As the days tick down to the special election to fill the open 6th Congressional District seat, each of the 18 candidates in the large field are trying furiously to separate themselves from the pack.

The latest public opportunity to do so was at the April 9 candidate forum hosted by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association and Dunwoody Crier at Dunwoody High School. Voters are already early voting in the election to fill the seat held by Republican Tom Price who resigned this year to become U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.

The entire field of candidates attended the forum — 11 Republicans, five Democrats and two Independents — taking up the entire stage in the high school auditorium. But only three questions could be asked during the two-hour forum – and that wasn’t enough to help at least two undecided voters.

Candidates walk on stage at the DHA candidate forum at Dunwoody High School. (Photo Dyana Bagby)

“There are way too many candidates … especially for the short amount of time [of the forum],” said Christopher Whittaker, 27, who lives in north DeKalb at the edge of the district.

Whittaker said he was a “political junkie” who is making an intentional effort to educate himself about the candidates.

“With the current political climate, I think this is a really important election,” he said. “It was a good forum. But I’m not particularly excited about any candidate … I’m still waiting for the candidate for me to really put my support behind. I’m expecting a little more.”

Brad Smith, 60, of Sandy Springs, said while he leans Democrat, he, too, was not overly impressed with any one candidate. Many of his friends have already voted, Smith said, but he was waiting so he could continue gathering more information.

Brad Smith, left, and Christopher Whittaker are still trying to decide who to vote for. (Dyana Bagby)

“Everybody just votes because there is a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ behind someone’s name; I refuse to do that,” he said. “I’m still having trouble making a final decision.”

The forum was mostly civil despite the heated attacks taking place in direct mail campaigns and TV commercials. The large crowd of some 300 people was friendly, packed with supporters. Applause broke out many times as people welcomed answers on immigration, taxes, infrastructure and climate change.

Numerous Jon Ossoff signs were posted outside the high school and many supporters with Ossoff t-shirts and stickers sat in the crowd as Democrats hope to “flip the 6th” from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic seat in Congress.

The Dunwoody High School auditorium was packed for the 6th Congressional District candidate forum April 9. (Dyana Bagby)

Ossoff’s strong polling as he rides of wave of anti-Trump fervor  has garnered national media attention and helped him fill a war chest with more than $8 million from all over the country. He received the loudest applause during the introductions.

On climate change, several Republicans acknowledged that it is real, despite Trump’s skepticism. The Republican candidates did, however, agree with Trump’s executive order slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and regulations with the intention of putting that authority in state’s control.

Amy Kremer, a founder of the Tea Party, said she was a “big gardener” and loved to be outside. But, she added, she is also a believer in the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and said environmental control should be local.

“This is not about your garden,” said Richard Keatley, a Democrat from Tucker, to thunderous applause. “I don’t understand how local control works to control climate change.”

All 18 candidates for the 6th Congressional District attended a candidate forum at Dunwoody High School on April 9. In this photo, Democrat Ragin Edwards is not pictured. Click to enlarge. (Photo Dyana Bagby)

Keatley and Ossoff noted that climate change is a national issue with data from scientists, the U.S. military and intelligence communities concluding the issue is one of national security. Ossoff said it was necessary the U.S. abide by the Paris Agreement set to begin in 2020.

“If we walk away from our commitments, history will condemn us,” he said.

Independent Alexander Hernandez drew a loud round of applause when he shared his story of his mother coming to the U.S. illegally in the 1980s before she became a citizen thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

She now owns a beauty shop and “became part of what makes America great,” he said, adding that Reagan’s policy could be a model used today to create a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants.

When the other Independent in the party, Andre Pollard, floated his idea to audible laughter in the crowd of integrating Mexico with the U.S. as a way to deal with immigration problems, Republican Karen Handel, former Secretary of State said, “I definitely don’t support that.”

Handel also said she does not support amnesty. “These individuals have come here and blatantly disregarded our laws,” she said. “I want our borders secure … after that, then we’ll have that conversation.”

Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek City Councilmember, said he was glad Trump raised the issue of immigration. He said the reason so many people want to illegally move to the U.S. is because of the “welfare benefits that are available.”

“We have to turn off the spigot that is attracting illegal immigrants,” he said.

Former state Senator Judson Hill also said he does not support amensty. “I know we are a compassionate nation, but we are also a nation of laws.”

People who moved to the U.S. should not get “special treatment,” he said. “We need to stand up for Americans and put America first,” he said, adding he wanted to make English the official language of the U.S. government.

To read more about the candidates, visit the Reporter Newspapers Voters Guide by clicking here.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.