From left, Wayne Winkler looks through questions as Todd Franklin and state Rep. Matthew Hill sit behind their podiums. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)
Three days before the state’s Republican primary election — and three days after the conclusion of early voting — two of the three candidates for the District 7 seat of the state House of Representatives appeared before an assemblage of Washington County residents to explain their views on Republican, state and national issues.
On Monday evening, incumbent state Rep. Matthew Hill and one of his challengers, Todd Franklin, opined on topics ranging from Common Core to whether or not the Muslim community should be considered threatening in front of around five to six dozen spectators at the Jonesborough Visitors Center.
Though the debate would last for more than an hour, in the hours leading up to it, there was some skepticism as to whether or not it would occur. The event was conceived by Franklin and ultimately orchestrated by members of the Washington County Republican Party. Three days earlier, on Friday, Franklin told Press staff that both Hill and their mutual opponent, Phil Carriger, had agreed to participate in the debate, on the condition that the event’s details would be completed.
On Saturday, Carriger said he would not participate in the debate, citing concerns over the event’s organization and its close proximity to election day (Aug. 7). On Monday morning, WETS-FM Director Wayne Winkler, who moderated the debate, told Press staff he was unsure as to whether or not the event would still take place. That uncertainty may have persisted until 10 minutes before the debate was scheduled to start, when Franklin was the only candidate present and less than two dozen people were in attendance. Within five minutes of the scheduled start time, however, Hill had arrived and, minutes later, Winkler began the debate.
In Franklin’s opening statement, he criticized the state Legislature for passing laws without consulting local entities — primarily educational ones — beforehand.
“Even though we’re a great state, we still have challenges,” Franklin said. “One of those challenges is that we have laws that come from Nashville, and those laws aren’t always in our best interest.”
While Franklin criticized the Legislature, Hill used his opening statement to criticize Carriger’s absence from the debate and denounce a claim that he was unwilling to debate.
“Most of us are here tonight to talk about the issues,” Hill said. “It’s interesting that someone — who’s not here tonight — has spent tens of thousands of dollars falsely accusing me of being unwilling to have a debate.”
Hill had previously declined an invitation to a debate conducted by the Johnson City Press Community Editorial Board, which was ultimately canceled because of the lack of a full panel of candidates. On Monday, however, he and Franklin discussed their opinions on several topics.
Although the two men differed on how to approach certain issues, they agreed on more than one occasion. Both men said they stood against forced annexation; both said they were opposed to same-sex marriage, though Franklin said he thought the federal government may overrule any state legislative action; and both said they were in support of a proposed amendment that would place more control over abortion laws in the hands of legislators, with Hill adding that he co-sponsored and voted for the amendment.
While they agreed on several issues, there were others where the two candidates found themselves at odds. With regard to the Tennessee Promise — a program created by Gov. Bill Haslam to provide two free years of community college to every high school graduate in the state — Hill said he voted in favor of it after speaking with ETSU President Brian Noland.
“I asked him about the potential impact to ETSU,” Hill said. “He said to me several times that he believed the Tennessee Promise was good for this area and good for the state. I trust him on this issue, and believe that we at least have to give it a shot and see how it goes.”
Franklin, who works as an academic advisor at ETSU, disagreed.
“I think no doubt that the Tennessee Promise is going to hurt the four-year schools,” Franklin said. “The developmental study system, which came from a previous bill called the Complete College Tennessee Act, means that, if someone has ... math skills on a fourth-grade level, he can complete all his math requirements at one semester at ETSU. The Tennessee Promise is just bringing in more students without fixing some of those problems.”
The candidates also disagreed when Winkler asked if the candidates felt as though the religion of Islam was a threat to America, and if Tennessee should consider limiting the number of Muslim communities in the state.
“As far as limiting Muslim communities, I don’t feel like we have the right to limit religious communities,” Franklin said. “I wouldn’t want to limit Christian ... or Jewish communites. When we start limiting ideas we don’t like, then people are going to start limiting ideas that we do like.”
Hill disagreed, however, with Franklin’s interpretation.
“If you look at Islam purely as a religion, I could understand Mr. Franklin’s views,” Hill said. “However, I look at Islam as a world-view. When you look at Islam as a world-view, absolutely it’s a threat to America.
“Can we limit? That, I think, needs to be taken up at a federal level. But ... when you look at (Islam) as a world-view, I think you can see the path of destruction.”
In his closing remarks, Franklin said education would be his main priority if he was elected to the Legislature.
“We need to get people an education so they can have a decent life,” Franklin said. “I feel like things like the Tennessee Promise are trying to shoo students into college who aren’t ready for college. Until they’re ready for college, I don’t care how much money you spend on it, it’s not going to happen.”
In Hill’s closing remarks, however, he did not address Franklin’s claims. Instead, he spoke on Carriger’s absence.
“Tonight, I just have a question — where’s Phil?” he said. “We don’t know if he believes in local control of education ... we don’t know if he’s going to have an open door policy. What do we know? We know he’s not here.”
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