayton Commission Chairman's seat.
Opponents of incumbent district attorney, Jewel Scott, alluded to recent political controversies involving the district attorney's office and focused on what they said was Scott's lack of trial experience. Scott countered, saying the office has "done more with less," addressing an increased number of cases, without a needed increase in funding from the board of commissioners.
She said she has "a balanced, common-sense approach to prosecution," noting 24 years of experience in criminal, family, domestic violence, and mental health law.
Juvenile Court Judge Tracy Graham-Lawson touted her 22 years of experience working for the county, 10 of which were spent as an assistant district attorney.
Attorney Herbert Adams cited his 20 years of experience as a defense lawyer, prosecutor, and a judge. He criticized Scott, saying, "the current district attorney has never tried a case."
In the race for BOC chairman, all the candidates, except District 2 Commissioner Virginia Gray were present to share their platforms. The challengers highlighted the qualities they believe set them apart from incumbent commission chairman, Eldrin Bell.
Phaedra Graham, the former mayor of Riverdale, presented herself as "competent, committed, and compassionate" leader "willing to embrace change." She said she believes it is necessary for the BOC to further "embrace" the school system, reduce crime, create more senior citizen programs, and encourage more-thoughtful economic development.
Earl Randall, a former chief of staff in the district attorney's office, stressed a need for transparency in government, and better community policing by putting more officers in neighborhoods on foot and bicycle patrols. He said he wants the BOC to have "an open-door policy."
Lee Scott, a businessman, and husband of the current district attorney, said the county "needs a CEO" in charge, rather than "a teacher," "a policeman," or a "police chief."
He said a solid business plan, which includes decreasing crime to highlight the county's reasonably priced housing stock, is needed to bring the county out of its current "doldrums."
"I have 40 years of experience in public service, not public rhetoric," said Bell, noting that his "vision" and experience in government set him apart from the rest of the candidates. He said, under his watch, the county has not seen a significant budget increase in the last three years.
Incumbent sheriff, Victor Hill, was notably absent from the forum. His five opponents were on hand, however.  Jack Rainwater, Sherman Lemon, Garland Watkins, Ernest Strozier, and Kem Kimbrough all shook hands amicably before taking the stage, and each expressed a desire to change the image of the Sheriff's Office.
Questions from the ministers centered around Hill's desire to consolidate the county police and all of the municipal police departments under the umbrella of the Sheriff's Office. His opponents balked at the idea.
"The sheriff and the police departments serve two different functions," said Lemon. He said the job of the sheriff is to serve warrants and maintain the jail, and the role of the police is to "enforce the laws of the county."
"This is not a rural county," said Rainwater. "You can do that in a rural county, but you have to have two functions in metro Atlanta."
K.T. Smith, an organizer for the campaign to elect Watkins Sheriff, said he was "impressed" by the forum, but he wished more people from the community had attended.
"Had more people come, they would have had a better idea of what is going on in the county," said Smith.
He said the forums need to be "broken down," so that different races can be dealt with on different days, and audience members can have a chance to question the candidates.
"I would like to see more citizens of the community involved," said Annetti Anderson, a Forest Park resident and youth pastor of New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riverdale.
"If they come out, they will be better educated about who they are voting for."