In a mostly civil debate that focused on the role of government, education and health care, Steven Henry and Colton Moore discussed their plans if the voters of Georgia Senate District 53 elect them on May 24.
The two Republicans are vying to replace Sen. Jeff Mullis, who is retiring this year after 22 years in the state Senate. Mullis has endorsed Henry, a construction company owner who stepped down as chairman of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners to run for the seat. Moore is an auctioneer, drives a bulldozer and served a term in the state House from 2019 to 2021.
No Democrats qualified to run for the seat.
Hosted by Chattanooga journalist LaTrice Currie, the Tuesday debate was broadcast live and can be viewed on the UCTV Facebook page.
"My family has been here for five generations, and it has been very well-serving to our family — a state of freedom and a state that we can promote our values, Christian values, and values of conservatism," Moore said of Georgia, pledging to fight the radical left and "weak Republicans who have sold out their values."
Henry said in his introduction that he's a conservative Christian who's lived in North Georgia all his life, and his family has been here for as long as he can remember. He said he loves the area and started a homebuilding business in his community 26 years ago.
"For 50 years, I've lived on the same lil ol' road. I look to be, I hope to be, the next senator of the 53rd District," Henry said.
In response to a question about how he would recruit good-paying jobs to the community, Henry said he is passionate about economic development, knowing personally how hard it is to run a small business.
Even though some people didn't like it, Henry said a business park was established in Catoosa County to attract a certain type of business, with the idea that good wages fuel all kinds of other economic development.
"The reason I think we need to do that is, if you have a good-paying job and bring quality companies that are families, that are part of your community, those people will come there to go to work, they will stop and shop, they will buy gas on the way," Henry said. "They'll spend money in your community, instead of leaving to go to Chattanooga or what have you to spend money."
Georgia is a great place to live, raise a family and retire, Henry said, but more businesses are needed.
Moore said everyone deserves an opportunity to work to bring dignity to themselves and their family. He disagreed with a common message of the last 20 years is that government has to spur the economy.
"Unfortunately, it became a means of extortion. The economic development authority would go to county commissioners and say, 'We need more funding, we're going to try to promote jobs,'" a pitch Moore said sells easy.
He noted that Mullis headed the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority while he served in the Senate.
Moore said he would rather make the district more competitive for business by lowering taxes and regulations. Government-run economies always fail, he said.
"A person who earns their dollar knows best how to spend their dollar, not a government that manipulates for those dollars," Moore said.
Henry responded that he thinks government should have a role marketing the community to new businesses and making efforts to enhance the workforce. He gave the example of the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy, which was established by partnering with local businesses to help students become workforce-ready.
Henry said his No. 1 priority if elected would be law enforcement, adding that young people should be taught respect for law enforcement and teachers.
"Frankly, we end up wasting a lot of money there [in schools], because we have to have school resource officers because there's no regard for authority anymore," Henry said.
Moore's first priority would be election integrity, he said. Voters have been telling him that inflation is their biggest issue and election integrity is second, he said.
Moore said when he voted for the Dominion voting machines when he served in the legislature, he said there were auditing options promised that have not been available, and he thinks the company is in breach of its contract with the state because of that.
Henry said he thinks the legislature has addressed most of the issues with elections and that he and Moore both agree that drop boxes for voting should be eliminated.
On the question of schools and workforce training, Henry referred again to the college and career academy that he helped establish. He said he wanted to build on the work done in Georgia's technical schools and to start additional programs across the state so students can be ready to join the workforce.
"A lot of 'em you're not just teaching them a skill, you're changing a cycle," Henry said. "You're taking them from what they never thought they could be and showing them what they can be."
He added that education should not only prepare people for the workforce but also teach them to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Moore said that while graduation rates have increased in Catoosa County, he wants to see students better educated in high school so they can go directly into the workforce rather than spend time and take on more debt with additional schooling.
"We have to do a major overhaul on our education system, it takes 55% of our budget now," Moore said.
To clarify, Henry said the college and career academy lets its students work while they are getting their education.
Moore said he wants school vouchers because the education system is over-wrought with regulation. Discipline is a big issue in school, Henry said.
"The teachers spend more time feeling like they're wardens than teachers. If we had a little bit of authority, a little bit of respect, they could spend more time educating," Henry said.
"I think we need to do a better job figuring out what that kid wants for his life," Henry said, pointing to the fact that there was more vocational training when he was in school. "That's why we focus [at the college and career academy] more on the pathways — what do they want to be?"
Currie said vouchers could leave some students behind — and Moore said it sounds like she is describing the current system where many community schools are already under-resourced.
The voucher system could be exploited, Henry said, and there needs to be balance so that the goal is educating students rather than collecting money from vouchers.
Henry said he strongly supports CHI Memorial's new hospital proposed for Catoosa County. He said Hutcheson Medical Center closed when he was chairman of the county commission, so he said he went to work finding a hospital that would build in the community.
"Every single hospital had the same opportunity," Henry said. "I looked for a hospital to be a partner. I didn't have a name in mind. I wanted a partner that would help me and my community."
He said he's aggravated that an out-of-state hospital is trying to stop CHI from building in Catoosa County, not only because the community might miss out on closer-to-home healthcare, but also the jobs and economic development that the new facility would bring.
Moore said Georgia's certificate of need laws enforce a monopoly for health care. Free markets produce the best product and price, Moore said. The certificate of need procedure is too slow and needs to be tweaked, but Henry said he's working within that system because his community needs better health care options.
On the pandemic, Henry said there hadn't been any mask or vaccine mandates in Catoosa County under his chairmanship, but Moore criticized him for offering cash incentives to employees to take the vaccine.
"We offered a choice. Some people took it, some people didn't," Henry said, adding that the incentive helped save the taxpayers money since the county pays out of pocket for health care for its workers.
Moore also criticized Henry for having a speaker at a Catoosa County commission meeting last year removed by law enforcement when he accused Henry of a conflict-of-interest over a rezoning decision to allow a subdivision expansion. Henry countered there are rules that forbid speakers at commission meetings from speaking ill of other people.
In closing statements, Henry said he has a track record of building teams and getting things done.
"Working with people and having relationships is not a bad thing, you just have to make sure you never lose your morals and ethics," he said.
Moore closed by saying thing need to change in the legislature.
Legislation these days, Moore said, increases control on our lives, increases taxes or increases spending — "and it's time we put a stop to those things."