CUMMING — The three announced candidates for Forsyth County solicitor general touted their credentials and experience during a debate Monday night.
Incumbent Donna Gopaul was joined by William Finch and Susan Zerieni, who have said they plan to challenge her in the May 20 Republican primary. Qualifying is set for early March.
Organized by the Forsyth County Tea Party, the debate in the county administration building also featured Michael Williams, who plans to challenge Republican District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy.
The proceedings began with Gopaul explaining the role of solicitor general, a post to which she was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in March. The office prosecutes misdemeanor criminal cases in the county's State Court, as well as some Magistrate Court issues.
Gopaul said she has started several programs, has a high success rate and has cut the budget by $200,000, or about 15 percent, during her tenure.
Zerieni noted her 13 years of prosecutorial experience, including as an assistant district attorney in other counties. She said she chose to move to Forsyth because she loved the county and, if elected, would work for residents because she has a “vested interest in this community.”
Finch noted he’s lived in Forsyth since 1993. He has practiced defense law and served as a prosecutor for Leslie Abernathy when she was solicitor general. Abernathy was appointed a State Court judge last year.
He said his diverse experience — including eight years as a police officer, as well as time as a private practice attorney — makes him a well-rounded candidate.
Both Finch and Zerieni questioned Gopaul’s decisions, including why she had fired a social worker assigned to domestic violence cases.
In response, Gopaul maintained the worker wasn’t an efficient use of county money because she wasn’t counseling the victims in a timely manner.
Finch didn’t agree with a cost-free program Gopaul has instituted that gets prosecutors and the local sheriff’s office to work with home owners associations and other groups to address problems before they become crimes.
“I don’t think the solicitor general needs to be allocating resources for crime suppression,” he said.
As for style, it appeared the three candidates would approach prosecutions similarly and would work to seek justice, offer education programs and work to keep crime low.
One question addressed the Republican hopefuls’ conservative values as they relate to financial, social and political issues. It’s an issue Zerieni’s campaign has focused on against Gopaul, who has voted in previous Democratic primaries.
Gopaul countered that the Democratic Party had left her and that her primary voting records have nothing to do with her job as solicitor general.
She also noted Deal, a conservative Republican governor, reviewed her background before appointing her.
“We were, all three, up for this position last year in January, all three of us,” she said. “And he saw something in me and it was probably the fact that I worked in the office for three and a half years as an assistant solicitor and already knew what to do to make it more efficient to save taxpayer money.”
To Zerieni, a lifelong Republican, a candidate’s voting record does matter, because “it shows your strength in standing up for what you believe in.”
“It’s being true to your values because that goes to the whole essence of being a prosecutor,” she said. “I’ve always stuck to my values no matter what happened.”
For values, Finch said education “ranks pretty high up on the list for me.” Part of a long line of educators, he said he would push for an educational component for young offenders, pushing them back to school or to earn a GED.
The District 27 state Senate debate was more of a forum than debate, with incumbent Murphy sending a letter saying his official duties prevented him from attending the meeting.
The letter noted that Murphy’s a supporter of the fair tax and eliminating state income tax. He also backs the right to bear arms and is “working hard to fight Obamacare and its expansion in Georgia.”
Williams introduced himself and fielded several questions, including whether he would support term limits, allow new cities to form, accept Common Core and eliminate a PAC fund for incumbents. He said yes to all except supporting Common Core.