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Hall candidate forum focuses on minority community's concerns
0522POLITICS 0001
Steve Gailey speaks to guests during a political forum held Saturday by Ashley Bell's 20/20 Club at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Gainesville. Gailey and Richard Higgins are squaring off in the Republican primary for the chairman's seat on the Hall County Board of Commissioners, with the winner expected to run uncontested in the November general election. - photo by Erin O. Smith

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Hall County early voting totals

Total registered voters: 80,220

Total of advance voters: 2,873 (2,622 voted early in 2014; 6,127 in 2012 presidential year)

Ballots cast: Republican, 2,552; Democratic, 313; nonpartistan, 13

Source: Hall County Elections Office

African-American residents of the Newtown and Fair Street neighborhoods on Gainesville’s south side have long felt left out of the economic fortunes of the region.

“That’s a very prevalent feeling in this community,” said Ashley Bell, a Gainesville attorney and former Hall County commissioner.

In an effort to address the inequities present in minority neighborhoods, Bell’s 20/20 Club held a political forum Saturday for Hall County candidates ahead of the state primary Tuesday.

The club was launched in 2012 during Bell’s last run for the Board of Commissioners as a way to increase voter engagement on local issues, particularly among minorities.

“This is a unique event because we’re bringing the candidates to the community ... where most of the African-American voters are,” Bell said. “We think this is the most effective way to get out the vote.”

Held at St. Paul United Methodist Church on Summit Street, candidates were given a few minutes to make their case to more than 100 voters in attendance and then answer questions from those in the audience.

Bell said it’s important to build coalitions to effect political change.

It’s one of the reasons Bell switched political parties several years ago, dropping the Democrats for the Republicans. He recalled the decision at the forum, saying his change of heart was driven in part by a desire to have local candidates compete for the votes of minorities, who typically side with Democrats.

Voters in Hall must choose a Republican, Democratic or nonpartisan ballot in the primary.

“There’s nothing more personal than politics,” Bell said, adding that he wants voters to have more choices in local elections.

Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, a local civil rights organization, said this is an important time for Gainesville’s minority residents, who are becoming a larger share of the local population.

“An informed voter is a powerful voter,” Johnson said. “And that’s what we’re working toward — empowering people in such a way that a candidate can’t just say anything to them about any issue.”

Criminal justice reform was a hot topic on the minds of those in attendance. Ernest Mason, for example, shared the story of his brother who has served 18 years in prison for cocaine possession.

“When you put someone in jail, you’re hurting families,” Mason told state court judge candidates, who agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing does more harm than good.

Minority representation in government, particularly in local law enforcement, was also a major concern for attendees.

Latinos and African-Americans account for less than 13 percent of Hall County government workers, but make up better than 35 percent of the county’s population, for example.

But it wasn’t just grievances that were aired at the event. Aspirations were spoken of, too.

For example, Michelle Mintz, a longtime community activist, pressed officials on the need for more parks and commercial development in Gainesville’s minority and lower-income neighborhoods. Residents have desired a full-service community center there like those in East and North Hall.

Val Coley, a retired educator from Hall County, asked what commissioners might do to attract new broadband cable and Internet providers to help spur growth and lower costs. The Jefferson City Council in nearby Jackson County, for example, recently launched a broadband advisory committee to address similar issues.

Candidates for county commission said they would focus on minority neighborhoods if elected.

Richard Higgins and Steve Gailey are squaring off in the Republican primary for the chair seat on the Hall County Board of Commissioners, with the winner expected to run uncontested in the November general election.

“I hope to represent everybody in all facets,” said Higgins, a former member and chairman of the Hall County Board of Education.

“These are my constituents,” Gailey, a former commissioner from District 3, said. “They have a voice with me.”

Incumbent Commissioner Jeff Stowe will face Troy Phillips in the District 4 Republican primary, with the winner facing Democratic challenger Angela Middleton in the general election.

District 4 is unique in that it essentially covers the city of Gainesville.

This neighborhood is “smack in the center of my district,” Phillips said, adding that minorities are a large constituency for him.

And Stowe said he wants to address issues raised at the forum, such as improving the quality of life for residents here.

“No matter their race, sex or income level, I represent everyone,” he added.

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