OEDEL: Mayoral handicapping

December 30, 2012 

Just when you thought you’d had enough of politics for a while, the maneuvering is under way in anticipation of the 2013 elections. Who’ll be mayor of consolidated Macon/Bibb County?

Even if Bibb ends up with a nonpartisan primary, the mayor-elect will probably be a Democrat, so popular Republicans such as state Rep. Allen Peake aren’t even in the mix. About 60 percent of Bibb voters chose President Barack Obama. Untested Democratic candidates for district attorney and court clerk won with about 55 percent. Those are fair measures of the county’s baseline leanings. Assuming turnout is down next year, Democrats still have some cushion, though a centrist candidate with some crossover potential would be strongest of all.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and Bibb Commission Chairman Sam Hart have similar substantive profiles.

Voters seem genuinely to appreciate that both of them have gotten along well together for the past four years despite the structural awkwardness of the city/county divide. Hart and Reichert have modeled a coolness on the racial front that Macon desperately needed after the tension between former Mayor Jack Ellis and former Bibb Chair Charlie Bishop. By the same token, though, both Hart and Reichert have failed to strike out in distinctive directions on big issues such as transportation, public safety and governmental waste.

So, despite being able to take credit with Peake for bringing us to the promised land of consolidation, it seems possible that neither Hart nor Reichert will quite get there as the consolidated leader, though Reichert has the better chance. With black voters having voted firmly against consolidation, challengers such as Ellis, who opposed consolidation, will cut into Hart’s base more than Reichert’s.

Although Ellis can be a spoiler to someone such as Hart, it’s hard to imagine Ellis winning many votes outside the city limits, and he already demonstrated that he couldn’t quite beat Reichert even within the city. Another potential candidate who stood against consolidation is Bibb Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, but consolidation did win, after all, and Edwards’ prickly demeanor and eclectic positions have not won him broad support. He isn’t suddenly going to develop Ellis’ canny ability to speak up for voiceless African-Americans.

That leaves a number of fresher potential candidates, including state Rep. Nikki Randall, defeated state Sen. Miriam Paris, former NAACP President Al Tillman, and new state Rep. James Beverly. Each would face daunting hurdles.

From a family like local political royalty, Randall has pockets of strength in the black community but nagging resistance there, too. And though her respect in the white community was enhanced when she carried water for consolidation, her crossover potential is weaker than Paris’. Paris, meanwhile, hurt herself badly in the black community with her misguided campaign in the August runoff against Sen. David Lucas. Both will likely struggle to get many votes in a crowded field.

That leaves Tillman and Beverly. Tillman has some appeal, but no electoral track record. In contrast, Beverly decisively won David Lucas’ old state House seat and is already a political player.

But Beverly has liabilities, too. He’s still new by Macon standards, not backed by big money or political lineage. As a struggling small-businessman/optometrist with a recent divorce and three kids in Bibb public schools, you could say he’s just your ordinary guy with a lot on his plate personally. But after you meet him, you have to conclude that he’s got some special qualities Macon hasn’t seen before. For instance, Beverly went back to school in middle age to get a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

No other Macon politician, ever, has done anything like that. That tells you something about Beverly’s ambition, intelligence and sophistication.

And Beverly also doesn’t come across as overly self-impressed. He seems ready to listen to a meaningful spectrum of key voices in the community.

My early guess is that Reichert and Beverly will emerge as prime contenders.

David Oedel has served as legal counsel to Democratic and Republican officials and teaches law at Mercer University.

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