DSCC forum gives Oakes opportunity to reach voters
State representative hopeful Mark Oakes had a unique opportunity on Thursday evening to state his case to the people of Dyer County on why he would represent District 77 well in Nashville. Oakes who is running as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Bill Sanderson, was the only one of the two to show up to a Dyersburg State Community College hosted debate. Sanderson had previously stated to the State Gazette that he had conflicting commitments in Obion County and would not be able to attend the debate. Oakes capitalized on the opportunity to highlight the key differences between him and his opponent.
"You just can't get your picture in the paper and play the trumpet," said Oakes. "You have to do more than that."
Oakes was given an opportunity for a 10-minute opening statement where he highlighted his beginnings, talked about his work with the Salvation Army and what drove him to run for state representative.
"The simple reason why I'm running is that our people need to be able to feed themselves," said Oakes. "It is time to put people back to work so that they can feed their families."
Oakes told the audience of about 75 that the state representative should be championing the causes of his district. Oakes further elaborated that if nothing else, that person should be shouting that their county is open for business. He went on to say that the entire community needed to come together to figure out why industries were not coming to Dyer County. Oakes cited Site Selection magazine that consistently ranked Tennessee as one of the top business-friendly states in the country. However, Oakes referred to Dyer County as an economic donut hole, surrounded by blossoming communities, but the county itself struggling with high unemployment rates.
"I see more and more how the economy is affecting people and how it affects them to not be able to feed their families," said Oakes. "The only solution is to put people back to work."
After Oakes' opening statement, he was asked a series of questions from a panel of students on a broad range of issues from education to the definition of marriage.
The panel opened with a question about education, which Oakes addressed at length. He was asked how he would go about evaluating teachers, what criteria should they meet and who should be responsible for evaluating teachers.
"If you go to Nashville and say the word 'tenure,' it's like a four-letter word," said Oakes. "Tenure is due process."
Oakes explained that under the current evaluation system, if you are rated as a four or five, you are entitled to due process but a teacher that consistently scores a three, which according to the state is "rock-solid" does not receive due process. Oakes used the example of a football coach that wanted to relocate to Dyersburg that has a spouse that is also a teacher. Teachers that are scoring a three or less can be moved aside to accommodate that spouse.
"It's cronyism. It's ugly. I don't think it will happen but it can happen."
Despite a lengthy discussion on education the topic that received the most attention was the lack of jobs and the economy. In the most recent report released last week by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce, Dyer County's unemployment rate is currently listed at 12.1 percent, ranking it 90 out of 95 counties in Tennessee. Obion County is in worse shape at 14 percent. As bad as those numbers are, Oakes told the audience that the reality is the unemployment picture is much worse. Oakes explained that the extensions allowed by the federal government for World Color employees to file for benefits have expired in the last two months. Since those employees no longer qualify to refile they are no longer counted in unemployment numbers.
"The only reason numbers are down is because folks no longer qualify for benefits," said Oakes.
When asked what he would do to spur job growth in the area, Oakes responded that he would do the commonsense things like take advantage of DSCC's Learn to Earn programs. Oakes also said that creative ideas need to be considered and "nothing should be left off the table". Oakes discussed how foreign countries identify businesses that are going through a cyclical opportunity of downgrading rather than upgrading. Rather than waiting for the company to go out of business completely and have to pay unemployment benefits, the government comes in and pays for a portion of the employee's salary to give the business an opportunity to bounce back. Oakes admitted he wasn't well versed in all the details but that Tennessee should be looking at all its options.
Besides discussing education and the economy, Oakes also took a few shots at his opponent for not attending the debate.
"I don't want to talk about my opponent when he is not here," said Oakes. Then after a brief pause added, "Yes, I do want to talk about my opponent when is not here."
Oakes was particularly critical of Sanderson for not being present when the announcement was made that the Goodyear plant was closing in Union City, adding that Sanderson was in China at the time tweeting about the Chinese economy and his love of the Chinese culture. Oakes also added that the closure of the Goodyear plant was known as much as six years in advance.
"There was no true concern (at the state level) to keep the operation going."
The evening concluded with Oakes being asked about his definition of marriage.
"I am single. I don't have any children but no, I am not gay," said Oakes.
Oakes said he believed marriage was a religious term that had been legalized over the years. He told the audience that his personal belief was that marriage was between a man and a woman. He said that he believes that same-sex marriages are wrong, but also believes in not judging individuals and that it is none of his business what other people choose.
"If you want to engage in a same-sex relationship, you have the right to do that and I will defend your right to do that."