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Fish fry brings GOP officials, service message
First Baptist's Dr. John Waters gives nonpartisan keynote
State Rep. Jon Burns at fish fry
State Rep. Jon Burns, Georgia House majority leader, speaks during the annual 12th Congressional District Fish Fry in Screven County in 2018. The 2019 event is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Pathway Center, which is off U.S. Highway 301 about three miles south of Sylvania. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

During the annual 12th Congressional District Fish Fry last week near Sylvania, one of the clearest political messages came from Georgia House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, who is unopposed in the Nov. 6 election.

About 130 people attended the fish fry at the Pathway Center, where Osal Evans hosted the Thursday evening event. With a history going back 20 years, it used to be called the 12th    District GOP Fish Fry. The event is no longer officially partisan, but the elected officials and candidates' representatives who attended were Republicans.

Organizers planned that this year's fish fry also serve as a salute to retired and current law enforcement officers and other public safety personnel.

"When danger arises, some folks, they go to it, and those are my heroes," said Burns, who was not the keynote speaker. "They take care of us, and I certainly appreciate all of you men and women that are here tonight and what y'all do and what you stand for every day."

He noted the General Assembly's approval of a 20 percent pay raise for state public safety officers and mandate of cancer insurance coverage for firefighters, both in 2017. Lawmakers also funded construction of the Coastal Regional Crime Lab, a $36.3 million bond-financed facility now being completed at Pooler, to update the abilities of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, he said.

Burns also touted the state tax cut enacted this year, and phased in over the next two years, as the first in more than 30 years. It will benefit "every one of us who pays state income tax," he said.

For several of these things, he credited Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, whom Burns called "the dean of our delegation." Hill, who attended, is also unopposed for re-election.

Burns also said that outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal will be remembered "as one of the best governors I think in the history of this state."

Demographic change

"Of course I have to be a little bit partisan, since I am the majority leader, so if it offends you I'm sorry," Burns said. "But we have 116 members in the House who are part of the Republican caucus. We have 70 contested races of those 116 members. … But out of those 70 races we're going to lose some. We're going to win some. We're going win some of them they don't expect us to win, but we're going to do that because we have a real good group of candidates."

He acknowledged a reason that the Republican leadership is not taking its majority for granted over the long term.

"Demographics across our state are changing rapidly, especially in the metro market, if you will, in the northern arc," Burns said. "We think we may lose a couple of seats up there. The numbers trend very, very close."

He thanked anyone present who had contributed not only to support Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp and other statewide GOP candidates but also to back the party's legislative candidates. 

Nonpartisan keynote

Dr. John Waters, lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Statesboro, was actually the keynote speaker.

His nonpartisan remarks about service to others were based on the story of the Good Samaritan, who gave unexpected help to a robbery victim who had been stripped and left on the side of the road to die. Jesus told the story in answer to a lawyer who asked, "Who is my neighbor?" in reference to Jesus' commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself," Waters noted.

A priest and a Levite passed by before the Samaritan, from a group that was disrespected, stopped to help.

"In the world today there are two kinds of people, and it's not good people and bad people, not rich people and poor people or Republicans or Democrats or conservatives and liberals — two kinds of people — those that are part of the problem and those that are part of the solution," Waters said.

The priest and the Levite became part of the problem when they passed by on the other side of the road, rejecting their opportunity "to serve someone, … to love someone, … to touch someone's life," he  said.

"How many people today have an opportunity to make a difference in their community, in their homes, in their schools, and they have an opportunity to do something, but they pass by on the other side?" Waters asked.

Dr. John Waters at fish fry
Dr. John Waters, lead pastor of Statesboro's First Baptist Church, brought a nonpartisan message of service to the event. (AL HACKLE/staff)

Foster families

Bulloch, his home county, has 26,000 households, families of all sizes, he said. 

"And we have foster children that need homes where they can be kept," Waters said. "Out of our 26,000 households, you know how many foster families we have? I think the latest number is 14, and when only 14 families of 26,000 become foster families, they're passing by them on the other side."

But the Good Samaritan, he said, had "servant hands" as well as "a servant's heart."

The Rev. Rhon Carter, Statesboro First Baptist's worship pastor, led the music at the fish fry. He played piano and sang "God Bless the USA" and led the crowd in the National Anthem and "God Bless America."

Allen speaks

One official spoke who is in a race for re-election, U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, who represents the 12th District. Allen, from Augusta, is seeking a third two-year term in Congress and faces a challenge from the Rev. Francys Johnson, the Statesboro-based minister, attorney and former NAACP state conference president who won the Democratic primary.

Allen said his greatest privilege in life has been creating jobs, which he first did by starting several businesses. He founded R.W. Allen Construction, which has offices in Augusta and Athens.

"I learned the greatest privilege that I've had in my life, that God gave me ability to create jobs, to create work for people, to give people the dignity and respect they deserve, to empower them to be what God created them to be and allow them to opportunity to provide for others," he said.

He touts creating conditions for a job boom also as a great success of the current Congress and President Donald Trump.

"I see more opportunity out there today because of you, America," Allen said. "All we can do is provide that opportunity, provide the conditions for that opportunity in our service to you, but you have responded. America is back. Thank goodness we have a president that every morning he gets up he thinks about one thing, that's GDP (gross domestic product), economic power."

A number of current and former law enforcement officers attended. Several were from an informal group of retired officers from southeastern and central Georgia who meet for meals in restaurants throughout the region.

"We call ourselves the ROMEOS, 'Retired Old Men Eating Out Somewhere,' and we do that every two months," said Don Kicklighter from Glennville.

Kicklighter, who retired from the Georgia State Patrol after 34 years, and Evans, a 32-year GSP retiree, were both commanders, at different times, of the State Patrol post in Sylvania.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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