Macon-Bibb mayoral candidates likely to face runoff

pramati@macon.comApril 27, 2013 

  • Macon-Bibb County candidates

    Here’s a look at the candidates who qualified last week to run for offices in the Macon-Bibb County consolidated government in the July 16 nonpartisan election:

    • Mayor: Joe Allen, 63, retired firefighter and Bibb County Commission vice chairman; Charlie Bishop, 68, former Bibb County Commission chairman and retired Macon deputy police chief; David Cousino, 52, security manager; C. Jack Ellis, 67, consultant and former Macon mayor; Sam Hart, 71, educator and Bibb County Commission chairman; and Robert Reichert, 64, attorney and Macon mayor.

    • District 1: Gary Bechtel, 52, Bibb County commissioner and banker.

    • District 2: Paul Bronson, 27, Army officer and substitute teacher; Henry Ficklin, 63, retired educator and Macon city councilman; and Larry Schlesinger, 62, rabbi and city councilman.

    • District 3: Danny Glover, 25, advertising account executive; Elaine Lucas, 62, educator and city councilwoman; and Terry Tripp, 61, former Bibb County Board of Education member.

    • District 4: Mallory Jones III, 65, real estate agent; Beverly Olson, 62, small-business owner and city councilwoman; and Theron Ussery, 69, former city councilman and manager at AT&T.

    • District 5: Bert Bivins III, 71, Bibb County commissioner; Jon Carson, 64, landlord; and Louis “Frank” Tompkins, 70, city councilman.

    • District 6: Robert Abbott, 64, a retiree; Ed DeFore, 81, city councilman; and Adah Roberts, 62, certified public accountant.

    • District 7: Eric Arnold, 38, software developer; Barry Bell, 50, golf course manager; Celeste Queen, 59, homemaker; and Warren “Scotty” Shepherd, 63, retired law enforcement officer.

    • District 8: Regina Davis, 51, real estate broker; Charles Jones, 59, pastor and city councilman; and Virgil Watkins Jr., 28, precollege adviser and city councilman.

    • District 9: James Timley, 68, retired educator and Macon City Council president.

For the six candidates running for mayor of the new consolidated Macon-Bibb County government, finishing second in the July 16 primary could be as important as finishing first.

With such a crowded ballot, they agree it’s unlikely that anyone will emerge with a majority of votes to win the race outright, which would force an Aug. 13 runoff.

There are no unfamiliar faces in the half-dozen mayoral contenders: Mayor Robert Reichert, former Mayor C. Jack Ellis, County Commission Chairman Sam Hart, former Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop, Commissioner Joe Allen, and David Cousino, who has never held office but has made runs at mayor and chairman before.

Chris Lawrence, an assistant professor of political science at Middle Georgia State College, agrees that none of the six will get a majority of the votes in July.

“A candidate is going to have to hope to make the runoff and then pick up the support of the candidates who didn’t make it,” he said.

To some extent, that was the scenario in Macon’s 2011 mayoral race when Reichert and Ellis emerged as the top two candidates in a field that included the late state Sen. Robert Brown and newcomer Paul Bronson.

In an unusual move, more voters turned out for the runoff between Reichert and Ellis than they did in the primary, and the increased turnout played a key factor in Reichert’s narrow 537-vote victory.

That was a stark contrast to the 2007 election, in which Reichert won the Democratic primary outright despite facing several candidates in the race.

Because Bibb County’s races have been held at the same time as presidential elections, voter turnout always has been relatively high. When Bishop won the chairmanship in 2004’s countywide race, he pulled about 26,000 votes. Though he received about the same number of votes in the 2008 election, he lost to Hart, thanks in part to a high voter turnout in support of Barack Obama in his first presidential bid.

“The turnout was a lot greater (in 2008), and everybody voted a straight (party) ticket,” said Bishop, who ran as a Republican.

Allen, now the commission’s vice chairman, ran for the chairmanship in 2000, losing to Tommy Olmstead, before being elected once again to his District 2 seat in 2004. He has served on the commission ever since.

And Cousino, a candidate who has not gained much traction in his two bids to be mayor and a single run for the county chairman’s seat, received just a tiny fraction of the vote each time his name has appeared on the ballot. But he touts his outsider status as an advantage, not a disadvantage, because he thinks people want a change in leadership.

“A split field gives me a lot better chance,” he said. “(The other candidates) will all fight amongst themselves. Why do we want to put the same guys in office?”

As it stands, the campaigns for positions in the new, consolidated Macon-Bibb County government will be over in about three and a half months, because the races are nonpartisan and are expected to end with a mid-August runoff.

But they could be protracted -- deep into the fall.

Local officials are waiting on the Department of Justice to give the “preclearance,” or permission, necessary to hold nonpartisan elections this summer. Should the Justice Department fail to give its approval by June 2, all the candidates would have to re-qualify for an August primary to see who would be on the ballot in a Nov. 5 election.

The Bibb County Democratic Party has asked the Justice Department to overturn nonpartisan elections, based on the contention that nonpartisan elections disenfranchise black voters. A letter to the department cited the federal Voting Rights Act and pointed out that Bibb County voters chose a consolidation plan with partisan elections. Since the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a case that challenges the mandate for Justice Department preclearance, however, it could make the department’s decision involving Bibb County moot.

The six mayoral candidates said they don’t favor partisan races, because they would require candidates to raise more money to win both a primary and a general election and because of the extra cost to taxpayers to cover the cost of a primary.

Race and base

Lawrence said the key to success will be which candidates can best motivate their bases to actually get to the polls and vote.

The percentage of black voters who show up might be the key. Since Bibb County’s population is majority black and because most blacks who register in the county are Democrats, their turnout for a July vote will play a major role in the outcome.

Because candidates -- as it stands now -- won’t be identified as Democrats or Republicans on the ballots, they will be unlikely to secure as many votes as they would in a partisan race.

“There’s not likely to be mobilization by the parties, so candidates aren’t going to get the benefit of the parties behind them,” Lawrence said. “With a lot of well-known candidates, it’s going to come down to mobilization. With Jack Ellis or Robert Reichert or anyone else on the ballots people know, there’s nobody too obscure, even without the party apparatus. They’ll have to try to get the people to come out.”

All the mayoral candidates stressed that they’re seeking support in both the black and white communities, but they also acknowledged that picking up votes in areas where they previously haven’t seen strong support is going to get more difficult this time around.

“I’m concerned with all of the community, but you get elected by a core group of people,” Ellis said. “We’re working hard already. We understand where our votes are and know where we need to get them.”

Hart said he hopes he can draw from all sectors of the community.

“What I hope to try to do is reach across the communities and make my appeal,” he said. “The diversity of the community -- in order to govern, you’re going to need that. ... We’re doing an analysis to see where I’d be weak and see what that section of the community needs.”

Because nearly 40,000 of the county’s 90,573 registered voters live in unincorporated Bibb, most of them have never voted in Macon city elections and never saw Reichert or Ellis on their ballots.

Reichert pointed out that some unincorporated Bibb voters are familiar with him because they were his constituents when he was in the state Legislature.

Allen acknowledged that running a countywide race is much more challenging than working in the confines of a district, but that it comes down to name recognition.

“Countywide races don’t bother me,” he said. “I think my name is a household name. If you don’t know Joe Allen as a commissioner, you’ll know Kids Yule Love,” referring to the charity he founded.

Getting their names in the minds of voters likely will come down to which candidate can raise the most money and spend it effectively. Ellis acknowledged that Reichert had a far larger war chest in 2011, but he said the way he targeted his own money managed to keep the race tight.

Reichert predicts fundraising will play a large factor in deciding the race.

“We’ll reach out through multiple mediums,” he said. “We plan to do it all. We’re taking this race very seriously. We’re going to spend the time, the effort, the energy and the money we need to win.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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