Local sorority chapter hosts candidate forum: Part 1
By BETH ALSTON
AMERICUS — The Omicron Alpha Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., alongside several local pastors and lay leaders hosted a forum on Oct. 6 for local/area candidates whose names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.
Robbie Latimore, a member of the sorority, acted as moderator for the forum. Kina Davis, president of the sorority chapter, introduced Latimore. DeRienzia Johnson then gave the welcome, opening prayer and benediction.
The format of the forum was such that each candidate was given three minutes to deliver an opening statement, followed by an opportunity to answer questions submitted anonymously from the audience. The forum ended with two-minute closing statements from the candidates.
Those present were the following:
For Georgia State Senate, 13th District — Ruenett Melton, D-Tifton. It was announced that incumbent Greg Kirk, R-Americus was attending a similar forum in Cordele that evening.
For Georgia House of Representatives, District 138 — Incumbent, Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, and challenger, Bill McGowan, D-Americus.
Sumter County Board of Commissioners, District 1 — Incumbent Clay Jones Sr. Opponent, Harvey Claiborne, R-Americus, was not in attendance.
Sumter County Coroner — Incumbent, Greg Hancock, D-Americus, and challenger, Scott Aldridge, R-Americus.
Here’s what the candidates had to say during opening statements:
Melton, originally from Tifton, is a retired teacher, having taught for “almost two decades.” She said she is very active in her community and other communities.
“I understand that today we have a problem … we are not representing all of the people,” Melton said. “I want to be a voice, a progressive voice, for rural Georgia so we can stand together and make changes that will benefit all of us. We need to make government work for everybody, not just one, but for everyone. We need to make sure that we open these hospitals that have been closed down. We’ve just got to stop playing with people’s lives. This is real important to rural Georgia today. We are also concerned about our school system. As an educator, I know … that if there are any changes that need to be made, why can’t we make changes locally? We don’t need people coming down from the state to take over and tell you what to do in your own county. I know that I can do more for you on a state level than I can do on a local level. I’ve been in the communities trying to make changes, in the community housing and … we need to make sure we get affordable housing so that we all can live comfortably. That’s my platform. I want to represent all the people and make government work for all people … It’s so important that people are running for election we never see them until it’s time for them to get a position. But I have been out here for many years and all of you who know me, in order to make changes, we’ve got to work with everybody. We’ve got to be able to come back to every one of these counties and form some proof here and talk about what we need to do. This is how changes are made … we got to get together and sit down and make changes.”
Cheokas then took the podium, saying, “You can find me any day of the week in my store. If I’m not in Atlanta, I’m here working.” Cheokas said that his family has been here since the early 1900s, his grandparents having migrated from Greece in 1904. His father, the late Arthur Cheokas, was a well-respected businessman and chairman of the Americus Housing Authority for over 20 years and worked to make progress in the community, “and that’s the way I was brought up,” he continued.
He attended local public schools before attending Emory University.
He is assigned to several committees in the State House: Higher Education, Health & Human Services, and Information & Audits. He now serves on six committees and serves as chairman of the Information & Audits Committee.
“That monitors what we do at the state level,” he said. “Making sure that the books are straight and making sure the bills get paid. … He was appointed to the Appropriation Committee of Higher Education which deals with “about $ 2 billion annually for our 300,000-plus students.” He said he brought funding to Georgia Southwestern State University, for the campus of South Georgia Technical College, and gained funding for the greenhouse behind the school system in Marion County. “That’s what I see as my job,” he said, “to bring things down for our community. In the future what I see as my goal is to continue to help Georgia Southwestern grow. We’re at a pivotal point, only at 3,000 students. They want to be between 3,500 and 4,000. That is an economic engine for our area. For every three students that creates one job, a good paying job … ”
McGowan then spoke, saying that he was sitting very comfortably in the mayor’s chair where he sat for six years, after serving for four years as a member of the Americus City Council. “I understand how government works from the city point of view, and also from the county point of view,” he said. McGowan has served as Sumter County tax commissioner, as had his brother Dan. “I have a working knowledge of government and how state law can impact local government with its laws.”
McGowan is an Americus native and a graduate of Americus High School and Georgia Southwestern College with a bachelor of science degree in political science and a minor in history. “With a political science background and service at the local level experience, I have the time and the experience to serve our district well,” he continued.
McGowan said that he has traveled across the district ever since he qualified to seek the office. He said he’s attended every city council and county commission meeting and has gained knowledge of what is going on locally. “If we don’t listen to what’s going on locally, how in the world are we going to know what to do in Atlanta?” he asked. “My whole point in doing that is because I’m going to be a full-time representative, not a part-time representative … I’m going to be with the people across the district. I’m going to know what their needs are. I’m going to know what we need to do to create jobs, improve education, health care and public safety.”
Jones then addressed the crowd, saying that he is a lifelong resident of Sumter County, Jones’ father started Jones Construction in 1972, which Jones has continued today. “Over 40 years of experience, I brought that to the table with me when I became a county commissioner,” he said. Jones listed some of the accomplishments made by the county while he has served on the board of commissioners, including: passing the TSPLOST and, with its revenue, paving “a lot of roads”; purchasing new road equipment to care for dirt roads; taking county employees off furlough, and looking out for county employees. “All county employees are getting longevity raises now,” he said.
Jones also gave an update on jobs in Sumter County, which he considers the biggest issue. “We got them trickling in,” he said. Reading from a recent job report, he said there are many open positions due to Sumter County having a shortage of skilled workers. He said that Sumter will see over 700 employees in technology by the end of this year, referencing such employers as the contact centers, Pharma Centra and Con Centra Solutions which currently have over 300 employees; A.S. Processing, which bought out Glover Foods after starting with 25 employees in July; Golden Gourmet, which opened in July with 30 employees and will have 70 this year; TCI Coating, which opened this year in Americus with 25 employees and is steadily adding employees; H2O Sports Manufacturing, which also continues growth with 65 employees and should have 80 by the year’s end. Jones’ time ran out before he could finish with the list.
Greg Hancock then spoke. Hancock has owned Greg Hancock Funeral Chapel for 20 years. He opened the first crematorium in Sumter County and owns a cemetery in Americus. “But really none of that has anything to do with the job I’m running for as coroner,” he said. “Being a coroner, you’ve got to be somebody that’s … dedicated … someone that treats people like they’re supposed to be treated; you’ve got to treat everybody the same it doesn’t matter who they are. They’re all the same in death. That’s a very important part of this job is knowing how to treat people because it’s a very trying time when you’re dealing with them as a coroner.”
Hancock has been coroner for 16 years and said he appreciates Sumter County allowing him the opportunity. He has completed between 400 to 500 hours of training, over 150 hours in child fatalities. He serves on the local child fatality review committee which reviews all child deaths.
“I’m out in the community seeing people,” he said. “You won’t see me only when it’s time to campaign; I’m around all the time. It doesn’t where you live or who you are … you’ll see Greg Hancock out in the community doing things … I have churches coming to me asking for help and I help anyone I can. … The best thing I can tell you about me is you don’t have to ask me about the job I do; find somebody who’s had to deal with me as the coroner, and ask them how I treated them, how my job was done, if it was done in a professional manner and did they feel like I really care about them when it was over with.”
Aldridge then concluded the opening statement portion of the forum. Aldridge was born and raised in Sumter County, a fourth general Sumter citizen, and owns and operates Aldridge Funeral Services in Americus. He said he has spent his entire life in the funeral industry, beginning as an apprentice at age 18 before attending mortuary science school.
“I have extensive knowledge of how the coroner’s office works,” he said. “I have worked with past coroners so I’m familiar with the protocol and how things so. I’ve invested everything I have in this community and I’m available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It would be an honor to extend my service to the community as coroner. It’s another way I can serve this community.”
Aldridge said Hancock has done “an excellent job” as coroner and they have worked together for a number of years. “But I think it’s time for someone else to have an opportunity. I don’t believe people should hold political offices for ever, ever and ever. I think it’s time for a change.”
Coming in Part 2: questions and answers.