Tuesday night's debate at East Friendship Baptist Church between Democrat Spencer Frye and Republican Carter Kessler was a face-off between two men of different political stripes who apparently agree on every issue.
Both men support the Affordable Care Act and oppose voter ID; on the latter point, Frye says that such laws diminish the minority vote, while Kessler says that he is more concerned with the potential for electoral fraud than voter fraud.
On the question of the proposed constitutional amendment allowing the state to create charter schools, Frye argues that the amendment would take money away from public schools and wrestle control from the local population. When Kessler's turn to answer came, he said, “I, too, will vote no. I think Spencer has done a great job explaining why it's a bad amendment.”
When asked how they would work to ensure that jobs would be available to Athens youths, Frye praised the Athens Career Community Academy, saying that it helps prepare students for well-paying manufacturing jobs in Athens. These jobs require a great deal of skill and pay accordingly, he said.
“Spencer is exactly right,” Kessler said, echoing his opponent's remarks.
The audience noticed the lack of partisan fireworks; one resident named Karen Solheim asked the candidates “what's the one single way or issue where you feel like you differ from the other person running for the same position?” The question drew chuckles from a few of the audience members.
Neither man would name a specific difference. Instead, Frye stressed his record in the community, while Kessler tried to paint himself as something of a Republican infiltrator who would use the R next to his name to push an essentially liberal agenda.
This was a theme for Kessler throughout the night; at several points he drew applause by incorporating the anti-corporate, populist rhetoric of the Occupy movement, promising to work for the 99 percent by taking the fight to the Republicans.
Though many in the crowd appreciated Kessler's “going rogue,” at least one audience member was skeptical. Raven Covington, a senior political science major at UGA who serves as communications director for the UGA Young Democrats and is an organizing fellow at Obama for America, asked Kessler how he could reconcile his liberal platform with his libertarian past.
“I'm a UGA student and I was at UGA when you founded [Young Americans for Liberty], which is commonly known around the university as a libertarian group,” Covington said. “Do you still subscribe to this libertarian ideology?” Kessler struggled to answer the question.
The absence of financial support from the Republican Party in Georgia, he said, shows that he is not one of them. When pressed to answer whether or not he is a libertarian, Kessler answered, “Look, I'm an American.” Under further pressure, Kessler said he would rather be called a libertarian than an authoritarian or a totalitarian. This drew scattered, somewhat confused, applause from his supporters.
In a post-debate interview, Covington said she believed Carter had dodged the question. “I don't think he's giving us a true vision of what he actually believes.”
For his part, Frye never brought up Kessler's libertarian past during the debate, but afterwards, he painted the ideology as dangerous and worrisome, saying, “I think for us to aspire to that is absolutely wrong.” Kessler, however, while loath to be labeled libertarian, did not shy away from his association with Young Americans for Liberty; he himself broached the subject during the debate as a qualification for office.
While many came to the debate with their candidate already chosen (some were still wearing Georgia peach stickers emblazoned with the message “I voted”), others left disappointed at the lack of contrast between the two candidates.
Nikki Morris, a single mother and licensed cosmetologist who has been unable to find work in or out of her field, felt that the candidates were sticking to their talking points and ignoring the issues that mattered to her, primarily improving the job market for adults who already have an education. When asked if she had heard enough information to make her decision, she sighed and said, “I might need to hear a little bit more.”