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Views on taxes, mudslinging dominate candidate forum
Zoller, Collins trade barbs as Fitzpatrick stays above fray in House race
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As two of his opponents in the race to represent Georgia’s new 9th District in the U.S. House focused on pointing out each other’s faults, Roger Fitzpatrick stepped away from the crowd Saturday.

Fitzpatrick joined Republican opponents Doug Collins and Martha Zoller at a debate at the Georgia Mountains Center, but declined an opportunity to ask a question of either of his opponents.

“If you want to know how I stand on an issue, then ask me,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I don’t think it is my place to point out to you what I think is an issue that you need to consider.”

Fitzpatrick later explained his decision as an effort to help keep the debate focused on issues that were important to voters instead of the candidates. And he said he didn’t want any question he asked of Zoller or Collins to be perceived as “going negative” in his campaign strategy.

“Too much we have mudslinging and name calling in the races, and I think the negative has turned off so many people,” Fitzpatrick said.

It was a conscious step away from the other two candidates he’ll face in the July 31 Republican primary vote and who sat beside him at the table Saturday.

Zoller, who just last week went on the offensive against Collins, took advantage of her opportunity to ask a question of Collins.

“Rep. Collins, have you ever voted for a tax increase?” she asked.

Zoller was referring to Collins’ 2010 vote for a bill that sought to raise taxes on hospitals’ revenue, House Bill 307.

The move, backed by then Gov. Sonny Perdue, was an effort at shoring up a deficit in the state’s Medicaid budget. Zoller’s campaign had spent the better part of the week reminding voters of the vote in daily news releases.

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, in his response, focused on the tax breaks that were the end result and called Zoller’s question a “‘gotcha’ question.”

“This is a part of experience, this is a part of also having legislative experience and understanding the process that’s going on,” Collins said.

When he finished, a man in the crowd yelled “Yes or no, did you vote for it?”

Zoller’s support at Saturday’s forum, measured in a straw poll of the audience members, was higher than most. Some 47.9 percent of the people who voted did so for Zoller.

Collins answered: “House Bill 307? I voted yes, and it went to the Senate and it never became law and it was part of the package for a $400 million tax decrease, so that’s the answer. If we want to talk about bills that never passed, sure, I’ll be happy to talk about that all day long.”

About 33 percent participating in Saturday’s straw poll expressed support for Collins.

And when it was his turn, Collins quizzed Zoller on a statement she made on CNN in April 2009.

“You said that Americans were taxed at a relatively low rate — now, before you say it was out of context, the transcript’s available with our staff, you can see that — so I have a question for you: Do you regret saying that, and what I want to know is can you explain to me why you would say it to start with?” Collins asked. “Because I believe that Americans are taxed at an extremely high rate and would not say that.”

Zoller answered that, compared with European countries, tax rates in the U.S. were “relatively low.”

“However, I do agree that our tax rates could be lower,” Zoller said.

Fitzpatrick, a retiring elementary school principal from White County, often talks about civility in candidate forums.

Originally, Fitzpatrick, whose policy opinions are based mostly in questions of constitutionality, started his campaign as an independent, which he said would help him to be a “voice of reason” in a Congress that often seems to play a partisan blame game.

But facing hurdles with ballot access, Fitzpatrick qualified last month as a Republican candidate.

Still, at Saturday’s forum sponsored by the Lanier Tea Party and the Hall County Republican Party, Fitzpatrick listed his desire to talk with those across the aisle as one of his leadership qualities.

But he said he’s not sure if it’s a message that’s getting across to voters. Of those who participated in Saturday’s straw poll, fewer than 14 percent said they thought he was the best man for the job.

“I don’t know if people are responding or not, and whether they do or not ultimately doesn’t matter, because I’m the one that has to be satisfied with myself,” Fitzpatrick said. “If I do what I know is right then I’m OK, and if it sways a voter, then that’s secondary to how I feel about myself.”