LaGRANGE — Two conservative Republican candidates for Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District contrasted their views on the role of government during a public forum Thursday.
The forum, hosted by regional chambers of commerce, featured candidates Mike Crane, a state senator from Newnan, and former West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson. The two are headed for a Republican primary runoff election July 26. The winner will face Democrat Angela Pendley in the Nov. 8 general election. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland is not seeking re-election.
Although they agreed on many issues, like repealing President Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, and raising the winter full-pool level of West Point Lake, the two candidates offered starkly different views on the role of government in attracting businesses, such as Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia.
Crane, a construction business owner, said the free market should allow for job creation, while Ferguson argued that states can attract businesses by offering incentives and building relationships.
“The role that I’ve been able to play is I’ve been a leader, and I’ve been proud to be a part of actually growing the initial investment that we made (in Kia),” Ferguson said. “We have been able to create tens of thousands of jobs in this area, from both directly as a result of manufacturing jobs, but also the jobs that have grown up to support things.
“I have been the mayor when car one rolled off the Kia plant, and when car number 2 million rolled off,” Ferguson continued. “We’ve been able to be part of a team that involves the local communities. It involves the city of West Point, the city of LaGrange, Troup County, Harris County, Meriwether County, all the way down to Columbus. … What we’ve been able to do as part of that economic development is turn the community into an extremely healthy community compared to where we used to be. Our city revenues are up, our taxes are lower than when I started. …
“I’m proud to be a part of that team that developed the relationships, and built the relationships around the state, and took advantage of that initial opportunity that leaders before me created,” Ferguson said.
Crane disagreed with the idea of state-managed economic development.
“I would like to talk about the idea of central planning,” Crane said. “I would argue that what attracted Kia to this area was, one, probably one of their executives driving by and saying, ‘that looks like a very nice piece of land, we ought to put a plant right there.’ That probably began a process that involved a lot of elected leaders along the way, and economic development folks, but what sweetened the price the most was a $400 million taxpayer gift.
“They talked about how well that impacts and creates all these jobs, but to do that, you have to realize it came from somewhere else,” Crane continued. “That $400 million was not under a rock somewhere. It was taken from us as taxpayers, and we didn’t get to decide how we would grow the economy with that. Central planners did. I would argue at the end that that’s not necessarily the best way to grow an economy, because then they start picking winners and losers. Why wasn’t it Ford Motor Company, why is Ford Motor Company in Mexico? Why was it a Korean concern? …
“What would have attracted Kia, I believe, to this great piece of land here in the southern part of the county would have been the absolute lowest tax base in the nation,” Crane said. “An environment that’s so pro-business, with limited regulations, that they would have been attracted to come here without getting into a bidding war with the surrounding states.”
The exchange became heated when Ferguson said he sat “in almost disbelief at Mike’s philosophy of economic development. I think it shows clearly how disconnected he is from reality of what communities go through.”
“We have seen what happens when you lose tens of thousands of jobs,” Ferguson said. “We have been left in the aftermath, and we feel the bad decisions out of D.C., sending our jobs to Mexico and to China. When you’re the mayor, or a leader of a community that has lost everything, you do whatever you have to do to get your people back to work. …
“There’s one man in particular that gets up every day, feeds his kids cereal, sends them to a school system that’s better off now than it used to be,” Ferguson said. “He’s bought a home. He’s bought a car, and he and his wife have a stable environment — and Mike, if it were up to you, that guy wouldn’t have a job.”
Ferguson told Crane if he felt comfortable with saying, “if it were up to you, those jobs would not be here, those Kia jobs, you tell me who the first person is at Kia that you’re going to go to and tell them, ‘pack your lunch and go to the house.’ When you find that person, you let me know, and I’ll buy you — I’ll give you money to put gas in your truck so you can go down there and tell them.”
Crane called the statement “nonsense,” and said he found it “amusing that that was the approach. What he just said is that he wants to centrally plan where businesses should go, and he wants to use taxpayer dollars to do it. That is crony capitalism. … Your presumption is that nothing positive would have happened.”
Crane pointed to examples in metro Atlanta where automotive plants shut down decades ago were later revived by new companies, such as the Hapeville Ford plant that is now a facility operated by Ferrari.
“What happens when these tax credits for Kia go away,” Crane said. “How are the Kia executives going to approach your community to get you to let them stay. I bet you they will place demands on you and your children to make sure the tax money is still redirected in such a way to incentivize them to stay, under threat of going somewhere else.”
Early voting in the Republican primary runoff election is underway until July 22. Troup County voters may cast ballots at the Troup County Government Center, 100 Ridley Ave. in LaGrange, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Election day is July 26, and polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tyler H. Jones is a a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.