Candidates for several government posts faced off in the first of two Republican Party sponsored debates Thursday at Grovetown Middle School.
Candidates vying for the posts of state Senate, Columbia County sheriff, Columbia County Commission, chief magistrate and superior court judge touted their experience or the need for new leadership.
District 3 Commission incumbent Diane Ford told the audience of around 100 people that her experience makes her the most qualified to retain her position.
"Many of you know that I've been on the Commission for 12 years," she said. "I don't need any on-the-job training."
Her opponent, local business owner Greg Kernaghan, said he wanted to develop more recreation in Columbia County and establish more open lines of communication.
"I want to listen all the time, not just election time," he said.
There is no incumbent candidate in the race for Columbia County chief magistrate, but that didn't stop the office seekers - J. Wade Padgett, Hal Morris and Richard Ingram - from declaring themselves the most qualified.
"With me, you don't need campaign speeches," said Padgett, who has served as assistant to the departing Chief Magistrate David Huguenin for the past 10 years. "You have my history on the bench."
Morris, the only non-lawyer seeking the post, said he has served as a magistrate for 21 years and on the executive committee of an organization for state magistrates.
Ingram believes his experience as managing partner in the Fleming, Jackson, Ingram and Floyd law firm make him most qualified.
"In my position as managing partner I deal with a budget nearly the same as that of magistrate court," he said. "I know how to manage a budget of that size and make it work."
The District 24 state Senate race candidates are the only ones at the debate who will face Democratic opposition following the July 20 primary.
"I've established one of the finest offices in the Senate for you, the constituency," incumbent Sen. Joey Brush said.
First elected in 1990, Brush is chairman of the state Senate Education Committee and said if he lost the office it would hurt Columbia County and its school system.
His opponent, former Columbia County Commission Chairman Jim Whitehead called Brush ineffective.
"Seniority does not mean your peers will take you seriously," Whitehead said. "I'm someone they will take seriously."
Hopefuls for the superior court judgeship of the Augusta Judicial Circuit each argued that their experience in court make them the better candidate.
Since most of the cases the elected judge will hear will be domestic or civil cases, Sherry Barnes said as a divorced mom she understands couples facing divorce.
Walter Meetz, also seeking the judgeship, said his 24 years' experience as a litigator in superior court gives him a better understanding of the courts needs.
Richmond County Solicitor General Sheryl Jolly said her 18 years as a prosecutor gives her the edge in the race.
Candidates for sheriff, perhaps the most hotly contested race, took to the stage last in the more than 2 1/2 -hour debate.
Incumbent Sheriff Clay Whittle said his main goal when he first assumed office in 1995 was to lower the crime rate and improve the quality of life in the county and said he has done that.
"We have reduced the crime rate by 26 percent since 1996," he said. "And that's with a population increase of 17 percent. That in and of itself speaks a lot," he said.
Lewis Blanchard, Whittle's challenger, agreed the county has a low crime rate, but focused more on the nearly $15 million budge of the sheriff's office.
He said he wants to put more deputies on the streets, reduce the number of supervisory positions and work with other agencies to battle the county's growing drug problems.
"I believe we have a progressive community that needs progressive leadership," he said.
Whittle responded by saying his department already works with other agencies to combat drugs, and he praised his officers' efforts in fighting drug-related crimes.
Most of the races will be decided in the July 20 primary.
The Republican Party's second debate is scheduled for June 24, 7 p.m., at Lakeside High School.
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