In the wake of his battle against the City during the 2009 jaywalking scandal, Michael Gaster decided to take his civic clout to a larger stage — the state legislature — challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Lester Jackson for Georgia’s Second District seat.
We caught up with Gaster two weeks ago at his downtown campaign headquarters in ThincSavannah to get his perspective on the campaign and the challenges facing the district.
What are the biggest issues facing the 2nd district in 2011 and 2012?
Michael Gaster: Specific to the 2nd District, we have the West Bay Street widening. We have the Garden City annexation of Southbridge. There’s schools and education. There are some untalked about issues that are ongoing, like mercury pollution as a result of coal burning power plants. Then we can go to issues that are larger, and that’s the economy and jobs.
We have businesses closing left and right, people going out to start their own small businesses. We talk about business tax cuts, but a lot of these special incentives don’t affect small businesses and artisans who are making it on their own.
Having been on my own for 10 years, there are no breaks for the small business.
What sort of policies would you like to see to assist small business? With the state budget what it is, tax cuts would have to come out of something else. How would you go about balancing something like that?
Michael Gaster: We could shift some numbers around where we can reduce compliance cost. One thing would be doing away with income tax in Georgia. Tennessee, Florida, and several other bordering states don’t have income tax and they don’t have as big a budget problem as we have. By cutting income tax, it’s one less compliance issue businesses have to deal with. It would immediately be a 6 or 7 percent pay increase for everyone, from the guy sweeping the floor to the CEO.
It’s about the fundamental purpose of having a government, and that’s supplying the needs. We’ve lost what common needs are. There’s a lot of special interest needs. Education, that’s a common need – transportation, roadways, water. For some reason, the core purposes in having a government are failing and we’re still doing all this other stuff and spending money in other areas.
Doing away with income tax, you’re talking about a hit to the state budget that would number in the hundreds of millions when we’re already looking at a $1.8 billion shortfall. How would that kind of revenue loss be dealt with without more cuts to universities and public education?
Michael Gaster: It’d be nice to be able to say replace it with nothing. Something along the lines of fair tax. On the state level, we could switch things over to a consumption based tax system. Let’s shift it over so we can get to where we can collect revenues as needed and not tax people on their work.
Were you to be elected in November, do you feel your inexperience might be an issue? Could that prove some of your ideas too idealistic?
Michael Gaster: As far as inexperience, the thing I’m least experienced at is quid pro quo and back room deals. I have no experience in that. I serve on a few different deliberative boards, and I am a parliamentarian. I understand the structure of the government. I can read bills. I read a ton of them.
I serve on the Cultural Affairs Commission. It’s the same thing, but very small. We’re dealing with taxpayer funds and the distribution of them, deciding what’s happening as a body. I’m the parliamentarian for the Georgia State Young Republicans and there’s a lot of political exposure with that.
In what ways do you see your platform as being a better course than that of your opponent?
Michael Gaster: Accessibility is number one. That’s the biggest complaint about my opponent, as was seen last week at the town hall meeting he hosted about the West Bay Street widening project. Constantly, people were saying to him, “Where have you been?” It was the same thing with the Southbridge annexation. Where’s Lester?
When the Public Service Commission was here, and they were talking about the rate increases for Georgia Power, Regina Thomas was there. Tony Thomas was there. I was there. This is a state issue.
If you look at my opponent, he supports shortening term limits, but yet he wants to extend term limits for Pete Liakakis. It has “back room deal” written all over it.
I will speak on behalf of the people, not on behalf of the government. I have a record of doing that. “2009 People of Impact” in the Savannah Morning News for speaking out on the jaywalking campaign. I didn’t get a ticket. I went before City Council for the bar carding hearing. I don’t own a bar. I just see these big power grabs by the government that are affecting people, and I deliver a message against that.
I’ve heard rumor of some personal attacks against you. Is this politics as usual?
Michael Gaster: A couple of months ago, I was told three things, one of which I can’t remember. One is that I’m going to be followed. The second is that they’re going to attack me for my support of the gay community. All men being created equal means all men are created equal. There’s a gay community here in the second district and they need proper representation. Having been someone who’s worked in the performing arts most of my life, there’s nothing wrong with gay people. They’re people too.
It wasn’t my opponent, but someone who identified themselves as “I work for Senator Jackson” who came out and said to one of my campaign workers who was videotaping Dr. Jackson, “you only want to put out the bad stuff about him. Why don’t you put out [pointing at me] that he’s gay. Everyone knows he’s gay.” I’m not gay, and it really shouldn’t matter if I was.
Because you have a fiscally conservative but not socially conservative platform, are you worried you will alienate some of the Republican base?
Michael Gaster: There’s been a lot of transitions in the Republican party here in Chatham County. I’m working to help rebrand the party. A lot of the local base has realized that the Republican party has gotten away from being fiscal conservatives and we’ve been distracted by these divisive issues that have lost a lot of the base itself and turned a lot of people off by painting the party as over–judgmental. We need to build and build strong. That means not paying attention to the social issues in order to get back to what we’re about.
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