U.S. House candidates Doug Collins and Martha Zoller exchanged ideas on key issues and debated who was the true “establishment” candidate during a televised forum Thursday night.
The event was held in Atlanta by the Atlanta Press Club and televised by Georgia Public Television.
Collins and Zoller are in a runoff for the Republican nomination for the 9th District seat. Early voting ends today, with runoff election day Tuesday. The winner will face Democrat Jody Cooley in the Nov. 6 general election.
Collins, 45, is a three-term state representative from Gainesville. Zoller, 52, also from Gainesville, was a radio talk-show host for many years.
While the two mostly agreed on the issues, they disagreed over whose campaign is more responsive to the people of the district than to outside influences.
Zoller defended the high-profile endorsements she has received from outside the area, including those from Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, and the fact that her campaign has received money from outside of Georgia.
“I have followed all the rules of campaign finance ... and this has not been a big-money race so I don’t think the money issue is a big one,” Zoller said. “I’m proud of the fact that I had grass-roots endorsements from every single county in the district.”
“I believe Martha is the establishment candidate when you deal with the Washington endorsements and Washington money that has come into this race,” said Collins, who said most of his support has come from within the district.
Zoller later said Collins has “lots of Gold Dome insiders supporting him, lobbyists and lawyers.”
Zoller again criticized Collins for his support of putting the regional transportation sales tax on the July 31 ballot but not explaining to voters the tax penalties resulting from its subsequent defeat.
“We were fooled a little bit with the T-SPLOST,” she said. “What it really was (was) a tax increase if you voted ‘yes’ and a tax increase if you voted ‘no.’”
Collins said he was “simply allowing the voters to decide the issue,” and said Zoller was inconsistent with her own position on the tax for “political expediency.”
“I voted to put this on the ballot for people of Georgia, and I voted ‘no’ just as you voted ‘no,’” Collins said, adding that state leaders would address the penalties.
Zoller said her views on the issue evolved over time.
“As I traveled around this district, I learned ... there was SPLOST abuse, and something that was not working,” she said. “It’s important to be consistent, but also when you learn something, you have to change your position.”
On other issues, the two candidates agreed with plans to save Social Security and Medicare proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, running mate for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Both favor protecting benefits for older Americans while allowing younger workers to invest in private plans.
“Gov. Romney picking Paul Ryan puts it out there in determining which way we want to go, not with a big-government approach that is killing jobs,” Collins said.
They disagreed, however, on the Obama administration’s new immigration policy that allows younger illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to avoid deportation and apply for work permits.
Zoller said she differed mostly with the way the policy was enacted, by presidential decree rather
“I might think it’s a good policy if we went through Congress and went through the right process,” she said. Zoller said she favored an immigration policy that would enforce the borders, fix the visa system and create a “no amnesty” work permit.
Collins disagreed with the policy change, saying “even if it did go through Congress, we’re picking winners and losers.” He said he favors a total overhaul to the immigration system and a “holistic” approach.
Both candidates also said they have the qualifications to work with other leaders in a Congress bitterly divided by partisanship.
“I’ve been able to work to get things accomplished ... with a fresh perspective,” Zoller said.
“I have been able to work across party lines, taking conservative principles and finding others you can work with,” Collins said.
Times senior political reporter Ashley Fielding and Georgia Report’s Tom Crawford, a Times columnist, served as panelists in the forum.