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US House candidates square off at forum
9th District hopefuls question each others' stances
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Martha Zoller questioned opponent Doug Collins Monday on his fiscally conservative credentials, while Collins, in turn, challenged Zoller’s stance on illegal drugs.

And while there are three other people — economic development strategist Clifton McDuffie, Jackson County Commission Chairman Hunter Bicknell and White County principal Roger Fitzpatrick — running to be Georgia’s newest congressman, Zoller and Collins seem to have all eyes on each other.

In a forum sponsored by the White County GOP, the five candidates to represent 20 Northeast Georgia counties in the U.S. House of Representatives sat side by side in an upstairs room at a Cleveland branch of Community Bank and Trust on Monday night in one of their first chances for the candidates to publicly question the others’ political stances.

A big focus of the night — and an issue the candidates were largely in agreement on — was a desire to take control of the federal budget.

But some questions, especially the questions Collins and Zoller chose for each other, were directed at differentiating the candidates.

Collins questioned Fitzpatrick, who originally ran as an independent, on his Republican values.

Fitzpatrick said he’d been “a Republican since I could first vote,” but that his effort as an independent candidate was an effort at “civil conversation” with Republicans and Democrats.

Bicknell, who in campaign speeches touts his business experience, challenged Collins’ credentials as a businessman and asked McDuffie to detail his post-chamber retirement activities. McDuffie, since leaving local chambers of commerce, has since started his own economic development business.

Collins saved his question for Zoller until last. Zoller took on Collins in her first turn.

She asked Collins why, if he previously said there was “waste” in the state budget, did he vote in favor of a state spending plan that increased spending over last year.

Collins defended his decision, saying that some $5 billion in budget cuts in previous years “cut into our basic core functions,” and touted legislators’ savings in other areas, including the elimination of the state personnel administration.

“It’s a $2.6 million savings of actually consolidating a department, taking it out. That’s something you don’t see in government,” Collins said. “We actually took away a department and saved money and cut jobs.”

And when he got around to questioning Zoller, Collins asked if she was still considering whether marijuana should be legalized, noting a time in which he said she said she “favored” its legalization and its taxation.

Zoller said her comments were in reference to someone asking if she would rethink her position on marijuana’s illegality. She said she would, because the problem was that taxpayers spent money on people in jail for nonviolent crimes.

“I was never in favor of the legalization of marijuana, but I was willing to relook at it because of the things that Gov. Deal looked at in our prison system right now, about of the cost of ... keeping people in prison for nonviolent crimes,” said Zoller.