Candidates vying to represent Georgia House of Representatives District 138 make their case at Americus Kiwanis Club forum
AMERICUS – Republican Candidate and incumbent State Representative Mike Cheokas and his democratic challenger Marc Arnett both attempted to make their cases as to why they should be elected to serve as the state representative to represent District 138 in the Georgia House of Representatives at the Americus Kiwanis Club’s weekly meeting on Friday, September 18 in the dining hall of the Marshall Student Center on the Georgia Southwestern State University campus (GSW).
State House of Representative District 138 includes the counties of Sumter, Chattahoochee, Schley and Marion.
The format of the event called for each candidate to give two five-minute speeches. Lots were drawn to see who would go first and Representative Cheokas ended up getting the honors to speak first.
In his opening five-minute speech, Representative Cheokas mentioned all of the experience that he has had not only as the incumbent state representative, but also the experience he has gained by serving on and presiding over numerous clubs and organizations.
“I’ve got deep roots in Americus and I like to share a little bit,” said Cheokas. “I’m currently a businessman in Americus. I’m President of Cheokas and Cheokas, Inc. It’s a retail and real estate development corporation.” He went on to describe his past community experience and involvement for the past 30 years as a current member of the Americus Rotary Club and as the current Co-Chair of the Rosalyn Carter Institute for Caregiving, an organization that advocates for and provides training for both lay and professional caregivers. Cheokas also mentioned his involvement at South Georgia Technical College (SGTC), as well as having been the past President of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Macon. “While at the capitol (Atlanta), I graduated from the Advanced Self-Policy Institute, the Georgia Legislative Leadership Institute,” said Cheokas. “I was past Chairman of New Horizons Habitat for Humanity and a past Vice President for the Americus JCs.”
Cheokas went on to say that he served on many committees while he was in the State House and got himself into the habit of reading all of the legislation. “It’s amazing what you see and what you can learn,” said Cheokas. He went on to mention that he served as the Vice Chairman of the House Budget and Physical Affairs Oversight Committee, the Secretary of the House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee and that he was a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. Cheokas also mentioned that he was a member of the Insurance Committee, the State Institutions and Property Committee and is currently the Chairman of the Education Committee. Cheokas remarked that 45 percent of the state budget deals with K-12. “This state is committed to education,” said Cheokas. “I also served, as I said, on the Higher Education and Appropriations Committee and in that capacity, we also handled 10 percent of the state budget, so a full 55 percent of the state budget goes towards education and that does not include Hope Scholarship.”
Cheokas also mentioned that he was a board member of the World Hellenic Interparliamentary Association (WHIA), which is an organization made up of a group of individuals of Greek descent who participate in programs dealing with the nation of Greece and who meet every other year in Athens, Greece. In addition to his service with the WHIA, Cheokas mentioned that has experience serving in a nation-building capacity, having served with the State Department in places such as Nepal and Pakistan. “It’s interesting. You really get a new insight to what’s going on internationally,” said Cheokas.
In his opening remarks, Arnett began by saying that having grown up in Sumter County; he was always encouraged to get a good education and to never look back because, in his words, there were no opportunities here.
“Several years ago, when my wife and I decided that this was the place that we wanted to raise our children, I began to question what I had been told my whole entire childhood,” said Arnett. “I began to think that if people only got an education or a good job and never looked back, we would never be able to make our home what it truly can be.”
Arnett went on to say that at the time he was questioning what he had been told during his childhood, he began to see, in his opinion, the error of his upbringing and those of others. He stated that there are people who continue to poison their children by telling them that there are no opportunities in the district. “I committed myself that day and dedicated my life to working to making this place that we call home better,” said Arnett. “When people ask me the question ‘Why am I running for office’ I have no choice but to tell them my truth and my truth is this: For me, it’s more than campaigning for an office. It’s more than listing my accolades. This is an extension of my life’s work. This is a promise that I made to may grandfather before he passed away due to pancreatic cancer. This is not a gimmick or something fake for me. This is about creating hope in the lives of others. This is about rebuilding our community and turning our district into the best possible version of itself.”
Arnett told the group gathered in the room that they are looking at a product that some of them helped create in their time as leaders in the community. “A wise man once said, ‘You can either be a great example or a terrible warning’. Today, I stand before you as both,” said Arnett. “A great example of the talent and ambition that exists in the hearts and the minds of the children and adults right here in our own county.”
Arnett went on to explain that the “terrible warning” is the symbol of what the county has lost and will continue to lose in the form of human capital if citizens don’t create better opportunities for growth and development in District 138.
“If we continuously and constantly push our best and brightest into the arms of other cities, counties and states, we will never reach our full potential,” said Arnett.
Arnett continued by stating that if elected as the next state representative of District 138, he will work to help small business owners, farmers, working class individuals and their families bounce back from these unprecedented times. He also stated that he will work to ensure that every Georgian has a primary care doctor and that every child, no matter what part of Georgia they are growing up in, has an equal opportunity at the best possible education. “I would love to represent you as your next state representative for Georgia House 138,” said Arnett.
In his second five-minute speech, Representative Cheokas stated that when he went up to Atlanta, he went there with a purpose and that purpose was to bring things back to Americus. “I set that goal for me and I made sure I got on the committees that would support that,” said Cheokas. He stated that he was able to bring the Health and Science Center to GSW, which was a project that took two years and cost anywhere from $15 million to $18 million. Cheokas also mentioned that he was able to get the financial funding to build the Fine Arts Center at GSW, as well as several other projects for the university. He continued his speech by mentioning that he also put a lot of focus on South Georgia Tech (SGTC) because, in his opinion, SGTC had been neglected. “I got $3.5 million for their Diesel and Automotive Building and $2.1 million for the roofing and insulation of 10 buildings so we can update that campus that hadn’t seen new money in decades,” said Cheokas. He also mentioned that in this past year, after years of attempts, he was able to get $1.6 million for SGTC’s Commercial Truck Driving Building and the resurfacing of the Skills Field.
“These are things that we need to do to provide those opportunities for the children that my opponent was just talking about,” said Cheokas. “I served on the Board of Education for two years and I’m happy to announce that I’ve gotten the endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE).” Cheokas went on to say that the reason he was able to get the GAE’s endorsement was, in his opinion, because of his two-year service on the State Board of Education (SBOE) and that no other member in the State House has done that. Cheokas continued by saying that he and his colleagues on the SBOE were able to reduce testing, improve graduation rates and were able to stop furloughing teachers during the COVID-19 Pandemic. He went on to say that what he sees in the future is reapportionment.
“The rural part of our state isn’t growing as fast as the urban areas and we all have the same number of people,” said Cheokas. “Which way we grow depends on seniority. I can tell you that.”
He remarked that 10 years ago, Chattahoochee County was added to the district. “It’s almost as large as Sumter County when you include Fort Benning and I have the honor of representing Fort Benning,” said Cheokas. He went on to say that he believes that District 138 has the opportunity to expand north into Columbus and, perhaps, to annex part of Muskogee County or expand northeast into Macon County.
“These are going to be the options and the direction of reapportionment,” he said.
Cheokas also talked about the state budget and mentioned that there are 180 members of the State House that are fighting for the same amount of money. This fact was something that Cheokas wanted to emphasize in his speech as to why he should be reelected as the State House Representative for District 138. “If you don’t have a strong voice up there, they’re going to pick the plate clean before you have an opportunity,” said Cheokas. He also mentioned that the Plains Welcome Center, along with another welcome center, are taken out of the budget whenever there is a budget shortfall and that he and Representative John Burns have to fight to keep the Plains Welcome Center in the budget. “This year is the first time we’ve been able to alleviate that problem because they’re no longer funded from economic development, but they’re funded from state parks. We moved that responsibility. Those are the only two welcome centers that are not on our borders,” he said.
After Cheokas was done with his second five-minute speech, it was Arnett’s turn and he began by saying that if elected as the next state representative for District 138, the citizens of the district can count on him to be more than “pie in the sky” or to do eloquent speeches. “I plan to stay active in our community and not just during the election years,” said Arnett. “I want to bring back the accountability to the district from the state legislation.” He went on by stating that he plans to provide a weekly or, at least, a monthly report to the citizens of the district in regards to what is happening in Atlanta that matters to them. “I can assure you that I will always be approachable and open to hear your concerns and your ideas,” said Arnett. “I will forever fight to make sure that our district is never put on the backburner.”
Arnett addressed the belief that, in his opinion, some people have that he won’t be able to accomplish what needs to be done on the district’s behalf because he is a newcomer by stating that he will work as hard or harder than anyone for District 138. Arnett also stated that during the campaign, he has been able to make connections with leaders across Georgia and has secured the endorsements of Stacey Abrams and State House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, as well as William Boddie, the Minority Whip of the Democratic Caucus.
“My efforts to build relationships across party lines for the betterment of our district and our state will continue as I work to make our home home again,” said Arnett. “You can rest assured knowing that I will show up every day with the best interest of our district on the top of my mind and on my heart.” Arnett continued by saying that if elected, he plans to always do what is right for all of the citizens and that it won’t take a public outcry for him to do so. “I will work to protect the rights of all of our citizens, to advocate for our local schools, as well as our local college and university when it comes to funding an allocation of critical resources and creating a pathway for new jobs and new opportunities in our district,” he said.
In closing, Arnett briefly shared things about himself. He stated that he was a graduate of GSW and that he graduated with a degree in Business Management. He also mentioned that he is a product of the Sumter County Public School System and that he was a product of East View Head Start. He mentioned that his father retired as a farmer in Sumter County and that his mother worked in cafeterias all her life so that he and his siblings could have a better opportunity to create a better life for their children.
“My Great Grandfather was a World War 1 veteran. I’m nearly five generations deep in Sumter County history. Usually, when you hear that, that comes from another side, but for me, that means everything to me,” said Arnett. “That means that the future for my children and your children and your grandchildren can be stronger, can be better and can be greater. They deserve better and I want to give that to them as your next state representative.”
After the forum was over, the Americus Times-Recorder asked each candidate what the main difference is that they believe qualifies them to be State House Representative of District 138. Arnett replied that there is a clear distinction between he and his opponent in regards to both passion and vision for the direction of the district. “There’s a lot that we didn’t get to address today about issues and how we feel about a lot of things,” said Arnett. “My opponent voted against the initial hate crimes bill. He’s voted against Medicaid Expansion. Those are things that I care about…making sure that all of our citizens have healthcare and access to it so we can prevent the closure of rural hospitals. There’s definitely a clear distinction between candidates here. For me, mine is more people centric. It’s people over profit.”
For Cheokas, the biggest thing that differentiates him from his opponent is simply one thing: experience. “I hit the ground running and that separates us. I know the pitfalls. I’ve been through the pitfalls. I know what to look for,” said Cheokas. “I know what to expect come next session. I’ve got the credibility and I’ve got seniority. I’ve got the experience and by far, I feel that that would be the biggest difference we have.” Cheokas went on to say that both Georgia Southwestern State University and South Georgia Tech should be top priorities in the district because, in his opinion, they both get neglected because they are small institutions compared to the state’s much larger universities. “I’ve been a champion for them and I’ve been able to get more money for these schools than anyone else. That, I see, is my purpose,” he said. Cheokas went on to mention that he understands the challenges that teachers and school administrators in Georgia are faced with, as he has witnessed it while serving on the State School Board. “I don’t mind telling you I see that we need to support the students, support the parents and if there’s anything that I can do to help the teachers and the administrators, I’m ready, willing and able and have the experience to do so,” he said. Cheokas went on to say that education is paramount if the quality of life in District 138 is to improve and that he has shown his commitment to making that happen during his time in office.