FORSYTH COUNTY — Two of the four candidates running for the vacant District 24 post in the state House of Representatives discussed issues concerning their potential constituents, Forsyth County residents and all Georgians during a debate Saturday morning.
Attorneys Ethan Underwood and David M. Van Sant both pointed to congestion and infrastructure as primary concerns facing the county, though they opted for different fixes.
Fellow Republicans Sheri Gilligan and Will Kremer also are seeking the seat in the June 16 special election, though they did not take part in the debate at McDonald & Son Funeral Home & Crematory.
The legislative seat opened last month when longtime incumbent Mark Hamilton stepped down to relocate to Tennessee for a job opportunity.
If a runoff election is required, a second debate would be held at 7 p.m. June 24 in the County Administration Building, according to Jason Mock, chair of the Forsyth County Republican Party, which organized the event.
Anyone was welcome to attend Saturday, though residents of the district that includes Cumming and parts of west and north Forsyth were particularly encouraged to do so.
For the majority of the 60-minute session, moderator Rachel Little asked Underwood and Van Sant questions that addressed both local and state legislation.
Little is the former chair of the Republican Party in neighboring Gwinnett County and currently heads the Republican Party in Georgia’s 4th Congressional District. She was recently named chair of the year by the state GOP.
Van Sant, who grew up in Alpharetta and went to Milton High School before moving to Forsyth about 20 years ago, marketed himself “uniquely qualified” for the position because he is “not a career politician” and knows the people he would be representing.
He said he lives by “God, family and constitution,” being a constitutional Republican who supports “every single one of the Bill of Rights.”
Underwood also touted his Republican roots and his experience with the people he would be working with if elected. Though hailing from the Chattanooga, Tenn., area, he cited family beginnings in Forsyth County since 1836.
He branded his campaign on limited government and cutting spending, citing his “only boss is District 24.”
Van Sant came out against the nearly billion-dollar state bill, which Hamilton helped pass in the 2015 legislative session.
“We already had our own [transportation] bond that fixed our needs, but now we’re going to be subsidizing transportation for the rest of Georgia,” he said.
Underwood said the bill is “imperfect,” and if elected he would work to alter areas, such as where the money is dedicated.
County commission makeup
Underwood nodded toward modifying the setup of the county commission, Forsyth’s five-member governing body, which would retain “fair and equal representation. I can’t think of a more fair system than what we have now where one person equals one vote.”
He did say he would support having seven commissioners and residents can only elect the commissioner in their district.
Van Sant said he understood why people are upset they can elect just one commissioner and would be open to other possibilities.
Asked if they support the creation of a second city in the county, which would be in south Forsyth, Van Sant acknowledged the area in question is not in his district.
He did say, however, that he wants to wait for studies to be completed that will show the projected impact a city of Sharon Springs could have on the rest of the county.
Underwood did not oppose the new city but said it should be a full city instead of the current plan for a “city-light,” providing just three services.
Both candidates agreed they want to eradicate Georgia’s income tax and the federal Common Core standards for public schools while reducing spending by slashing the annual budget.
Each also stressed the importance in ensuring the Hope Scholarship remains available to students.
Further agreement came during a lightning “yes-or-no” round, where Underwood and Van Sant supported Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Underwood also mentioned Rick Perry.
The only heated moments came when Van Sant was asked about his previous voting record, including a vote in the Democrats’ 2012 presidential primary, and whether he donated money to Michelle Nunn, a Democrat who ran for governor last year.
Van Sant staunchly defended his Republican roots and assured the audience, made up of both men’s families, Forsyth residents and several local elected officials.
“There is no doubt I am a conservative. I am a constitutional conservative,” he said. “I will always be in the right corner, and I will be there for you.”
Both men, though different in their views of how to address the county’s concerns, voiced confidence in being able to defend District 24, the county and the state.
“Everyone says the same thing [on what we need to fix], but who’s the right person?” Underwood said. “They need the ability to get the job done.”