When Rep. John Linder announced his retirement from Congress, a slew of political hopefuls quickly expressed interest in representing the citizens of the 7th U.S. Congressional District.

By the end of the April candidate qualifying period, eight Republicans and one Democrat had officially filed their intent to seek election.

On Monday night, all eight GOP candidates – Clay Cox, Tom Kirby, Rob Woodall, Jody Hice, Tom Parrott, Chuck Efstration, Jef Fincher and Ronnie Grist – gathered at the Colleen Williams Theater in Winder in an attempt to win over area voters. During the forum, the first of four candidate forums scheduled by the Barrow County Republican Party, the candidates had the opportunity to make a five minute speech before responding to two questions posed by the Barrow County Republican Party:

1. “What is the top asset you bring to the table which makes you the best candidate for our vote?”

2. “Name one issue on which you differ with current U.S. Rep. John Linder, and explain.”

While each of the candidates expressed similar conservative views and all voiced some level of support for the FairTax, there were a few notable differences among the candidates.

One of the more surprising admissions of the night came from the forum’s first speaker, Ronnie Grist.

When asked on what issued he and Linder differed, Grist brought up the hot button topic of abortion. In a rare departure from the Republican platform, Grist admitted that he is pro-choice. Though he does not like the idea of abortion, Grist said he does not believe he has the right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body.

Grist further said the difference between him and most other candidates is that he has worked since he was eight years old and knows what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck. Grist said he represents a working class that recognizes its responsibility to care for itself rather than relying on the government to do so.

“I know how to do hard work,” he said. “I also know you don’t spend money you don’t have.”

Fiscal conservatism was a theme that carried through the night.

State Rep. Clay Cox, a native of Gwinnett County and CEO of a private probation company, said the top asset he brings to the table is his experience balancing both family and business budgets.

Cox, a self-described “citizen legislator”, was first elected as to the state house in 2004. Cox vowed to fight for smaller government and to empower the private sector if elected to Congress.

“I’m proud of being a citizen legislator,” he said. “I look at Washington and see that attitude has left our nation’s capital.”

When asked how he and Linder differed, Cox pointed to earmarks saying he would oppose them. He also said he supports the FairTax but believes any legislation should include a provision requiring a supermajority to increase the tax rate.

While Cox focused on specific political differences between himself and Linder, crowd favorite Jody Hice focused more on ideological differences. Though he praised Linder’s record, Hice explained that he will be a stronger voice for pro-life and pro-family values and will fight to stop the Obama administration’s socialist agenda.

Hice, a former pastor of Bethlehem First Baptist Church, is best known for his role in the infamous Ten Commandments case brought against Barrow County by the American Civil Liberties Union. Hice said the experience changed his life. Describing the ACLU as an organization designed to “destroy our Christian heritage, our Christian values and remake America into a godless, secular society,” Hice said he was dedicated to stopping the administration’s efforts to push socialism.

“Our country right now is facing a crossroads and the future of our nation is at stake,” he said.

Hice, currently a syndicated radio talk show host, said he is a “regular guy” who has never harbored any ambition to go to Washington but has been moved to serve the people after his years of experience as a pastor helping people through good times and bad.

“I believe those experiences have really equipped me in a powerful kind of way to be the kind of Congressman you expect,” he said.

Jef Fincher, a small business owner and flight attendant with 34 years of experience, said his experiences have also equipped him to serve the people of the 7th Congressional district. Fincher said his top asset was a “heart for service.”

Heavily involved in the Tea Party movement, Fincher said he was moved to run for office after the passage of Obama’s health care reform legislation. Fincher was in Washington when the legislation passed and said he saw a House “full of politicians, not representatives.”

“Our concerns are the same concerns as yours,” he said. “The government is out of control.”

Fincher promised he would donate 20 percent of his salary to charity if elected and called on others to do the same. He also vowed to oppose earmarks and to encourage the party to embrace the FairTax.

“I’m called to do this to save my country,” he said.

Tom Parrott, a former accountant turned salesman, also believes the country needs a savior. Parrott said the nation’s debt has reached a critical level and the government is no longer viable.

“We are bankrupt, so now what are we going to do about it?" he asked.

Parrott said his chief asset was his strict, rigid Constitutionalist views. Those views include a belief that government should get “back to where it belongs” by protecting rights and not oppressing the citizenry.

Parrott expressed his support for term limits, but said any limits should be self imposed and not mandated.

Citing Linder’s 18 years of service as an issue on which he disagreed with the soon-to-be-retired congressman, Parrott said politicians needed to limit themselves and be true “citizen legislators.”

Businessman Tom Kirby, a human resource safety manager, also cited Linder’s lengthy term in Congress as a point of difference. Kirby said he also differs from Linder in his interpretation of what it means to be a Constitutionalist. Specifically, Kirby said Linder’s support of the Patriot Act showed a lack of consistency with which the party as a whole has struggled.

“We’ve got to move forward being a nation that respects the rule of law,” he said referencing the Constitution. Kirby said the next elected representative will have a lot of work to do in stopping a “socialist slide” to the left.

“We’ve got a socialist in office who is trying to remake this country,” he said.

Rob Woodall, Linder’s chief of staff, also did not mince words when describing the Obama administration as socialist.

Woodall said he would not have believed that the country could have moved as far to the left as it has in the past 18 months.

“This slide we have seen is just the first two years,” he said. Woodall believes the “fate of the Republic” will be hanging in the balance for the remainder of the Obama administration – an administration he believes will end with the next Presidential election.

In the meantime, Woodall said it was critical to send a representative to Washington who could “hit the ground running.”

Woodall said his priority is to create an office that functions “for the people.” Woodall said he has spent the past 16 years “fighting for conservative ideals and common-sense government” and, if elected, will work to repeal both the stimulus and TARP bills and overhaul the current health care legislation.

Chuck Efstration, an assistant District Attorney in Gwinnett County and the former Chairman of the Gwinnett Republican Party, said he has also fought for conservative ideals in his role as a criminal prosecutor and party functionary.

Efstration vowed to oppose any tax increases, vote against all earmarks, work for ethics in government and to repeal Obamacare.

Efstration also devoted a significant portion of his allotted time to criticizing the legislative record of Clay Cox. At one point, a clearly frustrated Cox stood up and voiced his objection to the continued attack.

Barrow Republican Party chairman Ken Young later explained the rules of the forum allow the candidates to use their time to discuss why they are running and what they will do if elected.

“If a candidate does not choose to follow that format, there’s certainly nothing I can do about that but we have learned from past experience that it is you the voter … that is the ultimate judge of that,” he said.

In just over a month, voters will judge which of the eight candidates will move on to face Democrat Doug Heckman in the November general election. With the large field of candidates, a runoff is considered likely and is scheduled for August 10.

The Barrow County Republican Party will host its next candidate forum on June 14. The forum will include State Senate District 47 candidates, county commission candidates for district 4 and district 6, school board candidates for districts 1, 4 and 7, attorney general candidate Sam Olens and public service commission candidate Jeff May. The forum will begin at 7 p.m. in the Colleen Williams Theater, located at 105 E. Athens St. in Winder. For more information, visit www.barrowgop.com or join the Barrow County Republican Party on Facebook.

For more on this story, see the June 9 edition of the Barrow Journal or click here to sign up for a free trial of our new e-edition. Offer ends July 13.

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