That Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Allen and Democratic challenger the Rev. Francys Johnson could find disagreement on a question about investment in port and highway infrastructure signaled the tenor of Tuesday evening’s forum.
Then came questions about tariffs, Social Security, health care and immigration. Hosted by the Statesboro Herald in Ogeechee Technical College’s auditorium, the one-hour forum often sounded more like a scrappy debate.
What the candidates would do in Congress to ensure that the district gets maximum benefit from Savannah’s growing port and whether they would support a longstanding proposal to build a new interstate highway connecting Savannah, Augusta and cities to the north was one of the first questions read by the moderator, Statesboro Herald President Joe McGlamery.
“Obviously the port has made tremendous strides,” Allen said. “It is the fourth-busiest port in the United States, and they earned that because they’re very efficient and productive. Obviously we’re deepening that port. The president has issued another $45 million to continue that project, and it will be completed in just a few years.”
Allen also expressed support for the idea of building the new interstate, which he said would connect to I-85.
“I think it would be a good idea for us to have another railroad exchange in the district, and I’m working toward that as far as getting closer into the port and nearer the railroad so that we load those containers and they can be shipped out across the country,” Allen continued. “But yes, the economic impact of the port is enormous, and the Georgia delegation is in full support of it, and we’re doing everything we can.”
This fit with Allen’s theme that the economy is now growing rapidly in response to tax cuts and other Republican policies. In his opening remarks, he had said there are currently 7 million job openings nationwide. Johnson, in contrast, referred to the Republican tax changes as benefitting the wealthy while “the other America” is hurting.
Johnson didn’t disagree on support of the port project, but suggested that Allen has not kept 12th District citizens informed and has done little.
“It would have been good for the citizens of Statesboro to have regular town halls with their congressman so that they could have gotten updates about all of those things,” Johnson said. “But make no mistake about it, if you elect me to Congress not only will I go and do the job but I will come back and give you reports on a timely basis”
Johnson suggested building stronger connections between Georgia’s ocean ports and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, including a dedicated rail line. He also called for adding trucking lanes on Interstate 16 for the safety of other motorists.
“The fact is that a great many who live between the ports and Hartsfield-Atlanta don’t get the bounty that is the fourth-largest port in the (country), and that’s wrong. It’s wrong because we have a congressman who’s not doing his job,” Johnson said.
Trade war question
Johnson got the next question first. It was, “In response to tariffs imposed by President Trump, China has placed tariffs on soybeans, pork and other agricultural products that have caused prices to drop. … This has placed … some farmers in jeopardy. Do you support tariffs … and what can be done to assist farmers … that a negatively affected by the policy?
“I want to make sure you understand something,” Johnson said. “‘Tariff’ is just a fancy word that politicians use when they want to pass a tax, and in the same way when they say things like they’re going to privatize roads that need to be redeveloped, put a toll on them, that’s just another fancy word politicians like my brother, Rick Allen, like to say, but it’s just a tax.
“These taxes are hurting our farmers,” Johnson continued. “They’re hurting our onion farmers in Vidalia, they’re hurting our specialty farmers growing blueberries and pecans, they’re hurting our manufacturing industry, and they’re unnecessary. The president launched this unnecessary tariff war against China and he created a crisis, and now we’re stuck with the price tag.”
When the same question went to Allen, he began, “I’m assuming that Mr. Johnson didn’t know we had a massive trade deficit in this country for generations.
“What that means is that wealth is pouring right out of this country, in the billions, folks, in the billions,” Allen said. “You wonder why the economy wasn’t growing four years ago? You wonder why this guy got elected president? Because he was willing to tackle the problem. He said, ‘Promises made, promises kept.’”
Farmers in the district are pleased, he said, with the recently renegotiated replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Now … let’s talk about how it’s hurt agriculture,” Allen said, suggesting that it isn’t tariffs or a trade war that will hurt farmers, but Democratic opposition to the five-year Farm Bill, which funds U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
“We were supposed to have passed an agriculture bill Sept. 30, OK? Not one member of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives voted for the agriculture bill,” Allen said.
A question about keeping Social Security solvent for future decades noted that Republicans generally oppose raising taxes while Democrats oppose cutting benefits.
“If we fill the jobs in the country right now and continue to grow this economy … it’s already doing it, it’s carrying Social Security out more years. It’s carrying Medicare out more years,” Allen said.
He said people who are already collecting or are close to collecting their benefits should keep them in full.
“If you paid in, you were made a promise, and this president has said and I have said, we’re going to keep that promise,” Allen said.
But he also said that Social Security was not designed to live on but to be a supplement, and suggested that people need their own retirement plans, like the 401k plans at his construction company.
“What you did not hear Congressman Allen say I want you to hear me say, Social Security is a sacred promise,” Johnson began. “It is not an entitlement, it is that which working Americans paid into, and you can count on me to defend and protect Social Security.”
He said the first thing Congress could do to protect Social Security is “quit borrowing from it,” and also suggested raising the contribution limit from the current $128,000 a year.
“We can raise that. He said the economy is so great, so let those who are benefitting the most from it chip in a little more,” Johnson said. “That’s what shared responsibility is about.”
Allen, from Augusta, is the founder of R.W. Allen Construction and has served four years in Congress. Johnson, from Statesboro, is senior pastor of two area churches, sole attorney at the Johnson Firm and former Georgia NAACP State Conference president.
Video of the entire forum should be posted on statesboroherald.com by 5 p.m. Wednesday and will remain viewable through Election Day, Nov. 6.