Politics

Georgia Republican convicted in Jan. 6 riot walks out during televised congressional primary debate

ATLANTA — (AP) — A Georgia congressional candidate convicted of a misdemeanor for illegally demonstrating inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, walked out of a televised debate with a fellow Republican on Sunday ahead of a June 18 primary runoff.

It was the latest volatile turn in southwest Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, where Chuck Hand and Wayne Johnson are competing for the GOP nomination to take on 16-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Sanford Bishop in November.

Hand is one of at least four people convicted of Jan. 6 crimes running for Congress this year, all as Republicans. He was sentenced to 20 days in federal prison and six months of probation.

At the beginning of a debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, Hand said he was refusing to debate Johnson after Michael Nixon, who finished third in the four-way May 21 primary, gave a news conference last month endorsing Johnson.

Nixon brought up a 2005 criminal trespass charge and a 2010 DUI charge against Hand, both of which were dismissed. Nixon also cited federal court documents to argue Hand's participation in the Jan. 6 riot was more serious than Hand had claimed.

“This is where I get back in my truck and go back to southwest Georgia because I’ve got two races to win,” Hand said, walking out of the studio while cameras were rolling.

“You’re not staying?” asked anchor Donna Lowry. “You’re leaving, sir? OK.”

“Wow, I don’t even know how to react,” Johnson said.

Johnson, an official in the U.S. Education Department during the Donald Trump administration, said Hand’s exit is more proof that Hand isn’t fit to be the Republican nominee.

“I would like to assume that Chuck Hand’s departure, the way in which he did it today, was his withdrawal from the race,” Johnson told reporters afterward. “But it certainly should cause people to pause and think about why he did it and what he was trying to get by doing it.”

After Hand walked out of the debate, he answered questions from reporters for nearly 20 minutes, saying he believed Johnson had helped orchestrate the attacks by Nixon. Hand was particularly critical that Nixon brought up the earlier conviction of his wife for illegal sale of oxycodone.

“It’s perfectly fine to attack me as a candidate. I expect that. But to come out and publicly attack my wife, that’s a completely different situation,” Hand said. “My wife had paid her debt to society long before I ever met her.”

He attacked Johnson for not living in the bounds of the district, which isn’t required for congressional candidates.

A construction superintendent who lives in rural Butler, Hand again portrayed himself as leading a working-class movement to improve economic conditions in one of the poorest parts of Georgia. Hand said he would rally Black and white workers under the banner of Donald Trump. Hand has disdained the traditional formal dress of political candidates throughout the campaign, wearing a blue denim shirt and a Caterpillar baseball cap on Sunday.

Johnson won almost 45% of the vote in the May 21 primary while Hand won almost 32%. Because no one won a majority, voters will decide the nominee in a runoff. Early in-person voting begins Monday ahead of the June 18 election.

“Money isn’t going to win this election, heart will, voters will,” Hand said. The coalition that we built on the ground over these years is going to win this election. It’s the grassroots activists on the ground that have done the prep work that are going to win in November. America first? I’m your 2nd District First candidate.”

Johnson has staked out a more moderate position, saying any Republican who hopes to beat Bishop needs to do more to appeal to the largely Black Democrats who have supported the longtime incumbent. He said during the debate he doesn't back proposed Republican cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

“We’re going to have to carry 50,000 people that normally vote Democrat across to vote Republican,” Johnson told reporters after the debate. “And that’s going to be basically based on: ‘Can you prove to folks, can you demonstrate to folks ahead of time that you actually can make their lives better?’”

Johnson dismissed Hand's attacks on him for living just outside the district in Macon, saying he has invested in businesses in the district and would move to a house he owns in Plains, Jimmy Carter's hometown, if elected.

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