The Sierra Club Centennial Group held its candidate forum last Thursday evening at Life University. Panels of candidates for the state legislature and the Cobb County Board of Commissioners answered questions on the environment, and a candidate for the Public Service Commission spoke at the close. All six of the state legislative candidates who agreed to be on the panel were Democrats, while two of the three Cobb BOC candidates who spoke were Republicans.
The state legislative candidates at Sierra Club Meet the Candidates
The moderator was Jeff Schoenberg, the Georgia Sierra Club executive committee’s fundraising chair and at-large member. The panel of state legislative candidates, all Democrats, went first. He began by asking the candidates to give a brief statement on who they are and why they are running.
Luisa Wakeman said she was a registered nurse who had worked in cardiac care, and, “I am the Democratic candidate for house district 43 in East Cobb. It’s east of 75, south of the 120 loop, and to the Chattahoochee River. I have been an active member of my community for over 20 years, and I’m running because I care about the future of the place where I live.”
Erick Allen said he had been Executive Director of the Office of Learning and Development of the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Learning Disabilities. He said he’s running “because I believe in my community, and I believe that my community has not been represented with a voice that believes in the diversity and inclusion and the opportunity that we represent in district 40 … The most expensive home in my district appraised for $5 million, the least expensive $50,000. So that gives you a representation of what Georgia looks like.”
Mary Frances Williams
Mary Frances Williams, running for state house district 37, said, “I have lived in Marietta my whole life. I’m a product of the Marietta city schools. And I have spent the last 34 years working for nonprofit organizations as a legislative and policy consultant, so 34 years of working mainly for women, families and children. And why am I running now? I’m running because having been down at the Capitol for all these years, I watch a lot of good issues come up, and a lot of issues just never get to committee or get out of committee … I hate seeing stuff just stifled at not even letting it get a committee hearing. So that’s something that definitely has made me feel strongly about running.”
Essence Johnson, Democratic candidate for house district 45 in East Cobb and a small part of Fulton County said, “I’m running because I’m changing the stereotype of who can run in this district. I decided to get in the race because of my son and the next generation. I want our children to have a good education, to have good health care … the ability to grow and become successful even if they don’t go to college. “
Chinita Allen is running for house district 44. She said, “I’m a veteran school teacher, so when I talk about my district I’m going to name schools. I have a little bit of Lassiter, a little bit of Kell in my district. A little bit of Pope, Sprayberry, some of the elementary schools, Chalker … middle schools, Palmer.”
“So why am I running? My daughter Chimari is a sophomore at UGA on a Hope and Zell Miller scholarship. My son Derrick is at Notre Dame on a football scholarship. And my youngest will be a freshman. So I feel like I can have a greater impact in my community. A lot of what I’m doing in terms of running as a candidate is what I’ve been doing for the last ten years,” she said.
Christine Triebsch who is running for state senate district 32. She said, “I was in the special election last year. That was my first opportunity to run for office. I received 43 percent of the vote in the very, very red area of East Cobb. So senate district 32 is East Cobb and a little bit of Sandy Springs as well. I never, ever saw politics in my future, never ever. And I was watching the debates, and I had a concern when then-candidate Trump said to candidate Clinton that he was going to have her investigated if he won. So that concerned me a lot. So after he did win I got motivated and attended the Women’s March and that did it for me. Really it’s a selfish motive, I want to help my family, I want to help my community at this point, and so that’s why I’m running for office.”
Environmental priorities of candidates
Schoenberg asked what environmental issue would get the candidate up in the morning ready to fight for the legislation.
Johnson said clean air was her environmental priority. I want my sone to thrive,I want my son to be able to play, and not worry about the smog, and not worry about what our cars are giving off,” she said.
Chinita Allen said she was trying to decide between energy and water. “My school has just become a green school. I won the Atlanta Families Award, and part of the project was instituting a creative curriculum, and STEM containers where teachers could sort of retrieve them, and teach lessons … We had about 25 teachers become green certified classes. So I definitely would wake up and work on water conservation,” she said.
With no hesitation, Triebsch said, “Transit! Transit! I’ve got a fifteen-year-old that’s about ready to start driving, and we have a nineteen-year-old that is driving. To help folks get from point A to point B without their vehicles, in some other way: light rail, some other way. There are a number of issues, but that would motivate me.”
Wakeman said, “Unless we have clean water, we have to protect our water sources, nothing else matters. And our water is affected by transportation and so many other things.
Erick Allen said “Mine would be personal, since I’m on my HOA board at home, and we would love to share energy, especially solar. And so I think busting up the limitations and the monopoly that Georgia Power has on when you can get distribution of power is something that makes absolutely no sense to me.” He said he would fight day and night to make sure his community could share solar power.
Williams said, “First of all, there have been efforts over the past several years, to pass legislation that protects stream buffers, river and stream buffers. We’ve done a better job of doing the coastal buffers, but we still don’t have laws that really protect our rivers and streams from getting silt and other pollution in them.” She said the legislation has been drafted already and just needs a push.
Schoenberg said there were several problems related to the accumulation of coal ash in Georgia. He said out-of-state companies were shipping coal ash here for disposal, that Georgia Power was dewatering their coal ash ponds, and that these things were happening with little government oversight.
“Tell me what you would do to address the coal ash problems that the state is facing,” he said.
Erick Allen said, “I think the limitation of coal ash coming into the state from out-of-state is something that has to be watched closely. We have great polluter on our hands ourself: Georgia Power. We do not need to take that money in, especially just for more funds. Most of it is just to offset other budgetary issues. I think it has to be some reasonable conversation about how we limit not only what we produce in Georgia, but what we take in from other states.”
Williams said, “There was a bill that would have required Georgia Power to notify local governments when they were going to drain toxic coal ash ponds, and pump the water into local rivers, and that bill failed. And there was another coal-ash-related measure that would have raised tipping fees, the money that is paid when you take coal ash to a landfill I believe. It passed, but it got amended by Georgia Power lobbyists so that the increase didn’t apply to toxic ash from coal-burning power plants until 2025. Not very helpful. I just think we need more voices on these things.”
Johnson said, “I ditto what both of them said because we do need to protect our land, our flood zones, and our water. And we do need to ensure that we protect ourselves from pollutants in our water.”
Chinita Allen said more regulation was needed, and that storing toxic waste in mine landfills away from water might be something to work for.
Triebsch said, “Coal ash! Wow!. Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard that.” When laughter broke out she said, “Seriously, hey, I’m a family law attorney. So what I would do if some type of proposed bill came to me, I’d probably call the Sierra Club, or call an expert to help me out with this issue and what I need to do … This would be a new issue to me, and I would want to associate with an expert who could help me make decisions about how to protect the environment for my children, for your children.”
Georgia Power and the speed round
Georgia Power was a frequent topic of the evening, and all candidates said that Georgia Power money and lobbying is a problem in the legislature when environmental issues arise.
Schoenberg did a “speed round” in which he asked “Is climate change real,” and “Will you reinstate the EV tax credit,” and “Will you support more state funding of transit?” All candidates on the panel answered “yes.” When someone on the panel said “These are easy questions, Schoenberg said, “They aren’t supposed to be hard. They’re supposed to get you on the record.
Check out the slideshow of the event below
[Part Two of this article will cover the three candidates for the Cobb County Board of Commissioners who were on the panel plus Dawn Randolph, the PSC candidate at the event]