ELLIJAY, Ga. – The Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum to meet the candidates in Gilmer’s two major elections this year.
First, the Post 2 County Commissioner race saw candidates Karleen Ferguson, Woody Janssen, and Jerry Tuso speak about Gilmer specifically and their own lives and qualifications while 7th District State Representative candidates Rick Day, David Ralston, and Margaret Williamson spoke more generally on Gilmer’s place in the state as a whole and their role as a representative.
Hosted by Gilmer Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Paige Green and Board of Directors Chairman Trent Sanford, the event gave five minutes to each candidate to offer their words to citizens before allowing for time for citizens to mingle and speak face-to-face with them and ask their own questions.
The event kicked off with the candidates for Gilmer County Post 2 Commissioner.
First to speak was Jerry Tuso who offered a few words about his past as a retired air traffic controller and negotiating contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars over his 19 years in the position. As a past chairman of the Gilmer County GOP and eight years of involvement in the party, Tuso stated he has received great support throughout his time from people like Rita Otum and Stephen Aaron among many others. Tuso said he is running for Post 2 because he was raised and told that hard work and studying could make you something. Tuso continued saying, “It wasn’t enough. My father told me, ‘Son, that’s not enough. You’ve got to be a servant as well.’ So, during my entire working career, I have found ways that I can serve. And that’s why I am running, to serve Gilmer County.”
Next to speak was Karleen Ferguson. Ferguson has owned property with her husband in Gilmer County for 20 years, and in 2011, she became the Gilmer County Tourism and Events Coordinator. She noted it as the “funnest job in the world because I got to tell everyone that I knew how wonderful Gilmer County was and encourage them to come visit.” However, Ferguson said she learned in that position the impact of tourism on Gilmer’s community. She noted the Apple Festival’s economic effect on hundreds of families in the county, including the apple growers, but also the families who volunteer and work to earn extra income for their own needs. She connected this with the growing agri-tourism area alongside maximizing the natural resources the county has to offer for both citizens and businesses. Ferguson went on to note the effect that commissioners can have on the economy noting the previous board of Charlie Paris, Dallas Miller, and Travis Crouch and their efforts to replace old systems and catching up their departments to maintain the county. She stated, “We are headed in the right direction, and my intention as your county commissioner is to continue the direction that these gentlemen have been leading us in. I am naturally a problem solver … I am a great team player. I have a passion to protect the history and culture of this community as we grow in a qualitative way.”
The final candidate to speak was Woody Janssen. Living in the county for 12 years, he got out of his major corporate past in national accounts management to settle down locally in Ellijay, where he started a river tubing business. In business since 2009, Janssen said he has been affected by and benefited from what the Board of Commissioners and the Gilmer Chamber have accomplished. Growing out of the recession, he spoke about the growth of the county and his business’ successes in bringing people to the county. It was something he said he wanted to continue in the county. Being so involved in the small business market, Janssen said he hoped to deregulate the county’s small businesses to further expand their growth. Janssen said, “That’s something I’d like to see happen, and I think I can help everybody out. Everybody has done a phenomenal job here locally. I’d like to see less regulation and let’s utilize what we already have.”
With that, the night’s events turned towards the District 7 State Representative election.
First to speak was Rick Day. Running as a Democrat, Day said he hoped citizens were interested in finding out who he was as he came out of nowhere. Day told a story about a job he took on an oil field in central Texas. He said he showed up for work and ran into immediate troubles as the vast majority of his coworkers were Hispanic and did not speak English. Day continued his story saying he was working in his combat boots from his time in the military. The boots began melting in the chemicals. Day said he did not know what to do, feeling alone with boots melting and no way to reach out to family or friends. It was then that his coworkers bought him a new pair of boots simply saying, “Pay it forward.”
It was a touching moment, said Day, who added he rides his motorcycle through our district and sees pockets of poverty, noting 51 percent of this district is employed, meaning that 49 percent are unemployed. With one half of the district “carrying the weight” for the other half, he could only ask how it could happen. Day said, “We are supposed to have leadership in Atlanta. For 10 years, the leadership has gone unchallenged. For 27 years, one person has had the power and authority to make this the number one district in the state … As beautiful as we are, behind the beauty, behind the cake of make-up, there is poverty. There is addiction. There is a quiet desperation.”
It is the quiet desperation that Day said he wants to address. He wants to represent them and increase the economy and growth for all those in the county to answer the “quiet desperation.” Day said the way he intends to pay for that growth and that answer is by adopting the Colorado approach by legalizing cannabis. Day likened the agricultural growth in our region with vineyards to a bridge, saying the next step with cannabis is a massive economic impact and job growth waiting to happen in our region.
Second to speak was Margaret Williamson. Williamson’s background comes from engineering, marketing, and business administration. However, it was her time at home with her children and supporting her husband that Williamson said allowed her the time to become more active in volunteering in the community. This time in our community is what she said gives her the “pulse of the things that are going on in District 7.” She told a story about visiting Abby’s, a local business, for ice cream and frozen yogurt with her grandchildren. As she sat watching them pile as many sprinkles on their ice cream as they could, Williamson said she realized that was the biggest issue for them. She asked herself what their future in our district was?
She commended the Chamber of Commerce in their efforts as well as the agricultural community as the mainstays of our economy. Growing now into vineyards and tourism exemplifies the growth the community has seen. She also noted the commissioners’ efforts in controlling and growing the economy under an annual $4.4 million debt from past irresponsibilities, a debt obligation stretching to 2032. Williamson said, “Our leadership claims that we are the number one state to do business in. So, let’s capitalize on that here in our district. We have more than other parts of Georgia to offer.”
Utilizing our resources, Williamson said we have enough to attract more of smaller, low impact businesses that offer better-paying jobs with advancement. She went on to note that she is running for the position to offer real representation from someone who cares, will work for the people, and will be honest about legislation and how it will affect the people. Williamson said she wants to change the office to be more present in the district besides just for “photo ops” as well as adding a weekly event in the district during session so that citizens can speak to her about legislation and concerns in the state.
The final candidate to speak was Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston. Ralston was born and raised in Gilmer County where he graduated high school. Ralston said it was the community’s help that achieved his successes like $550,000 for the “long overdue completion” of the Clear Creek Ball Fields, $150,000 for the Gilmer County Playhouse, $310,000 for equipping the Gilmer Canning Plant, $250,000 for repairs and renovations to the Gilmer County Library, $283,000 in state funds for improvements to the River Park, and $1,2 million for expansion of the Gilmer County Water System.
Ralston went on to say, “Yes, that is your money, but it was your money that was not coming back to Gilmer County until the last few years. It was going to Atlanta, and it was going to south Georgia. And it was going all over the state, except here.” He also noted that the state has reacted to the change and growth of new industries like wine as well as responses like the hiring of a “viticulturist” so that local wineries don’t have to wait for a professional to come to Georgia from other states to “monitor the effects of weather and disease on grapes.”
Ralston also noted the recent legislative session as the most successful in recent memory. The first cut to the state income tax in history, the ending of austerity cuts to local education in Georgia, and the first reform to Georgia’s adoption law in 30 years were the major points that he utilized to exemplify that success. Ralston noted that despite the successes, there is more work to be done.