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9th District GOP hopefuls trade barbs in debate

Candidates discuss taxes, social issues

POSTED: August 13, 2012 11:46 p.m.

In a Republican runoff, there are always several similarities.

The race to be the party’s nominee in Georgia’s 9th U.S. House district is no different.

Both Doug Collins and Martha Zoller have similar views on the farm bill: They won’t support it in its current form.

Both candidates list cutting federal spending as their No. 1 priority if elected. Both say they’ll deal with what they say is overregulation if elected. And both want to overhaul the country’s tax system; while they’d support the Fair

Tax, neither thinks it’s a realistic goal just yet.

But there are differences.

Physically: One’s a man, the other a woman; he’s 45, she’s 52.

Professionally, she was a stay-at-home mom who made a career as a conservative radio talk show host; he’s a lawyer and an Air Force Reserve chaplain who spent six years in the state legislature.

Ideologically, he says she’s too soft on social issues. She says he’s too quick to back tax proposals.

At a debate in Gainesville on Monday sponsored by the 9th District GOP, both candidates made these points.

It wasn’t the first time. But the stakes were higher, as the two candidates enter their final week of campaigning for the nomination.

The one that goes home with the most votes on Aug. 21 will face Democrat Jody Cooley in November’s general election.

Last month, Collins and Zoller finished with almost identical support, a margin of just 729 votes in Collins’ column between them.

And as they seek the support of those who voted for Roger Fitzpatrick on July 31, the two are sharpening their focus on their differences.

In a discussion on tax plans, Zoller brought up Collins’ vote for a state bill in 2010 that sought to raise taxes on hospitals’ revenue.

The move, backed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, was an effort at shoring up a deficit in the state’s Medicaid budget.

The original bill never passed, but parts of it were folded into a larger bill that promised some $350 million in tax breaks for wealthy senior citizens and property owners over several years’ time.

Collins has repeatedly defended the vote, saying it furthered a legislative process that ended in tax breaks for Georgians.

This debate was no different.

“Taxes are lower in Georgia than when I went in (to office as a state representative), and they’re lower now and you know it,” Collins said.

But at the debate, Zoller didn’t let him take the credit, offering a quick response: “Thanks to the work that the Georgia Senate did and not anything that you voted on.”

Collins had a retort of his own: “One person at this podium has voted for tax cuts that you’re actually feeling in your pocketbook and it’s not you.”

Mudslinging in the eight-month campaign isn’t new.

They also fought over their conservative credentials.

Zoller asked Collins to “finally admit to the folks here tonight that you were intentionally misleading them with your comments.” Zoller prefaced the plea by reading a passage she wrote about what she called her “journey into conservatism.” In the passage, Zoller says she used to think Ronald Reagan was the problem with America, saying she “didn’t appreciate the scope of what he had accomplished” until he left office. Collins’ campaign has used it against her.

He said he never intentionally misled voters.

“You had made a statement that you thought Ronald Reagan was the problem with America,” Collins said. “We’ve talked about being a consistent conservative, and I never thought Ronald Reagan was the problem with America.”

But Zoller reiterated that the passage was about her “journey into conservatism,” saying “Heck, Doug, you were the vice president of Young Democrats. You helped get Democrats elected, you know? I mean, come on.”

Collins responded: “(I) didn’t vote for Michael Dukakis, though.”

Collins had shots of his own, taking from previous statements Zoller had made on the radio or television appearances.

Earlier in the night, Zoller put Collins on the defensive for his vote in favor of a referendum on a regional sales tax to fund transportation projects in the state.

Her attack had a different twist. Zoller said Collins, in countless forums across the district leading up to the July 31 referendum vote, never mentioned the penalties involved when voters overwhelmingly turned it down.

Collins did, on multiple occasions, urge voters to educate themselves about the bill and come to their own decision, but said he would vote against it.

“He knew all four times he voted for T-SPLOST those penalties were involved, and he had opportunities to educate the voters to get in front of voters dozens of times and never took that opportunity,” Zoller said.

But Collins, when he had his chance, asked if Zoller ever made an on-air statement that she was in favor of legislative efforts on T-SPLOST “on or about the third week of April 2010.”

“If so, how can you reconcile that with your rhetoric on the same issue today?”

Zoller said she “probably did say that.” But Zoller said, as she interviewed others on the issue, she changed her mind.

“I was a political analyst; I wasn’t an elected official,” Zoller said. “I was a person that was trying to bring both sides — all sides — to a story to people, and that’s what I’ve done for you throughout these 16 years.”

Collins said the process was no different than his decision to vote to allow voters to decide the referendum.

Focusing on social issues, Collins returned to an issue that his camp has rallied around for the last several months — civil unions — asking Zoller if she changed her view on civil unions once she became a candidate for Congress.

Zoller said she did not support civil unions, offering her endorsements from Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin as evidence of her credibility.

“They don’t support people who support civil unions,” Zoller said.

It was one of several times in the debate that Zoller dropped names of those in the national conservative movement, saying 9th District voters should “send up reinforcements to Tom Graves and Paul Broun” and mentioning endorsements from Palin, Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.

Still, Collins wasn’t satisfied with the answer and pulled out a handheld recorder that played a clip from an April 2009 appearance Zoller made on CNN.

On the recorder: “I do support civil unions, though.”

Then, Collins asked Zoller, “Martha, is that your voice?”

“That is my voice, but I do not support civil unions,” she answered.

Zoller, in her rebuttal, said she never changed her mind on the issue, but clarified her opinion later in the same CNN appearance.

“He spent the last several weeks trying to distort my record and I don’t think you’re going to buy it,” Zoller said of Collins.

Despite the dirt being lobbed between them, each said that if he or she turned out to be the loser, he or she “would support the Republican nominee.”

Neither actually said the other’s name.


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