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COLUMN: Special Election in 4th Senate District Mostly Devoid of Policy Issues

OPINION: Jessica Szilagyi discusses the primary runoff election between Scott Bohlke & Billy Hickman and how noticeably absent policy discussions are from both campaigns.
“Our counties deserve so much more from the people begging for our votes and shame on both of the candidates for campaigning like voters are incapable of digesting more valuable information.”

The following column is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.


The 4th district Senate race to fill the vacancy left by the death of long-time Senator Jack Hill came unexpectedly, leaving candidates in a position to boost name recognition any way possible – expensive mailers, television ads, social media campaigns, and more. But even as we have moved into the runoff, the race has been devoid of policy discussions, with both candidates focusing on lengthy endorsement lists, screenshots of opponents’ campaign pages, and a t-shirt war to battle a sign war.

Sadly, none of these things will help voters make informed decisions and the distractions have provided little insight into the values and beliefs each candidate holds. But with the next election date in just 27 days, I am beginning to think that is how both candidates want it.

In May, I moderated a forum hosted by the Bulloch County Republican Party with four of the five candidates and as the moderator, I was able to select the questions. I focused on things that will impact our lives – the Second Amendment, medical marijuana, economic development, the lawsuit with ‘the heartbeat bill,’ 

But as you can imagine, with four candidates sharing the stage and limited time to answer, most of the answers were very superficial. I was hopeful that course would change with the race narrowed to two..but no such thing has been true. 

Dr. Scott Bohlke and Billy Hickman coasted as the front runners in the 5-way primary. Sending at least 16 different mail pieces between them, the two propelled their already familiar names securely into the top two spots for the August 11th runoff. The mailers offered the usual and expected rhetoric for a Republican primary – “Pro-Trump”, “business owner,” “Pro-Gun,” “fiscal conservative”, “faith, family, finances,” “new energy,” the Dr. with “the right prescription,” “keep Georgia healthy,” and so much more.

All of those things sound nice and cost a great deal to print, but there is absolutely no substance. Their social media campaigns have been even worse. 

Early on, Bohlke focused heavily on COVID-19, but since making the runoff has posted only that he supports tort reform and he is in favor of reducing the number of standardized tests for students (Isn’t everyone?) He shared an article about the hate crimes legislation passing, but took no position and has made 10 posts in less than a month about campaign t-shirts. The only other glimmer of substance was Bohlke’s rebuttal to out-of-district donations and special interest groups. One of his justifications is that Senator Hill did it, too. 

I hate to break it to the doctor, but Senator Hill – God rest his soul – did a lot of things during his decades-long tenure and not all of them were in the best interest of the people of this district. Perhaps that would come up if we were talking about his voting record and policy issues instead of friends, donors, and tshirts. 

 

But Hickman is no better. He has relied substantially on the names of his allies – political and otherwise – to garner support. ‘I’m a friend of [insert name of the day]’ has been his go-to line, regardless of whether or not that person lives in the 4th district and he has done this while blasting Bohlke for taking money from outside the district. Instead of redirecting the conversation to things that will impact people in Bulloch, Candler, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, and Tattnall counties, Hickman has essentially told everyone to ‘look at the squirrel over there.’ 

Is it because he is not willing to take a stand on the issues? Hickman just repeats that he will “Back the Blue,” “stand for conservative values,” ‘get the economy roaring,” and “fight for our values.” Well, Mr. Hickman, what are our values? More importantly…what are YOUR values?

Our counties deserve so much more from the people begging for our votes and shame on both of the candidates for campaigning like voters are incapable of digesting valuable information. Neither one of these men have held elected office on the state level before. We have absolutely no idea who they will be once they are elected and have been reduced to bullet points of rhetoric and petty Facebook posts. 

How will you expand rural broadband in our region? What does it mean to get the economy roaring? What specific Second Amendment fights do you plan to take on? Which corporate tax breaks do you think are valuable and which ones have proven to be ineffective? How can you balance protecting communities from coal ash waste without overburdening businesses? Should religious institutions that accept state funds be able to refuse services based on beliefs? How can Georgia further its progress on justice reform? Where do you stand on bail reform? What do we do about the rural hospitals that are struggling now more than ever? How about the issue at the forefront across the nation: policing and race relations.

And that’s just the jumping off point I would use if either candidate sat down for a long form interview. 

The issue here is that a state senator is a very powerful person and almost impossible to unelect. The average state senate campaign in Georgia runs around ~$150,000 per candidate (for a job that pays ~$17,000 per year, which should concern everyone) and whoever wins this race will be the man we are stuck with until that man no longer wishes to serve. 

It’s unfortunate that, come Election Day, we won’t know anything about what that man actually believes. 

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