Judging by the names on many of the political T-shirts, however, most of those in the audience were looking forward to the second debate of the evening.
“Obviously from the look of the T-shirts, you’re all here tonight to hear the congressional debate,” U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta) said to the standing-room only crowd as he was met with a roar of laughter. “Me thinks there’s a race or two going on in Cherokee County of somewhat importance.”
Despite the overwhelming support for the race for Board of Education chairman, the three Republican candidates vying for the Congressional seat kicked off the evening focusing mostly on health care, jobs and tax reform.
Gingrey’s challengers in the July 31 primary are certified public accountant William Llop and Michael Opitz, who is best known as the founder and past president of The Madison Forum. In the general election, the winner will face Democrat Patrick Thompson of Roswell, a sales manager.
“The chairman of the local school board is tremendously important,” Gingrey said. “But this race, folks, you know is hugely important.”
Gingrey noted that the 11th Congressional District will now include all of Cherokee and Bartow, a large portion of Cobb and a small portion of Fulton. He said Cherokee now has double the number of residents than when he previously represented the county 12 years ago as a state Senator.
After the Supreme Court ruling to uphold Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Gingrey said his goal will be to continue to end the legislation and come back with more “meaningful” reform.
Gingrey said the Republicans have fought hard to repeal the Affordable Care Act and in its place would work to extend COBRA coverage as well as tax breaks given to employers to all individual proprietors.
As to what health care plans should cover, the idea of the free market ruled among all of the candidates.
“I say let the market decide,” Gingrey said in response to whether alternative medicine should be covered. “If (health care companies) want to provide that as part of their coverage ... then let the individual go out there and purchase that.”
Gingrey said individuals should also be able to purchase out-of-state health care.
“Rather than Obamacare, (my plan) would be to let individuals not be confined to purchase health insurance within their own state (and) let them be able to go online — kind of like an exchange, yes — and look and see what’s available … If that unique policy is available to them somewhere else, I think they should have that right.”
Opitz said he was concerned with the cost of health care when comparing states.
“When we look at health care by the states, we see that some have better health care, less expensive health care programs than Georgia,” Opitz said. “We should be able to go in those states and buy from them. What most people haven’t been told is that when you do that, that becomes interstate commerce and falls under the federal government.”
Opitz said this process then requires the federal government to become involved with regulation. He also raised concerns that while some states elect their insurance commissioner, others appoint someone to the position.
Llop agreed with the previous statements about repealing the Affordable Care Act and allowing Georgians to purchase health care across state lines, and added he thought each individual should control his or her insurance policies.
“Big business, these group plans, these government employee health insurance plans — that’s the problem,” Llop said. “We need to take control of your own health insurance policy just like you do with your automobile.”
When asked about what would best spur economic growth in the nation, Gingrey said his focus on repealing the health care ruling would enhance the free market by removing the individual health care plan mandates that would cost a $200,000 fine per employee if the company failed to provide a health care plan.
“Unfortunately, many of these companies are holding back on hiring because that requirement doesn’t kick in until you hire that 50th employee,” Gingrey said. “This is one of the most important things. Get rid of Obamacare, replace it with market-based, meaningful health care reform so these employers, large and small companies all across the country, can begin hiring again.”
Opitz, who identifies himself as a constitutional conservative, said his focus is on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the 11th District.
“I understand manufacturing and understand that manufacturing is the foundation of our country’s wealth, our financial and economic stability, and it’s the social fabric that holds our country together,” Opitz said.
Opitz said he will not be a “quiet voice” in Congress.
“I’m going to help those people in Congress understand what they have done to de-industrialize our great nation,” Opitz said.
Llop said he works with small businesses every day and often hears from his clients what their problems are in investing in their business.
“We talk about Obamacare … we talk about so many things that could happen, that can happen,” Llop said. “My point is to enact reform — streamline the tax code and we will get immediate jobs.”
Opitz said he is a strong supporter of the Fair Tax. “We need to get rid of the Progressive Income Tax that has been with us since 1913.What we need to do is tax consumption. Make us much more competitive in world trade and bring back jobs. It will put us back on the road to prosperity but we must get with the Progressive Tax.”
Llop and Gingrey agreed, with Gingrey adding he’d like to bring the corporate tax rate down to “make (the U.S.) competitive once again.”
“We have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world,” Gingrey said. “How do you compete with the Chinas and the Indias and these third-world nations? Tax reform has to be done, mainly flatter and simpler.”
Gingrey was asked by an audience member about his vote on the Budget Control Act last year, which effectively raised the nation’s debt ceiling last year so the federal government would not default on its loans. The audience member questioned why Gingrey voted for the measure, but Gingrey said he voted against the act.
“I voted against the Budget Control Act that created the super committee that caused sequestration because there was nothing in that final bill about a balanced budget amendment requirement,” Gingrey said. “This congressman voted no.”
He said he also voted against the measure because it also cut $600 billion from the Department of Defense as well as cutting discretionary and mandatory spending.
“(President Barack Obama) had already cut $350 billion out of our weapons system,” Gingrey said. “You can’t hollow out the military.”
Each candidate also agreed there is a desperate need for Social Security reform.
“We have to make sure that people — the younger folks coming up — have a savings account that will take care of them into their older age. Social security is not going to do it,” Opitz said.
Llop said social security needs to be there for people who sell their homes in their 60s and 70s, but as an annuity — not as an investment in a stock market.
“This is a guarantee for the people that have the least,” Llop said. “This is the last effort for people who are truly less fortunate.”
Llop said he knew the number of people relying solely on Social Security was rising and said it was now “around 9 percent.”
Gingrey said both Social Security and Medicare are two programs many seniors depend on.
“I wish he was right,” Gingrey said of his challenger’s figures. “I think the percentage is much, much higher than that.”
Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 23 percent of married couples and about 46 percent of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.
Gingrey said most people are advised to save for the future, but haven’t been able to do so and have to rely almost totally on these programs, that he said are “desperately underfunded.”
“In this economy, they can’t (save),” Gingrey said.
All candidates said they support the Personhood Amendment, which will be voted on by all Georgia Republican to grant “personhood” status to all human beings from conception. The ballot question will appear on the July 31 Republican primary ballot.
When the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Llop asked whether Opitz voted for himself when he cast his ballot earlier that day and, if not, why he chose to run in the 11th District.
Opitz revealed he does not live in the district.
“This is no secret,” Opitz said. “I live in the 6th District in Cobb County. I’ve lived there for years.”
Opitz said when he wins the election, he will move to the 11th District.
In a question to Gingrey, Llop said the Affordable Care Act had been voted on 33 times in the House of Representatives and questioned what Gingrey would do differently, if re-elected, to get the entire measure overturned.
Gingrey said only two votes have been taken in the House of Representatives to completely repeal the health care act.
“The other 30 votes to repeal were for individual aspects of the bill,” Gingrey said. “Those things we have voted (on) to repeal different pieces. We did, in fact, get some Democratic support for the most onerous provisions of Obamacare. I’ll vote 33 times 33 to get rid of this monstrosity of a legislation,” Gingrey said.