Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Candidates, from left, Matt Hullander, Sabrena Smedley and Weston Wamp stand behind their podiums before the start of the Hamilton County Republican mayoral candidate debate on Monday, Feb. 21, 2022 at SociallyU Studio.

In between over-the-top conversation about God, their faith, and abortion, what you came away with from Monday evening's Republican Hamilton County mayoral candidates' debate was a whole lot of sameness: Everyone professed complete support for God, babies and apple pie, with an obligatory nod to education, public safety and the boilerplate slogan of smaller-not-larger government.

But in talking Tuesday with Matt Adams, the only Democratic mayoral candidate on the ballot — and one not invited to the debate sponsored by the right-wing Hamilton Flourishing — all three GOPers missed a point. It's not about larger or smaller government. Or about God. And certainly not about abortion or censorship in classrooms, which also received conversation.

It's about leadership.

And leadership comes to be through community engagement, building cohesion among governmental bodies for the whole of Hamilton County and then making equitable investments — especially in education and community infrastructure.

"Community engagement and cohesion between governmental bodies would not inherently increase the size of county government. What it would do is ensure the people of Hamilton County feel heard by their leaders," Adams said. "It is the role of government to work to make the place it represents better than they found it. We need to ensure that county government isn't so large it can't handle itself or so small that it can't solve the issues facing the residents."

Adams, a 25-year-old paralegal and U.S. Army veteran as well as a current member of the Army Reserves, said he agrees with the three Republicans — Matt Hullander, Sabrena Smedley and Weston Wamp — that education is incredibly important.

"The funding and allocating of funds really is the way for us to to set up the future of Hamilton County. I think where we differ is [over] equitable investment," he said.

Equitable investment means making sure no child in our 44,000-student system is going to a school that's falling apart, he said. It also means making sure the county in no way divests from public education, despite all the Republicans' talk of charter schools and vouchers.

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Contributed photo / Democratic candidate for Hamilton County Mayor Matt Adams stands on the Holmberg Bridge near the Tennessee Aquarium.

Equitable investment also applies to infrastructure — even privately built infrastructure such as grocery stores which are much needed in some communities and overbuilt in others.

But conversation of "investment" and any vision or "cohesion" among county leaders seems clearly missing — not just in the debate, but also among current leaders. If the county mayor and county commissioners have an open dialogue with the county Sheriff's Department, "we'd see a decrease in crime rates," Adams said.

We'd also see a county Sheriff's Department more reflective of the community.

But while much of Monday's GOP debate touched on education and public safety, "we didn't see much about investment," Adams said. "And, again, I personally believe in equitable investment. I think that that has to be done."

It is important, too, in community health, Adams added, noting he thinks the proposed transition of Erlanger to a 501c3 nonprofit organization would make that equity, cohesion and communication harder once the county mayor is no longer instrumental in appointing Erlanger board members.

What of all the faith, right-to-life and censorship questions and answers that so dominated Monday's debate? Adams saw them largely as "culture war" questions.

As a lifelong and active member of his church, he says faith is important, but shouldn't be the cornerstone of one's campaign. "It is the responsibility of elected leaders to remember that they are there to represent folks of several different faith groups and not just the one they adhere to."

As for the moderator's "Are you pro-life?" question, the issue has nothing to do with the county mayor's office.

"The federal government and the Supreme Court are really the ones who have say over abortion rights in this country. Individual states may have limits and different rules, but ultimately, the decision lies with the federal government," Adams said.

As for book-ban police in schools? "The [county] mayor doesn't have any control or ability to manipulate what goes into the classrooms as far as curriculum or books — besides the [overall schools] budget."

Though you wouldn't know it from watching Monday's debate (so much for equity), there is at least one viable, thoughtful candidate for the position of Hamilton County mayor. Did we mention that Matt Adams is a Democrat?