The Bibb County Democratic Party, already plagued by infighting and on its fifth chairman in 19 months, is resorting to a novel way of raising cash: charging candidates to participate in the public debates it hosts.
The party is sponsoring three debates for Macon-Bibb County commission candidates and one for mayoral candidates this month, all held at City Hall. A message from party executive committee member John Swint asks the 23 candidates for the nine new commission seats for $25 each, and the seven mayoral candidates for $50 each.
In previous partisan elections, the Democratic and Republican parties each got some of their candidates qualifying fees, Swint said Thursday.
We have lost that since weve gone nonpartisan, he said. Qualifying fees and members dues were about the only source of funds the party had, so they came up with the idea to charge candidates to debate to make up for some of the loss, Swint said. Its necessary if the party is to hold any major political events this year, he said.
Each of the three commission debates features candidates from three districts. The first (for Districts 1, 2, and 3) was Aug. 1, the second (Districts 4, 5 and 6) was held Thursday night, and the third is set for Aug. 14 (for candidates in Districts 7, 8 and 9), Swint said.
The charge isnt an attempt to be exclusive, he said.
Im a Democrat, but were striving really, really hard to be nonpartisan (in the debates), Swint said. We want the public to hear what everybody has to say.
Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel, a candidate for the new District 1 seat, heard about the participation fee when he received Swints invitation to the Aug. 1 debate.
I was a little taken aback by that, Bechtel said. I have never taken part in a forum of any kind, by any organization, where the candidate had to pay to be in it. As it was, they almost didnt seat me because I didnt bring a check, and I didnt have any cash on me.
He had planned to mail in the payment, but that wasnt allowed. Bechtel said he would have left if not for personal requests from Swint and moderator Homer Scarborough.
A friend who was there loaned me $25, and I paid him back afterward, Bechtel said.
Once the debate began, however, he found it a good opportunity to meet his opponent Harold Young and other candidates, and had eight to 10 minutes to discuss his platform.
Bechtel said he wasnt crazy about paying to be in the debate, but he understands the need for the Democratic Party to raise money. Democrats likely had real angst about charging, he said.
Swint said this is the first time the party has charged candidates to be in its debates, but that the call has generally been well-received. All the commission hopefuls except for Robert Abbott, District 6 candidate, and Scotty Shepherd, District 7 candidate, have told him theyre participating, Swint said. Abbott had a prior commitment, and Shepherd didnt give a reason, he said.
The mayoral debate isnt until Aug. 21, so Swint hasnt called those candidates yet, he said. The only one hes heard from so far is write-in candidate Anthony Harris, who sent an angry email, Swint said.
Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen, however, said the $50 charge for mayoral candidates is the last straw for him. Allen, who has previously run for office as a conservative Democrat, said hes on the outs with local party leadership for his voting record anyway. When he got Swints message, he threw it away in anger.
Im not paying any money. They didnt give me any money last time I ran against someone, Allen said. Im not going to their debate.
Now that the election is nonpartisan, hes going to run as just an American, he said.
If the Republican Party sent me an invitation of the same nature, I would say the same thing, Allen said.
Much of the Bibb County Democratic Partys turmoil has stemmed from the partys local executive committees disagreement with state legislators for approving a nonpartisan special election for the Macon-Bibb County government.
Since late 2011 the Bibb Democratic Party has been led by Daryl Morton, Danny Glover, Sarah Mincey Hunt, Fred Swann and Sandye Powell. In July the party unsuccessfully attempted to oust Steve Allen from one of the two Democrat-appointed seats on the Bibb County Board of Elections because he voted in favor of holding the nonpartisan elections in September. Many party officials, citing a higher potential turnout of black voters, wanted a November election date.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.