PHOTO: Candidates for the District 61 race, from left: Gino Bulso, Rebecca Burke, Rebecca Purington, Terrence Smith, Robert Hullett, Brandon Ogles, Jeff Ford. / Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
On Wednesday night, all seven candidates running for retiring Rep. Charles Sargent’s open District 61 seat met for a two-hour debate on topics ranging from healthcare and immigration to medical marijuana.
Held at the Williamson County Enrichment Center, 160 people gathered for the forum, hosted by the Williamson County Association of Realtors, Williamson Herald, and the county chamber of commerce.
Click on the candidates below to read a full profile of each.
- Attorney Gino Bulso, Republican
- State Executive Committeewoman Rebecca Ann Burke, Republican
- County Commissioner Jeff Ford, Republican
- County Commissioner Robert Hullett, Republican
- Businessman Brandon Ogles, Republican
- Defense industry veteran Rebecca Purington, Democrat
- Gastroenterologist Dr. Terrence Smith, Republican
Here’s where they stand on the issues that affect Williamson County.
Bulso, who has emphasized his stance against illegal immigration on mailers and during interviews, was asked about the issue, which many point out is federal in nature and outside the job description.
He disagreed with the characterization of immigration as federal. “It’s not a federal issue as to whether or not Tennessee provides in-state college tuition, it’s a state issue,” he said.
In knocking on “5,000 doors,” Bulso said immigration was one of the top three issues that came up among voters in the district.
‘They want to know, ‘do you support President Trump?’ My answer, uniformly, is ‘Yes,’” he said. Bulso also said he does not support offering in-state college tuition to children of undocumented immigrants.
Burke said she was concerned about “dreamers,” or as she called them, American citizens who have had a family member killed by “an illegal alien.”
“Sanctuary cities is a very important topic,” noted Burke. “On my watch, we will never have sanctuary cities in the state of Tennessee.”
Hullett cited a Home Page profile of Bulso, in which he said he would sue the federal government for failing to follow the Tenth Amendment and “bankrupting” the country.
“That’s saying that once he’s elected, he would sue the federal government,” Hullett said. “I’m more concerned with things that affect your family, your kids, and your neighborhood.”
Bulso did not dispute his plan of legal action.
In her discussions with Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long, Purington said he stressed the issues of mental health, opioid addiction and school safety.
“I think if a person wants to address those issues, they should run for another office,” Purington said.
Smith said that sanctuary cities reside in states, so the issue is a state one.
“Immigration policy at the federal level and how we treat our neighbors are two different issues,” Ogles said. “I do believe in treating people decently.”
On the topic of expanding Medicaid, only Purington responded affirmatively, saying people need access to affordable healthcare. She also pointed out the $4 billion the state lost out on through failing to expand the initiative.
But Smith said that $4 billion is part of the federal deficit, not free money.
He said he treats patients without insurance, and recognizes the need for wider coverage.
“We need to keep everything on the table,” he said, pointing to future federal legislation under President Trump.
Burke said her plan to tackle the issue is through free enterprise, not through government.
That would include work requirements for benefits and cost sharing, as well as healthcare incentives and benchmarks workers would have to meet.
Ford argued that over 90 percent of the people in the 61st District receive healthcare from their employers, which he said he would continue to support.
But according to 2016 statistics from the Henry J Kaiser Foundation, only 46 percent of Tennesseans who are insured receive coverage from their employers.
Ogles, who owns a local construction company, pointed out that private insurance rates have skyrocketed.
Hullett said TennCare needs to be modified, while other factors, like low income housing options, could be made more readily available.
“The problem is not quality of care, it’s affordability,” Bulso insisted. “Where a government moves in and squeezes out the private sector, costs go up.” His answer is less government and less regulation on the insurance market.
Sale of Williamson Medical Center?
Candidates were split on the issue of selling the county-owned Williamson Medical Center.
Smith said he believed private institutions should run local centers to give the community a closeness to the center. Purington agreed, and said she would like for the center to remain as is.
“Absolutely not, for no amount of money, at no time do I think it should be sold,” said Ogles, whose four children were born there.
Ford, who was in the minority of county commissioners recently who supported studying a potential sale of the hospital, noted he had received the endorsement of Williamson Medical CEO Don Webb during a recent meeting.
Bulso said he disliked the idea of the county government owning the center, and Burke said she would support studying the issue, though she thought the time for such a study passed a decade ago.
Queried about the difficult path towards changing the Basic Education Plan formula, Hullett boasted, “I will get it changed.” He pointed towards his work on the school board, helping renovate the aging Campbell Center at Brentwood High School, as exemplary of his capabilities.
Ogles disagreed, saying the county’s delegation may get “tarred and feathered” by other legislators if they pushed for more. Instead, he suggested pursuing other funding initiatives outside the BEP.
If the BEP were to be re-engineered, “We may actually get less,” Purington said. She asked the community to pour more funding into Williamson County Schools, ranked 47th in state school districts for spending.
“I don’t believe that our schools system is the top-notch quality because of the money,” argued Bulso. “What really sets Williamson County apart is the families,” he said, families who take an interest in their children’s schooling.
“You haven’t achieved any progress on the school funding formula, so why should we believe that you’re going to be able to do that when you get to the state legislature?” she asked.
“We don’t control it at the local level, it’s controlled at the state level,” Hullett rebutted.
Burke suggested an outcome-based formula, which she said has results to support in the education community.
Ford pointed to the creation of the BEP, the result of a lawsuit from small school districts against the state beginning in the late 1980s.
“I’m not willing to put Tennessee at the risk of litigation,” he said, also suggesting other revenue streams.
Traffic and growth
WCAR Director of Government Affairs Bo Patten referred to the region’s “historic growth” when asking how candidates would address the issue on a state level.
Purington referred to the failed Nashville transit plan, noting it wasn’t truly regional. “I think we can work with private industry to make sure people are going to work at different times,” she said.
“Work regionally, and make sure there are no barriers at the state level to communities doing that,” Purington concluded.
Smith threw out the option of utilizing the berm lane on the interstate to create a new lane, and referred to new driverless technology.
“Traffic is a byproduct of failed infrastructure,” Hullett said.
Purington added that she hoped to mirror the works of Sargent, Rep. Sam Whitson and the other Williamson County legislators who helped pass the IMPROVE Act.
In a curveball question about legalizing marijuana, most candidates said they would support looking into medical marijuana, though most were staunchly opposed to recreational use.
Smith, a physician, said he would never say never to looking into medical use of marijuana, which is already occurring throughout the nation.
“If you say we’re going to completely turn our back on marijuana as a plant derivative, then you’re going to turn your back on a whole lot of medicines,” he said.
“With the opioid crisis that we have, I don’t think we can turn our backs on anything that offers help and pain control and seizure control,” Burke agreed, saying she was in favor of it in “tightly controlled” environments.
Ford said he would be “100 percent against” any bill for recreational marijuana.
“We do have to make sure that the controls are in place,” should medical marijuana be legalized, he added.
“I’m not touching this with a ten-foot pole,” said Ogles, who noted his attendance at a traditional church in Grassland for 33 years.
Purington said she had cared for her mother, father and husband through cancer treatments; both her father and husband have passed. She noted her support of anything that might help improve symptoms and give rest to those who are severely ill.
Watch the full debate below.