Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (left) and his Democratic challenger Charles Bailey Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (left) and his Democratic challenger Charles Bailey

The two candidates vying to be Georgia’s attorney general, Republican incumbent Chris Carr and Democrat Charlie Bailey, squared off in a public debate hosted Tuesday by the Atlanta Press Club that included some familiar refrains—namely, experience, drugs and gangs. But the exchange also presented the pair’s differing viewpoints on other high-profile matters, from the role of the state’s Law Department and its leader to laws governing religious liberty.

It didn’t take long for Bailey, the former senior prosecutor with the Fulton County district attorney’s gang unit, to go after Carr’s lack of criminal justice litigation experience prior to 2016, when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him AG after Sam Olens resigned. Carr was previously Deal’s commissioner of economic development and Sen. Johnny Isakson’s chief of staff.

For his part, Carr did not take the bait and eschewed the opportunity during the half-hour debate to ask his opponent a question, characterizing it as an invitation to pose “gotcha questions.”

“I’m running for the role of attorney general; I’m not running against Charlie,” he said. “It should be about our record, our experience and our philosophy, and I’m proud of my record.”

Bailey did not follow suit but instead asked his opponent: “Do you want to guess at how many of these nine questions, you’d have to mark ‘none’ or ‘no experience’ for?”

It was a perfect example of the “gotcha question,” Carr said.

“Nothing about that question goes to the role of attorney general, and, in fact, I think it’s offensive to the lawyers in our department who are working each and every day: 150 lawyers, 300 SAAGs that are proudly representing the state,” he said. “My job is to support the lawyers who work in our department, and I’m sorry that the people of Georgia have to put up with that.”

And that was the perfect example of a “politician’s and bureaucrat’s” answer, Bailey responded.

“The answer to the question is, ‘there are several questions on this application for which Chris would have to mark ‘none’ or ‘no experience,’” he said. “The bottom line is he’s not qualified to get an interview in the job for which he serves as attorney general right now. He’s never been a prosecutor, never tried a case, never argued a motion in front of a judge, and what is offensive to the people of Georgia is that their top lawyer is someone who’s hardly ever been a lawyer.”

Bailey also attacked Carr for doing nothing more than “sending a couple of press releases and holding a press conference” to help address gang violence and the opioid epidemic, noting that “no one in the AG’s office” is working on organized crime, gang and human trafficking issues. He added that Georgia, unlike several other states, has not brought or joined a lawsuit targeting the manufacturers and distributors of opioids. Bailey said that, if elected, he would form an organized crime division and gang division to coordinate law enforcement efforts statewide.

Carr refuted both accusations, pointing to the work his office has done on both issues, including, among other actions, the creation of the Georgia Anti-Gang Network to bring together local, state and federal partners to address the problem and the appointment of outside counsel to work on opioid litigation on the state’s behalf.

“We’ve been focusing on the opioid crisis from Day One … and I’ve been talking about the issue of gangs since Spring 2017,” he said.

The debate panel questions raised other issues for the candidates, including:

The proposed constitutional amendment to create a statewide business court:

Bailey: “I have full confidence in the state courts and the superior courts in the state of Georgia to address [complex business litigation] issues, so while I do think it has some merit, I will not be voting yes on that.”

Carr, who said Deal appointed him to head a court reform council: “Those that testified at our committee hearings were largely and strongly in favor of having the structure of a business court. It would reduce the amount of time that businesses would be involved in litigation. Those that have been involved in the business court in Fulton and Gwinnett counties thought that it was a very positive thing for us to do, so I will be voting yes.”

The role of the AG’s Office, specifically whether advocacy work such as suing over federal laws and regulations is proper or whether the AG should solely represent the state in state cases:

Carr: “I think there’s a proper role to be played. … If Congress isn’t pushing back, it needs to be the states, either through governors or through AGs. … I believe that my job is to defend the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution and laws of the state of Georgia but most importantly the interests of the people of Georgia, so there are definitely times, both at the federal level and at the state level, that we should be advocating.”

Bailey: “The role of the attorney general is to protect the people of Georgia and then if they are harmed to go out and get them justice, whether that is organized crime and gangs that are threatening people, whether it’s special interests or whether it is the federal government that is threatening the people of Georgia.”

Religious liberty legislation, specifically whether you believe in equal rights or extra protections for the LGBT community:

Bailey: “I believe in equal rights for every person born under the sun and living on this Earth. I grew up in the church, and our faith can never be a guise for discrimination. So [the vetoed Georgia legislation] is immoral and it’s also unconstitutional, and I will refuse to defend it on those grounds.”

Carr: “I believe in the dignity of each and every human being. I’m also proud that we are an open and welcoming state and proud that we are the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business. We just didn’t need to backtrack on that. You can be for economic development and protect the free exercise of one’s religion. They are not mutually exclusive.”

The debate airs on Georgia Public Broadcasting tonight at 7:30 p.m. The press club also said on its website that all debates will be available for viewers to watch online as they take place and on demand via Facebook Live and GPBNews.org.