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Trump, outside money and party politics dominate 6th District debate

It’s been five months since the presidential election, but many of the same themes that dominated the national contest were on display Wednesday as the 18 candidates vying for Tom Price’s congressional seat – one of the country’s first federal contests since November – tangled over who was best equipped for the job.

One of the central questions at the heart of the Atlanta Press Club’s two-hour debate for the 6th District special election candidates was whether people with political experience or outsider status were more suitable to serve in the seat. The same was true about whether it was appropriate to accept money from big-spending outside groups.

President Donald Trump was never far from the center of discussion. The same was true about Jon Ossoff, the Democratic front-runner and first-time candidate who has helped bring national attention to the April 18 contest.

In addition to blue chip issues such as health care, job creation and campaign finance, the candidates also weighed in on public transportation in the wake of last week’s I-85 bridge collapse.

The debate, which was streamed live on Facebook, provided one of the most high-profile forums for all 18 candidates to be under one roof and in front of a camera. It also highlighted just how dizzying and claustrophobic the jam-packed contest can often get: Candidates didn’t have time to give detailed answers or follow-ups, nor did the moderators have much flexibility to allow for a substantive back-and-forth between the candidates.

Outside money

The 6th District, which stretches from east Cobb County through the northern portions of Fulton and DeKalb counties, has been represented by a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives since the Carter administration. Trump, however, only narrowly won the establishment Republican-friendly district in November, and this congressional race is widely viewed as an early referendum on his young presidency.

That was readily apparent during the 120-minute debate. Republican candidates debated who would be a better working partner to Trump.

Dunwoody jeweler Bruce LeVell criticized former Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray for positioning himself as a White House ally and then accepting help from the Washington-based Club for Growth, which fiercely opposed the Trump-backed health care overhaul.

“I’m the only candidate, unlike most of these candidates who have gotten in bed with PACs, special interests and lobbyists, to try to get the vote” without accepting such outside support, said LeVell, who led Trump’s diversity coalition.

Gray countered that he hadn’t heard of the Club for Growth when it approached him.

“But I was very thankful that they recognized my private-sector experience and my belief in free markets,” he said. “I will take all the help I can get to win this race.”

Ossoff was also questioned about the millions in donations that have come his way, most of it from outside the state. The Democrat said much of that money was being donated in small increments and was indicative of his grass-roots support.

“One of the things I’m proud of about my campaign is that we’ve raised money in small-dollar contributions, which means that folks running for office are accountable to a broad range of people who dig deep for small amounts of money,” Ossoff said.

“Let’s be realistic,” Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, said, “$4 million is not being raised in $10, $20, $30, $40 increments. He is being bankrolled by Nancy Pelosi and the liberal left.”

Public transportation

Moderators opened the debate with a more local topic: whether to extend MARTA in the 6th District in the wake of the crushing traffic since the bridge collapse near downtown Atlanta.

Former state Sen. Dan Moody said it is up to MARTA management to convince voters that its system is a better alternative to driving.

“They need to show people they can get there safely and on time,” he said.

Handel adopted a more hands-off view, saying it would be her job as a member of Congress to work in tandem with local leaders to help them execute a vision, “not to tell them what to do.”

Gray advocated for looking at different options, including rapid bus transit, autonomous vehicles and heavy rail, depending on how densely populated an area is.

Ossoff, meanwhile, vowed to “work on a bipartisan basis to support a fiscally responsible infrastructure package.”

‘A coronation’

Like previous 6th District debates, Wednesday’s matchup was not particularly combative. (Many questions between candidates were downright friendly.) Some lesser-known contenders used their airtime to flaunt their own backgrounds, while others griped that they never got a fair shot from their own party leaders to get their congressional bids off the ground.

“The Republican Party in Georgia decided to hold events where they based participation of who was going to be in those events on polls that were done in February or early March, before we’d really gotten up and running,” said Keith Grawert, a U.S. Air Force pilot.

“I was very surprised at how we were not given the same amount of support as another candidate,” said Democrat Ragin Edwards, an east Cobb sales manager, referring to Ossoff. “I definitely feel that I was slighted and I was played a little bit.”

Democratic Party officials have said there has been no coronation of Ossoff and that they will adhere to their state rules that force them to remain neutral in the process and focus instead on get-out-the-vote efforts.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.