The Fayette County Republican Party hosted an enthusiastic candidate forum Monday night in advance of the July 26 Primary Election Runoff, for which early voting starts Tuesday, July 5, but one could have almost heard “America the Beautiful” playing in the background as Third District congressional candidate Mike Crane took the stage in the absence of his opponent Drew Ferguson.
The forum’s format included asking both candidates in each contest the same questions and giving them a certain time in which to respond. As Ferguson, former mayor of West Point, did not attend Monday’s event, Crane, a sitting State Senator from Coweta County, had the floor to himself, and he used the opportunity to talk about his priorities should he win the Third District seat.
Earlier Monday, Third District Congressman Lynn Westmoreland announced he has endorsed Ferguson to replace him. Crane said he didn’t get Westmoreland’s nod because he will not be a Washington, D.C. insider, implying that Ferguson will be. Crane noted that he last week was endorsed by former presidential candidate Ted Cruz. He added that several large, national conservative groups were supporting him, including the National Rifle Association.
Crane drew applause from a friendly crowd as he scorned the U.S. Supreme Court justices for stepping out of constitutional bounds and essentially writing law from the bench, especially in the recent marriage equality and abortion cases. He was met with approval as he gave high praise to the U.S. Military for maintaining its strength despite what he called efforts by the Obama Administration to weaken it.
Crane also had the crowd nodding in approval as he said overhauling the national tax code would be a priority of his.
“I love the fair tax as an idea,” Crane said. “They just tax consumption.
“What’s interesting about the Fair Tax is it takes all the tooth and claw out of government and out of the lobbyists, for now,” Crane said. But then he added a warning: “Even if we pass it, I’ll tell everybody this, wait a minute, here they come again, they’re going to try and mess this up. Even the income tax code was short when it first started.”
It was Crane’s closing comments that closed the forum Monday night, but he was preceded by incumbent 73rd District State Representative John Yates (R-Griffin) and his challenger Karen Mathiak (R-Griffin). The winner of that Republican runoff will face Rahim Talley (D-Hampton) in the fall.
The first forum panelists Monday were Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney candidates Ben Coker from Thomaston, an 11-year assistant district attorney in the circuit, and Tyrone resident Rudjard Hayes, a former assistant district attorney who is now a criminal defense attorney.
During that first portion of the forum, Hayes several times said he was more suited to be district attorney because of his “maturity,” saying he would rather call it maturity than age. Coker refuted the notion, saying 11 years as an assistant district attorney has matured him.
“I’m sorry that I’m not as old as Mr. Hayes,” Coker joked in his closing comments. “I feel like I’ve gotten there through this campaign.”
Hayes Monday night continued to defend his assertion from his campaign literature claiming he has “more than 300 felony jury trials” under his belt while his competitors, which included Cindy Manning at the time, did not. Another mailer said Hayes was “the only candidate who has tried hundreds of felonies with a 98% conviction rate.” A recent newspaper ad in another publication attributed “300 felony trials prosecuted” to Hayes.
It was Manning’s husband, Erik, who during the forum asked Hayes to explain how he arrived at 300 felony jury trials, a number that Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Scott Ballard has said is not in keeping with the pace Hayes kept during Hayes’ two years working for him in that circuit, and which Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Pete Skandalakis has said is simply impossible.
In response to questions e-mailed to him last week, Skandalakis said Monday morning that even his chief prosecutor, who has 30 years experience and is his “most active trial lawyer” on staff, has prosecuted fewer than 160 jury trials in those 30 years. Monday night, Skandalakis said his number includes times when he sat in on other attorneys’ cases and sometimes sat alongside them.
As to Hayes’ claims to have been the only candidate with experience running a large district attorney office, it was confirmed that Coker presently manages both the Pike County and Upson County offices, which combined are responsible for about a third of the caseloads in the district.
Hayes said he makes the published claim to be the only “recognized expert in prosecuting child molestation cases” because he was one of fewer than 20 prosecutors invited to a national training session several years ago, and it was at that meeting he was designated an “expert” by the host organization.
Hayes had also claimed in his political mailers that he had “experience managing multi-million dollar budget” [sic]. Both Ballard and Skandalakis denied Hayes had anything to do with managing any money at all while working for them, and Hayes said Monday night that what he meant is that he has clients who receive large judgments, and he has looked after those funds while the settlements are being processed.
In his closing remarks, Hayes said he is “disappointed that an attack is coming, not from my opponent…this is coming from someone who lost in the primary.” Answering that accusation, Erik Manning said he wanted to challenge the accuracy of Hayes’ mailers before the Primary Election while his wife Cindy was still in the race, but he said it was Cindy who convinced him to not take the campaign in a negative direction. He said the deal changed when she lost in the three-way primary race, and that’s when he decided to go public with his refutation.
“So here is what I want you to do,” Hayes challenged Monday night’s audience, “Ask yourself why that’s happening. Why are people afraid to have me in the DA’s office?
“Why are people afraid to have me in the DA’s office?” Hayes repeated. “Because I’m not a part of the establishment. I am not going to do things the same way. I’m going to be effective. I’m going to be efficient. And I’m going to lead this county and this circuit the way it is supposed to be led.”
Coker also gave closing remarks.
“The reason I want to be your district attorney is because I have compassion, I have commitment, and I have character,” Coker said. “It doesn’t matter where you live in this circuit, to me, I’m going to prosecute the way I learned to prosecute, and that’s tough and aggressive and swift and severe.”