Three of the four Democrats seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Karen Handel in the 6th Congressional District made their pitches at a Sandy Springs forum April 9, largely agreeing on such issues as gun control and Obamacare as they blasted President Trump.

Kevin Abel, Steven Knight Griffin and Bobby Kaple distinguished themselves more by approach than major policy differences. Abel presented himself as a successful immigrant (from South Africa) and centrist businessman; Griffin as a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy expert with a fighting spirit; and Kaple as a competitive idealist who quit his TV anchor job out of fear others could not afford the healthcare his prematurely born twins did.

From left, candidates Kevin Abel, Steven Knight Griffin and Bobby Kaple prepare to speak at the April 9 Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon forum at Heritage Sandy Springs. (John Ruch)

A fourth candidate, Lucy McBath, was unable to attend the private forum, organized by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon. Held at Heritage Sandy Springs, it drew more than 200 attendees. The candidates are competing in a May 22 primary election, with the winner aiming to battle Handel on the November general election ballot.

Handel, a Republican, beat Democrat Jon Ossoff in last year’s special election for the Congressional seat, which includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. Ossoff is not running again, but the tight, nationally spotlighted race gives other Democrats hope they can “flip” the longtime majority-Republican district.

To that end, the three Democrats criticized Trump and linked Handel to him.

Abel called Trump a “con man who is disinterested and unschooled” in basic policy and who “stokes fear and dredges up hate… He soils the idea of what it means to be American.”

Kaple said all of Trump’s policies are “made with reckless abandon.” Griffin echoed the sentiments and said Handel is “someone who is taking Trump’s marching orders.”

On healthcare, all three supported the concept that it is a right and that Medicare should negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

On gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting and youth-led marches afterward, the candidates broadly agreed on such measures as stricter background checks. Griffin backed a particular proposal to allow a court-ordered seizure of guns from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others. Abel was the only one to explicitly call for a ban on certain military-style rifle sales, saying, “It is time that the AR-15s be not available for purchase for civilian use.”

Griffin noted the CDC is now free to study gun violence as a health issue after a controversial policy change, though funding for such studies is lacking. Abel also praised the youth protesters for gun control, adding that his own son led a walkout at Fulton County’s North Springs Charter High School.

All three candidates supported a path to citizenship for immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children by their parents and now working under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which Trump has moved to end.

Audience members asked several questions about partisan politics. U.S. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was one topic; Abel and Griffin said they would not vote for her to return as speaker if the House flipped to Democratic control again, while Kaple said he’d vote for “a speaker that represents the district, period, the end.”

A question about gerrymandering — the partisan method of drawing legislative districts to protect friendly incumbents or eliminate disfavored officials — led to discussion about the abuse of political power in general. Abel said he supports term limits. Griffin called for getting big money out of politics; alluding to a famous speech by William Jennings Bryan 120 years ago, he said, “We must not let America be crucified on a cross of gold.” He also raised, without taking a personal position on, rumors that Ossoff might actually have won last year’s election but suffered vote manipulation that could not be tracked under the current electronic system.

The biggest question is how they think they can win in a majority Republican district. Ossoff came close, but that was a special election for an open seat.

“The Democratic Party needs a candidate who has lived in the district, has lived in the district 26 years,” said Abel, a Sandy Springs resident, referring to Ossoff’s unusual circumstance of living outside the 6th District’s borders during his campaign. Abel also said he would be appealing to voters as a job-creator with his IT consulting firm and as a moderate who can win “center-right” votes.

Kaple focused on his competitive spirit, which he said took him from a self-created sports show to anchoring the CBS46 news desk in the major Atlanta market, a job he left for the campaign. “I think we need a fighter, OK?” Kaple said.

Griffin emphasized his CDC experience as a policy coordinator in a department focused on birth defects and developmental disabilities. He also said the party should reach out to voters who feel ignored or who were turned off by the massive flow of outside money into the Ossoff-Handel race, the most expensive Congressional race in history. “I think that $30 million poisoned the well,” he said.

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