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State house ballot full of newcomers

With five seats and only a pair of incumbents trying to maintain their posts, Gwinnett County’s ballots for the Georgia House of Representatives are full of political newcomers.

Outside of those two incumbents — District 103’s David Casas and District 104’s Lee Thompson — only District 106 candidate Brett Harrell has served in a government office, he as a former mayor of Snellville.

DISTRICT 95

• Name: Rodney Upton

• Political party: Republican

• Age: 30

• Residence: Conyers

• Education: Some college

• Occupation: Small business owner

• Political experience: None

• Family: Wife LaRae Upton; children Andrew, 11, Augusta, 10, Isaac, 8, Emily, 6, Josiah, 3, and Lydia,18 months

• Online: www.ElectUpton.com

• Political philosophy: Every operation is more efficient when fueled by freedom.

• Top priorities: I believe in strengthening our families, our freedoms and in a fiscally responsible state.

• Name: Pam Dickerson • Political party: Democrat

• Age: 57

• Residence: Conyers

• Education: Bachelor’s degree in science, Southern University, New Orleans

• Occupation: Flight attendant/business owner

• Political experience: None

• Family: Single

• Online: www.PamDickerson.com

• Political philosophy: My political philosophy is to do the very best I can in providing the most effective, comprehensive representation in District 95.

• Top priorities: Education, public safety, economic development

DISTRICT 102

• Name: Porter Deal

• Political party: Democrat

• Age: 40

• Residence: Lilburn

• Education: Some college, Shiloh High School

• Occupation: Real estate broker

• Political experience: None

• Family: Wife Kori; two children, 7 and 4

• Online: www.Porterdeal.com

• Political philosophy: Financially conservative and socially responsible.

• Top priorities: Funding of public education, real traffic relief, tax overhaul, job creation and small business development

• Name: B.J. Pak

• Political party: Republican

• Age: 36

• Residence: Lilburn

• Education: Law degree from the University of Illinois (1998), Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Stetson University (1995)

• Occupation: Attorney

• Political experience: None

• Family: Wife Sandra; daughters Sophia and Madeleine

• Online: www.bjpak.com

• Political philosophy: I am a Reagan conservative. I believe in smaller government, free enterprise and the principle that rights are rights, and not merely privileges.

• Top priorities: Economy: Revamp tax and corporate code and revitalize capital markets; prioritize spending to protect funding of core services. Reduce the size of budget and government. Stronger ethics reform.

DISTRICT 103

• Name: Allan Burns

• Political party: Democrat

• Age: 60

• Residence: Lawrenceville

• Education: Bachelor’s degree in urban government from Georgia State University (1972)

• Occupation: Small business owner

• Political experience: Democratic candidate for Congress (2006) and State House (2008)

• Family: Wife Beverly; children Matthew, Matt, Amy, Megan, Abbey and Daniell

• Online: www.allanburns.com

• Political philosophy: The challenge is to strike a reasonable balance between maximum individual freedom and effective government institutions that are necessary in securing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.

• Top priorities: Growing Georgia’s economy and creating jobs through new energy technologies and water and energy conservation, insuring our children receive a quality education and balancing the budget to keep taxes low.

• Name: David Casas

• Political Party: Republican

• Political Experience: Four-term incumbent in Georgia House of Reprsentatives

• Online: www.votecasas.com

DISTRICT 104

• Name: Lee Thompson

• Political party: Democrat

• Age: 54

• Residence: Lawrenceville

• Education: Law degree from the University of Georgia, Bachelor of Arts degree from Mercer University; Central Gwinnett High School

• Occupation: Attorney

• Political experience: Georgia House of Representatives 2009-present

• Family: Wife Connie; daughter Rebecca, 12

• Online: www.CitizensforLeeThompson.org

• Political philosophy: Elected officials are public servants. They should use common sense and work to solve problems not advance a party's political agenda.

• Top priorities: In order to create jobs and improve economic development, public education must be our top priority. We must also address transportation and water issues on a regional basis.

• Name: Valerie Clark

• Political party: Republican

• Age: 61

• Residence: Lawrenceville

• Education: Ph.D. in educational psychology and educational leadership from the University of Georgia

• Occupation: Retired educator

• Political experience: Volunteer

Family: Husband Bob; children Pearson, 21, and Barrett, 19

• Online: www.valerieforgahouse.com

• Political philosophy: I am a Republican who believes in individual rights, personal freedom and liberty.

• Top priorities: Promote free enterprise, jobs with less regulation and fewer taxes; promote education with tougher standards, smaller classes; prohibit illegal aliens from attending taxpayer-supported colleges; stop expansion of Briscoe Field Airport

DISTRICT 106

• Name: Brett Harrell

• Political party: Republican

• Age: 49

• Residence: Snellville

• Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Georgia; South Gwinnett High School

• Occupation: Sales

• Political experience: Former mayor of Snellville

• Family: Wife Diane; son Briggs, 20

• Online: www.VoteHarrell.com

• Political philosophy: Less talk. More action. Brett Harrell delivers.

• Top priorities: Jobs, economy, budget, transportation, water, constitutional and ethical government.

• Name: Steffini Bethea

• Political party: Democratic

• Age: 46

• Residence: Snellville

• Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Houston

• Occupation: Small business owner

• Political experience: None

• Family: Husband, Dr. Sheldon Bethea; children Yasi, 19, Andrew, 17, Nilou, 12 and Sara, 5.

• Online: www.steffinibethea.com

• Political philosophy: I am a fiscally conservative Democrat who believes in representing all fairly. Government should not be balanced on the backs of hard working families and current, status quo politics is no longer working.

• Top priorities: Protecting and making education a priority which is directly tied to economic development and creating jobs. Additionally, strengthening ethics in government and holding elected officials accountable for failing their constituents.

That leaves seven relative political newcomers vying for their respective seats.

“Maybe I’m a little bit crazy,” rookie Republican candidate Rodney Upton joked when asked why he chose to run for a seat in District 95.

“But seriously, it’s basically just frustration from where I think we’re headed as a country. I figured I’d want to do something on a local level to try to see if I could create a better environment for my children.”

Upton’s Democratic opponent in District 95, Pam Dickerson, is a flight attendant and business owner from Conyers who chose to run because of what she said was lackluster representation in the region.

“I did not feel that the incumbent was as engaged in the community as he could have been, and I wanted to be a part of the process,” Dickerson said. “This race is not about me, it’s about the people and their voices and concerns being heard.”

In District 102, Lilburn real estate broker and Democrat Porter Deal will square off with attorney and Republican B.J. Pak. Either would be a newcomer to an elected office.

Like many of their counterparts, both stressed creating jobs and education as top priorities for their district.

“Education is just far and away the No. 1 priority,” Deal said. “Our schools are great, but we have to continue to improve. Those schools protect our property values, and if you have employees, employers will come.”

Said Pak, a former federal prosecutor: “One of the things that we have to look at (to create jobs) is thinking outside the box. We really need to get down to the nitty-gritty and look at some pieces of legislation ... We need to protect public safety and education fundings, and then look at where we lack further.”

Democrat Allan Burns, a small business owner from Lawrenceville, will be taking on one of the pair of incumbents in local House races this year, facing Republican David Casas, who has served four consecutive terms representing District 103.

“I feel like I’ve got the experience, both in terms of my public and private jobs I’ve had over the years, to work on the problems that are facing Georgians, the economy, jobs, water issues,” Burns said. “What we need is someone that’s going to get in there and tackle the

problems.”

Like Burns, Casas pointed to the economy as a key issue in the district he’s represented since 2002.

“It’s definitely being affected in many ways by what’s coming down from (Washington, D.C.),” Casas said. “But we have a great track record and we’re going to continue to get results.”

District 104 pits another political rookie — Republican Valerie Clark — against single-term incumbent Lee Thompson.

Clark, a long-time educator with a Ph.D. in educational psychology and leadership, cited creating jobs, promoting education and illegal immigration reform as her top priorities, along with stopping the expansion of Lawrenceville’s Briscoe Field Airport.

“I just think (airport expansion) is going to cause a blight,” Clark said. “I’m concerned about the neighborhoods not being as they are now, in terms of ruining our neighborhoods.”

Thompson, a tenured city attorney of Sugar Hill, Duluth and Grayson, also referenced education and job creation as chief goals if he is re-elected.

“Probably the most vital things involved in (helping the economy come back) are education, and making sure we continue to have a good quality education system in the state,” Thompson said.

Harrell, the mayor of Snellville from 2000-03 and the former executive director of Evermore CID, is venturing back into politics after his “wife gave permission.” He will take on newcomer Steffini Bethea for the District 106 seat in Atlanta.

“I’ve delivered (in the past),” Harrell said. “When I told people in Snellville I would cut taxes, we did. When I told them we would buy greenspace, we did. When I was with Evermore CID and I told them we would improve on (U.S. Highway 78), we did.”

“(Bethea) may have some wonderful desires, but my record is one that I’ve proven to be able to accomplish what I’ve said I would do.”

Bethea could not be reached for comment.