DALTON, Ga. — Chuck Payne wondered Tuesday evening whether his opponent tried to hide her political affiliation.
Payne, a Republican, asked Debby Peppers why she is running for the Georgia Senate as a nonpartisan candidate. Peppers said she has been a Democrat for 40 years, but she worried people wouldn't pay attention to her opinions on issues in the region if she put a label next to her name.
"It bothers me a little bit," she said during a candidate forum hosted by the Dalton Daily Citizen and the area League of Women Voters. "If we're a two-party system, why is being a Democrat such a bad thing? It helps to bring balance."
Peppers, in turn, questioned whether Payne can challenge leaders in Atlanta, pointing out that he will have to be loyal to the GOP. Payne told the crowd at Dalton's city hall that he has no problem standing up to authority. As a probation officer in the Murray County Juvenile Court, he said, a boss tried to douse employees with pepper spray, so they could be certified to use the weapon themselves.
Payne felt this was a shortcut, that they should have received formal training. He said his complaint reached the state commissioner's desk.
"I knew I was laying my career on the line to challenge a sitting commissioner in our agency," he said. "But I had to do it. It was not right."
Payne and Peppers will face each other Jan. 10 in a race for the Senate seat in Georgia's 54th District, which covers Whitfield and Murray counties as well as eastern Gordon County and western Pickens County. The two already ran against each other in a five-candidate race Dec. 13, but nobody earned more than 50 percent of the vote — forcing a runoff next month.
Payne came in first in last week's election, with 1,792 votes (36.1 percent). Peppers was second with 1,361 votes (27.4 percent).
Immediately after that race, Payne painted Peppers as a liberal in a bright red region.
"The Democrats are trying to take this state Senate seat," he wrote on his public Facebook page Dec. 11. "Let's make sure this does not happen."
On Tuesday, the two shared opinions on a range of issues. Peppers said the state shouldn't lift sales tax on internet purchases because that would hurt local small businesses. Payne said the state needs to continue to "wrestle with" the issue.
Payne said the state needs to eliminate income tax. Peppers said the plan should stay in effect because half the budget comes from income tax, meaning the burden would shift to sales tax. Both candidates support the implementation of medical marijuana, and both think Georgia universities should prioritize in-state applicants.
Peppers said the state should help college students with scholarships for textbooks. Payne said the state should emphasize technical colleges more because they allow students to pursue careers without the expense of a four-year university. Payne is for the Religious Freedom Bill. Peppers said she would support the legislation if it doesn't include an element that "would have allowed taxpayer money to be used to discriminate against other taxpayers."
Peppers said she has managed a budget of up to $20 million. Payne said he has overseen a budget of about $15,000.
Established Republicans have backed Payne. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel endorsed him Monday. And today, U.S. Congressman Tom Graves will attend a fundraiser for Payne.
Peppers, meanwhile, has pushed back against the liberal label. Technically, she is running as a non-partisan candidate, though she has said she would caucus with the Democrats in Atlanta if elected.
She calls herself an "old-time Democrat," pointing out that many politicians in Georgia were liberals until the mid-90s, when political tides forced them to change allegiances to win votes. This included the state's current Republican governor, Nathan Deal.
Peppers said the principles of those "old-time Democrats" still reflect the values of this region. She has emphasized fiscal responsibility on the campaign trail, as well as her experience running small family businesses. She said she handled contracts and employee issues at Premier Corporate Services, her father's carpet services business. She and her husband also have run a carpet business, a warehouse business and a flea market in Murray County.
Plus, she would be the only non-Republican politician in Northwest Georgia. That, she has argued, has its advantages.
"Are you going to vote for somebody who you know is going to work for your vote?" Peppers said last week on WDNN. "Or are you going to vote for somebody who feels like they're entitled to your vote because of the party they're in? If you're OK with that, then don't be surprised if you don't see any changes."
Payne has been a member of the Whitfield County Republican Party since 1991. He served as its chairman twice, most recently in 2015. He resigned from the post last year to volunteer for Dr. Ben Carson's presidential campaign
Payne was also a probation officer in Murray County Juvenile Court until he retired at the end of October. He has argued his experience in criminal justice could help reform state programs.
Peppers was a Whitfield County commissioner from 1993-96. In 1999, she successfully sued the state for deplorable conditions at the Dalton Regional Youth Detention Center, earning her a juvenile justice award from the American Bar Association.
She is also on the county's zoning board.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at email@example.com or 423-757-6476.