During Tuesday evening’s livestreamed forum, Dr. Scott Bohlke, physician, and Billy Hickman, CPA, contenders in the Aug. 11 runoff for the District 4 seat in Georgia’s State Senate, completely agreed on one thing: they cannot replace the late Sen. Jack Hill.
They are vying only to succeed him. Early voting is underway. Although an apparent duplicate of the race appears on the nonpartisan ballot, where it’s for the remainder of Hill’s term to the end of this year, the one that really matters now is the Republican primary runoff for the next two-year term, 2021 through 2022.
Skip Alford, president of the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce, served as moderator for the forum, hosted by the chamber and the Statesboro Herald on the stage of the Emma Kelly Theater, courtesy of the Averitt Center of the Arts, with Georgia Power also a sponsor. The forum is available for viewing at www.statesboroherald.com.
“Senator Hill was an active member of the state Legislature for almost 30 years, and he served as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” Alford began, reading the second question after the candidate introductions. “As a freshman senator, how do you expect to gain the position and relevance that Senator Hill was known for?”
Hill died unexpectedly April 6, setting in motion a special election process that initially drew five candidates.
“Well first of all, there will never be another Jack Hill,” Hickman said. “We all know that. We don’t need to pretend that either one of the candidates could be Jack Hill.
“But we will hit the ground running. As I said earlier in the opening, I’ve spent a lifetime doing strategic planning and budgeting and forecasting, meeting with clients and financial statements, and the Appropriations Committee seems like a natural for me because that’s what I’ve done most of my life,” Hickman continued.
A certified public accountant with 45 years of experience in the Statesboro firm Dabbs, Hickman, Hill & Cannon, he is also certified in financial forensics.
For this area, Health Care and Higher Education would also be appropriate committee assignments, Hickman added.
“But the thing that we need to look at, Jack was a great listener,” Hickman said. “I’d go everywhere and people always tell me Jack listened to them, but not only was Jack a great listener, he always was a great doer, too. He made things happen. I’m that type of person.”
Hickman noted that he chaired the committee for construction of Bulloch County’s Agriculture Complex, which includes the big arena and was completed about 20 years after it was first proposed. He said he also chaired a committee that got U.S. Highway 25 widened to four lanes from Statesboro to Millen.
Now 68, he has served as chairman of the boards of the Georgia Southern University Foundation, the United Way of Southeast Georgia and the First Baptist Church of Statesboro, among other organizations.
“Yes sir, agreed that nobody’s going to replace Jack Hill,” Bohlke said. “You can’t fill his shoes, but as one patient told me, you can make your own shoes, and that’s what I plan to do. So, to hit the ground running, it’s great to be 55 years of age and be a freshman senator, to be a freshman again, that’s what I look forward to.
“I’ve been involved at the state level for the past 15 to 18 years,” he continued. “I was president of the Medical Association of Georgia, and now I’m currently the chairman of the (association’s) Council of Legislation. What does that mean? That means that we’ve been involved already in making legislation.”
The example he noted was the “Surprise E.R. Bill” legislation recently signed into the law by the governor and set to take effect Jan. 1. It requires insurers to cover services by non-network emergency healthcare providers at in-network hospitals, so that patients do not receive surprise bills at out-of-network rates.
Bohlke owns Bohler Family Practice in Brooklet, where he has provided patients primary medical care for 21 years. He previously served as an Air Force doctor with the rank of major and played Minor League baseball for Atlanta Braves affiliated teams.
“I can hit the ground running in the Health and Human Services Committee, because once again, that’s what I do, and what a great time to be a physician to be running in this current pandemic right now,” Bohlke said. “We have to get this economy going, and we need to have safe environments to do so. That’s what I offer to you, and I also offer common sense.”
Later in the forum, the candidates were asked how they would rate Gov. Brian Kemp’s overall handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and what areas they would have liked for him to handle differently.
“What a tough situation the governor was in,” Bohlke said. “We open up too early and we get more … COVID-19 cases. We open too late and this economy goes down. That’s a very difficult situation to be in. What I hope and pray is that he received all proper information to make his decision, not colored by any political or … by any (consideration) but just what’s best for the state.”
He said he could only imagine that the governor had many restless nights as he considered what to do.
“But I do know, as I stated before, if we don’t get this economy going, health care suffers,” Bohlke said. “We do know right now people have delayed their health care for the present time.”
As hypothetical examples, he mentioned cancer patients who cannot afford to continue chemotherapy because they have lost their jobs, someone afraid to go to the emergency room with chest pain, who then has a heart attack, and someone who puts off colon cancer screenings.
“Would I do anything different? I don’t know. I wasn’t there at the time…” he said, returning to the question about Kemp’s decision. “You can always look back. Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you’re having to make that decision, you hope that you have the best information you can get.”
Alford put the question to Hickman, who said that he, like many people, was frightened and upset early on by news of the coronavirus pandemic and also its effect on the economy.
“There was a lot of fear in everybody, a lot of fear in my eyes, too,” he said. “But thank God that we’ve got a governor and a president that had the vision and they’re business people and they understand the importance of businesses opening back up. As I said earlier, I’m so proud that Brian Kemp did what he did.”
Hickman said that Kemp “received an ‘A’ rating by the Wall Street Journal” for his COVID-19 response and was one of six governors so recognized. The business-oriented WSJ’s editorial board published, “Grading the state virus response: Rating governors on how they’ve handled lockdowns and reopening” May 3, before the summer upsurge in new coronavirus cases.
Hickman had noted that Georgia’s state tax revenues declined $1 billion during fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30.
“You take that $1 billion and think about not opening businesses back up for another couple of months, two or three months, what kind of impact that would have. It would have just been devastating,” he said. “So Brian Kemp took the information that he had, with the consultants that he had, and he made the right decision. He made the tough decision. He made a decision a lot of people criticized, but now I think a lot of people are thanking him.”
The candidates agreed on the importance of expanding broadband networks in rural Georgia, with some differences in reasons and approaches. Neither supports defunding police or increasing taxes.
Bohkle and Hickman exchanged pointed insinuations about sources of campaign contributions. They also differed sharply on the issue of tort reform, which will be another story.
Candidates for Bulloch County State Court solicitor-general, Catherine Sumner Findley and Mark A. Lanier, as well as District 7 Bulloch County Board of Education member Heather Mims and challenger Lisa Deloach, introduced themselves, but were not asked to respond to questions.
A few people from sponsor organizations and news media, widely spaced and wearing masks, were the only in-person audience.