Personal jabs dominated over some differences on such issues as taxes and “religious freedom” laws as the two candidates in House District 52 met at a May 16 forum hosted by Sandy Springs’ Riverside Homeowners Association.

House District 52 candidates Deborah Silcox (left) and Graham McDonald at the May 16 forum at Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs. (Photo John Ruch)

More than 150 people attended the forum, held at Sandy Springs’ Riverwood International Charter School, to see Republicans Graham McDonald and Deborah Silcox duke it out for the Buckhead/Sandy Springs seat in advance of the May 24 primary election. Silcox called McDonald—who resigned from the Sandy Springs City Council to make the House run—someone willing to quit on voters at taxpayer expense. McDonald called Silcox a negative campaigner who tells different people different things to win votes.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see a close-up of my nose, large pores and all, with the word ‘quitter’ on it,” said McDonald, referring to a Silcox campaign flyer. He emphasized that local leaders had urged him to run to help preserve a community “very dear to my heart.”

“I am running, not a negative campaign, and it is not preposterous, what I’m saying,” Silcox said. “I’m running just on the facts,” she added, noting that McDonald’s decision to leave the council mid-term means the city is spending more than $70,000 to hold a special election. “I will not quit…I will not seek a higher office,” Silcox said.

“First of all, 70 to 80 thousand is a lot of money, a lot of taxpayer money,” McDonald replied, “but it pales in comparison to having the wrong person in our state House seat. That’s just the bottom line.”

McDonald went on to accuse Silcox of telling two residents she supports Riverside Drive road-widening and “religious freedom” laws while publicly opposing both. “I realize there is a tendency to tell people what they want to hear when you’re campaigning…but that won’t work in the state House,” he said.

Silcox acknowledged having a “misunderstanding” with a resident on the “religious freedom” issue that she cleared up afterward, but said she had “no idea” about the road-widening story. “I resent the implication I would do such a thing,” she said.

The HD 52 race got off to a bitter, dramatic start in March when longtime incumbent Joe Wilkinson abruptly dropped his re-election bid, endorsed Silcox, and claimed McDonald was part of a “plot” by Sandy Springs leaders to replace him. The various participants’ stories conflict, but there’s general agreement that Wilkinson was grooming both McDonald and Silcox as possible successors, and at least one—and maybe all—of the three was surprised by the other’s candidacies.

McDonald was the only one involved who had not told his full side of the story. He weighed in at the forum with a story that adds even more complications. In McDonald’s version, Wilkinson urged him to run if Silcox did first. In addition, McDonald said that Wendell Willard, Sandy Springs’ city attorney and other longtime state representative, has decided to retire next session and urged McDonald to run for Wilkinson’s seat to “be in a position to protect this city once I’m not here.”

Silcox repeated her story that Wilkinson urged her to run to head off McDonald’s candidacy. “I would not have qualified if Mr. McDonald had not qualified,” she said.

Forum moderator Reed Haggard, president of the Riverside HOA and a Sandy Springs Planning Commission member, did get the candidates to weigh in on Gold Dome issues with questions submitted by residents. They had broad agreement but some nuanced differences—and a few more jabs.

Taxes

McDonald and Silcox both want to reduce taxes, but by different methods. Silcox backs the FairTax, a controversial federal-level proposal to replace income and other taxes with a retail sales tax; she also wants to freeze property taxes and create a senior tax exemption. “I really think we need to have some incentive for seniors to stay,” she said.

McDonald backs state Sen. Judson Hill’s plan that would cut state income and corporate taxes—but only when the economy is meeting certain indicators, so there isn’t a crunch in bad times.

Schools

Both candidates support renewing the 1 percent E-SPLOST, or school-funding sales tax, on the May 24 ballot for another five years.

McDonald presented himself as a champion of public schools and said Silcox’s tax cuts would slash their budgets; she said the building boom’s property taxes would make up for it. McDonald also took a dig at Silcox’s private-schooling of her children. “My kids did not go to Westminster. My kids are going to Heards Ferry,” he said.

Silcox replied that her children would have attended Heards Ferry about 20 years ago, but that a neighbor at the time told her the schooling was so bad children were left unable to read. However, Silcox herself attended public school—including Riverwood, where she survived cancer her senior year, an event that she credited with inspiring her to public service.

Traffic

Traffic is McDonald’s top issue, but both candidates were low on specifics beyond pledging to oppose widening Riverside Drive. They talked about a T-SPLOST, or special sales tax to fund transportation projects, that may appear on the November ballot; but no one made the distinction between two separate T-SPLOSTs for the city of Atlanta and the rest of Fulton County.

Silcox said she supports a T-SPLOST and that she already voted in favor of it, though the current proposal is not on the ballot yet. McDonald said he needs more information to make sure it includes his main goal of “regional transportation solutions.”

‘Religious freedom’ laws

Both candidates agreed with Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of the recent “religious freedom” bill, which drew controversy as possibly legalizing business discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Silcox said she agreed because the law would not survive a legal challenge, but she is open to a new version that prohibits discrimination. McDonald said he believes the bill was “strategically named…to allow discrimination to be masked by the term ‘religious freedom’” and that he opposes any future version.

Guns on campuses

Both candidates also agreed with Deal’s veto of a “campus carry” law allowing guns on college campuses, but again with Silcox willing to compromise and McDonald firmly opposed.

“I’m a hunter. I’m a gun owner…I’m also a member of the NRA. But this is a bad bill,” said McDonald, opposing the “concept” of guns on campuses and in fraternity houses.

Silcox said she disliked the “campus carry” bill as “uneven” in handling where guns could be carried and that she would approve of students carrying such stunning weapons as Tasers instead. “I do think students should be able to be armed, but not with a deadly weapon,” she said.

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