On Monday night, the four Republican candidates in the District 32 special primary faced off at a political forum in Bartlett.
George Chism, Paul Rose, Heidi Shafer and Steve McManus discussed the needs of the district, which encompasses parts of eastern Shelby County and all of Tipton County.
One of them will be up against lone Democrat Eric Coleman, who declined to participate in Monday’s event, in the March 12 special election where a senator will be elected to finish the remainder of Mark Norris’s term.
The former senate majority leader from Collierville was sworn in as a federal judge last week.
Urban vs. rural
Perhaps one of the biggest issues for the district, which is urban in Shelby County and suburban and rural in Tipton, is making decisions that will benefit all areas.
Both stating they grew up on farms, Chism and Shafer said they understand what is important in these areas.
“It’s a different lifestyle,” Chism said of moving from the family farm to the suburbs. “It doesn’t mean better or worse.”
Chism has worked on the county commission covering Collierville, Fisherville and Eads and says he is ready to build upon those relationships and make the best decisions for the entire district.
Rose said the key is listening to the constituents and making decisions that are appropriate to all while Shafer said there’s “a sweet symmetry” where urban and rural areas complement one another. McManus discussed the need to increase the availability of broadband internet to rural areas like Tipton County.
Memphis vs. its suburbs
When asked how they intended to ensure suburban Shelby County would be treated fairly and equitably, businessman Rose said keeping communication lines open and expectations clear was “extremely important.”
Shafer said, as a county commissioner, she was surprised when Memphis yielded its charter which caused chaos and the consolidation of school systems.
“I don’t think any muncipality can force its will on everyone else. You have to have that balance,” she said.
McManus said he’d stand up and fight the City of Memphis, the “heavy hand” of government, as he did when he was a state representative.
Chism also referenced the school consolidation and a “Memphis vs. suburbs” mentality, then shared ways in which he has worked across those lines to give youth in Memphis access to better educational and recreational opportunities.
Candidates also weighed in on the incompletion of I-69 and TN-385, which will link Millington and Tipton County to Memphis, remains unfinished, a hot button issue which first began in the early 2000s.
Shafer said West Tennessee is being “badly left behind” and opening those roadways could open Tipton and Shelby to be “one easy, solid economic sector.”
McManus, again citing his time in the legislature, said there is a tremendous backlog in funding the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation’s projects.
He said of the IMPROVE Act, which was designed to improve manufacturing, public roads and the economy by increasing registration and gas taxes and decreasing food tax, “I think it’s going to be better for the state … and that the roads will be better paid.”
Chism said 385 was the cornerstone for development in the district but the state needs to gets its expeditures under control because the two corridors do not move traffic.
Rose said, “You may be aware there are 1,500 jobs, backlogged jobs, TDOT has ahead of that project. In my opinion, that is totally unacceptable. Yes, they have backlogged jobs, but this has been on the books for years and years. We are a pay-as-you-go state and I am proud of that, but I look forward to working with Congressman (David) Kustoff to promote the completion of I-69 …”
McManus said his top priorities for improving public education would begin with teachers.
“Let’s recruit the best teachers and let’s pay them well,” he said.
He is also in favor of funding peer mentoring programs and believes Pre-K education is very important.
Chism, who comes from generations of educators, said funding and allowing teachers to have the freedom to teach, instead of testing, should be key as well as workforce development and adult education.
Rose said he looks forward to working with his counterparts in the general assembly to identify and correct deficiencies with the education system and job placement for students who are not college bound.
Once a teacher, Shafer said she knows the difference between what sounds good in a boardroom and what works in a classroom. She would like 10-15 percent less testing to increase classroom instruction time.
The candidates were also asked their plans for adequate funding of schools.
McManus said the Basic Education Plan, which funds the schools, needs to be tweaked and complimented the initation of the TN Promise and TN Reconnect plans.
Chism said adequate funding has different definitions on each level and said Tennesseans should take advantage of the free education opportunities available.
“It’s free. If you live in Tennessee you have no excuse whatsoever for not bettering yourself. You have that ability.”
Rose said funding for public school should be increased, evaluations should be taking place to see if funds are being properly utilized and teachers should be receiving incentives.
BEP funding should be increased for local schools, said Shafer, as well as building a team and moving the agenda forward. Additionally, she said schools should prepare students for jobs.
Should Tennessee, accept federal money to expand Medicaid?
Shafer said it’s a complex issue that’s been debated for years but Tennessee isn’t willing to burden itself with the “poison pills” in the Affordable Care Act.
Agreeing with the complications mentioned by Shafer, McManus said there was “a lot of wasteful spending in Tenncare … I know it, I’ve seen it.” He believes the current system needs to be fixed before it should be expanded.
Chism said the expansion would be too expensive, even though the federal government said it’d pay 90 percent, citing not knowing when the government may stop paying.
Rose agreed with not accepting federal money and instead focus on providing good paying jobs that provide good health insurance and getting people off the public healthcare system.
Still on the subject of healthcare, addressing the opioid epidemic was discussed.
Rose said he believed building the wall at the Southern border would help decrease the street drugs coming into the country as well as working with state and local law enforcement to increase convictions and punishment for drug crimes would improve the epidemic and Narcan and drug treatment should be used as well.
Shafer, while on the county commission, put together a task force and program to work with law enforcement, the medical community and justice system to help people recover from opioid abuse and stop the opioids from coming in.
McManus would like to request an increase in the budget to bring the opioid epidemic to a close as well as cooperation with law enforcement to combat it.
Chism said the opioid epidemic is a train coming down the tracks and it’s hard to stop it because it’s a complex problem. He believes educating people about the issue will help combat it.
Other topics discussed included an inequitable distribution of state funds, completing and marketing and the megasite to bring more jobs and industry to West Tennessee, workforce development, the shortage of industrial sites and other economical concerns.
Though it encompasses the entirety of Tipton County, the number of Shelby County voters in District 32 is three times that of Tipton.
Early voting in the primary continues through Jan. 19. Election day for the primary is Jan. 24.