Last week's on-line political forum for candidates appearing on the Nov. 3 ballot in Jackson County wasn't as boring as some previous forums, but it didn't set the world on fire, either.
At 2.5 hours long, the event, sponsored by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, was generally an echo meeting as many of the candidates, both Republican and Democrat, agreed on the basic issues facing Northeast Georgia and Jackson County.
What was most interesting during the forum, however, wasn't what anybody said, but what wasn't said or discussed.
For example, there were no questions asked to the candidates about the controversy surrounding the SK Battery facility in Commerce and allegations that the contractors building it have imported illegal workers. Nor was there any questions about SK's legal fight with another EV battery-maker, LG Chem, over trademark rights and an impending International Trade Commission ruling that has the potential to derail that massive project.
Given that SK is by far the county's largest industrial projects — and the second-largest in Georgia history — the absence of any discussion about the plant was striking.
While that issue wasn't discussed, the biggest surprise of the forum was that two key candidates didn't participate.
Republicans candidates Andrew Clyde, running for the 9th Congressional District, and Rep. Tommy Benton, running for re-election in the House District 31 seat, chose to forgo the event.
Clyde's absence is somewhat understandable. Jackson County is only a small part of his overall district and only if Hell freezes over will he lose his race in a district that is dominated by the GOP.
Benton's absence, however, is inexplicable. While he has the advantage of incumbency and of being a Republican in a Republican county, he faces a pretty strong challenger in Democrat Pete Fuller who serves as the county's Democratic Party chairman and who has built a grassroots network across the community.
And then there's Benton's ongoing problems with getting kicked off state legislative chairmanships over dumb comments about race and his obsession with refighting the Civil War.
With Benton not on the agenda, Fuller dominated the discussion and took advantage of that opening to attack Benton's record.
Saying that Jackson County and its growing population are "moving forward," he said some of its leadership (i.e. Benton) "remain stuck in the past."
"No matter what the personal affection one might have for this man, I hope they understand his history of hateful comments and his lack of influence within his own party make him bad for the county's interests," said Fuller.
Fuller hammered home the point that Benton had been removed, twice, from committee chairmanships.
"He lost his chairmanship this year due to some comments he made derogatory toward the late Rep. John Lewis; this is the second time he's lost his chairmanship and to be clear, this was something taken away from him by his Republican colleagues," Fuller said.
He said he wanted to make things happen for Jackson County instead of being a "piranha" from the county.
That's pretty strong stuff and went unanswered by an absent Benton who is obviously counting on re-election from the county's large GOP base regardless of his record.
But it's still shocking that Benton would give the middle finger to a forum organized by the county's business leaders.
The forum's most entertaining part was in the state Senate District 50 forum between Republican Bo Hatchett and Democrat Dee Daley.
It'd be difficult to describe that forum without acknowledging that Dee Daley is a hoot. She put the "zoom" in the Zoom-based forum.
Daley was totally unscripted in her comments. I felt as if I were sitting in a bar listening to someone expound on politics. At times, she would shrug her shoulders, roll her eyes or throw her hands up to an unseen person in the room after making comments, as if it say, "Dunno how that went over." Often, she failed to mute her microphone and talked over others. She stood up during one question, swaying as she spoke like a preacher on Sunday morning. At one point, she waved to Hatchett, saying "Hi Bo, good to see you."
It was all entertaining in otherwise dry online format.
Politically, Daley acknowledged she was a long shot in a strong Republican district, but argued that Georgia needs people like her for "balance" in state government.
For his part, Hatchett said he wanted to be elected to "fight the rising wave of socialism" in the country. He acknowledged at one point the state was moving more "purple."
Hatchett is a shoe-in for the seat, but Daley was the most entertaining candidate of the night.
There were also two Jackson County Board of Commissioners races on the forum.
Incumbent Jim Hix, a Jefferson Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Jamie Mitcham; and incumbent Commerce Republican Chas Hardy is being challenged by Democrat Brodriche D. Jackson.
(Why local races are partisan escapes logic. All county-level races should be non-partisan because party labels have no meaning in local issues. Party officials like partisan local races from which to build their grassroot support, but for most of us it makes no sense.)
Hix and Hardy defended their records, especially in attracting economic development to help build the county's tax base.
Mitcham's main line of attack was to say he would bring "new energy" to the board.
Hardy touted the county's strong finances and said it was due, in part, to the growth of warehouses in the county.
"During this pandemic, what was once the bane of Jackson County and a lot of communities was the distribution centers," he said. "Well guess who was providing all the livelihood for the citizens of Jackson County and the state of Georgia now is these distribution centers have been able to go uninterrupted and continue to provide services to the citizens. And because they're located here in Jackson County, our tax digest is reaping the benefits of that."
For his part, Jackson said the county should focus on small businesses and that during the COVID crisis, the county should have given incentives and loans to small businesses to help them out.
Jackson was also critical of the county's roads.
"Roads are horrible," he said.
That issue of roads and traffic was discussed by several candidates, both challengers and incumbents.
But it was another kind of "road" that got a lot of attention in the forum — broadband access, or the lack thereof.
All the candidates decried the poor broadband service in Northeast Georgia and Jackson County, especially in rural areas.
But none of the candidates offered a real solution.
Some mentioned encouraging the private sector and keeping government out of it.
A couple suggested that JEMC should offer broadband with its existing network of electrical connections.
Fuller suggested that broadband had become an essential service, like electricity, and should be regulated by the Public Service Commission as a monopoly as are other utility monopolies in the state.
It's clear that everyone wants broadband, but there is a huge divide politically over how to get it. Generally speaking, local Republican candidates don't want local or the state government to get involved while Democrats want those governments to force a remedy one way or another.
Historically, the issue is similar to the early decades of the 20th Century after cars became common — everyone wanted paved or well-maintained roads, but nobody wanted to pay for it. It took decades for governments to get about the business of paving roads so that a modern traffic system could be built.
I fear the same thing is happening now with broadband access. Everyone wants it, but governments are scared to get involved and most candidates don't dare suggest that a local or state governments should play a role in developing broadband services. They don't want the expense, either.
The reality, however, is this: Competition won't fix the lack of broadband in rural areas. There aren't enough houses to attract competitors to those money-losing markets. Broadband competition only exists in high-density, urban and suburban markets where providers can make money. It's economics 101.
Meanwhile, out here in rural Georgia, we're still driving on digital dirt roads.
So to all those politicians who say government should stay out of broadband, one question: How's that strategy working out for you?