Catoosa County residents clash over issue of primary ballot vetting

Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / Shown, from left, are Chuck Harris, Catoosa County commissioner; and commission candidates Jimmy Gray, Denny Forster and Nick Ware. The four men were part of an Accountability Rule town hall Monday.
Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / Shown, from left, are Chuck Harris, Catoosa County commissioner; and commission candidates Jimmy Gray, Denny Forster and Nick Ware. The four men were part of an Accountability Rule town hall Monday.

Catoosa County Republican Party officials were accused of trying to consolidate power by excluding some candidates from the primary ballot at a Fort Oglethorpe town hall, while supporters of the party's move called it a constitutional right for an organization to pick its members.

Chuck Harris, a Catoosa County commissioner who represents a northwest portion of the county, told the crowd of about 70 people Monday he scheduled the town hall so voters could better understand what some call the Accountability Rule and ask candidates approved for the ballot about their stance on the issue.

"When 16 people put a board of commissioner in charge, tell me who has the real power," Harris said, referring to the number of county party officials who decided who would be included on the Republican primary ballot. "Does the citizens who voted have the power? No, they don't. Those 16 people own those commissioners."

Harris said he's standing up for Republicans in the county who don't want county party leadership to decide who should be allowed to run on the primary ballot. Calling it dangerous for a small group of party officials to approve their friends' inclusion on the ballot, he said 100% of the candidates who had served on the commission previously were excluded.

Three incumbent county commissioners and a former commission chair were denied a place on the primary ballot for allegedly not adhering to the state Republican Party's platform while in office. Earlier this month, a judge ordered the county's elections director to place the candidates on the ballot, but the issue is being appealed and about two dozen challenges to the four candidates will be heard by the elections board in early April.

(READ MORE: Catoosa County GOP ballot questions rejected; candidate challenges filed)

The four candidates denied qualification were Commission Chair Larry Black; Commissioner Vanita Hullander, representing a north central portion of the county; Commissioner Jeff Long, who represents the western portion of the county, and Steven Henry, a candidate for chair of the commission and former chair.

The Republican primary, including contests for three County Commission seats, is May 21, and the general election is Nov. 5.

Because they're involved in a lawsuit, Harris said, the four candidates initially excluded and the county GOP officials who decided to deny the candidates a place on the ballot were not at the town hall.

Candidate positions

Three candidates were on the panel: Jimmy Gray, Nick Ware and Denny Forster.

Speaking to the crowd at the town hall, Gray said local politicians have switched parties to improve their chances of winning but didn't change their views and policy ideas.

(READ MORE: Judge threatens to use deputies, fines to enforce rulings in Catoosa GOP ballot case)

"What should any political party do to protect themselves from being taken over by people who do not support their political platform?" Gray said.

Catoosa County elected officials voted for tax increases, expanded the county's budget and restrained property rights by regulating backyard chickens, he said.

He also criticized commissioners for not defending a citizen who was escorted out of a meeting by law enforcement. Gray called it a violation of the citizen's free speech rights.

Harris, who planned the town hall, defended the commission's decisions, saying not everyone wants to live near chickens and the commission found what he called a happy medium. Taxes had to be raised after the pandemic because road paving costs doubled, he said, but taxes are still low compared to other counties.

"The bottom line is there is not one criteria for Republicans," Harris said.

Harris said the First Amendment doesn't specifically state the freedom of association, while Gray and several members of the crowd disagreed.

At the town hall, Forster said he was invited to be interviewed by the county party, citing Georgia law. He said understanding of the law gave the party that power to approve candidates.

"That party has the ability to say whether you can be a Democrat, that party has the ability to say whether you can be a Republican if you're going to run for office," Forester said.

The decision to include some candidates and exclude others — like his friend Hullander — wasn't made by him, he said, and is being decided in the courts.

Crowd questions

At the meeting Rebecca Brock asked Gray what he would do if elected and his district's needs conflicted with what party officials wanted from Republicans. Brock lives in District 3 near Ringgold.

Gray said he thinks elected officials should be willing to defend their votes, and if they can't, it's likely they made the wrong decision.

"If you elevate the Republican platform with lower taxes and less government and more personal freedom, everybody is going to win," he said.

Ringgold-area resident Greg Gordy said if someone wants to fix the political system, they should do it from within — rather than seeking an order from the courts and government.

"This is a dangerous precedent if it's allowed to go through," he said, that violates the freedom of association.

If the courts follow the law and legal precedent, the county party won't be forced to have the four candidates on their primary ballot, Gordy said. But if it is allowed, it sets the precedent that the government can force a private organization like a political party to include members they don't want.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at or 423-757-6659.

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