Last-minute campaigning, controversy mark Macon-Bibb commission runoffs

Telegraph staffOctober 12, 2013 

Last-minute campaigning, controversy mark commission runoffs

When the polls open Tuesday morning, Macon-Bibb County voters will have to pick nearly half the county commissioners.

Each runoff race for district seats includes sitting politicians, and two of the races feature only Macon City Council members. Many of them have dipped into their own pockets to help their chances of winning Tuesday, and candidates say they’ve been busy knocking on doors to garner enough support to put them over the top.

District 2

Henry C. Ficklin and Larry Schlesinger, both members of Macon City Council, hope to represent a district that sweeps along Riverside Drive and Broadway. The race is less than amicable.

Ficklin said Schlesinger got out of a years-old complaint about alleged meeting violations only because state Attorney General Sam Olens shares Schlesinger’s faith, Judaism. Schlesinger is a rabbi and City Council member Charles Jones, who faced similar allegations about the open meetings violations, is a pastor.

“I believe if I shared the faith with a priest of my faith, that I’d be hard-pressed to take any kind of reprisals against them and would find some language that would excuse them,” Ficklin said. “I do believe that, yes. ... The fact is, he broke the law. Nothing was done. He was given then an opportunity to conform to the guidelines that the law provides. He refused.”

Schlesinger, asked if he regarded Ficklin’s claims as anti-Semitic, paused for a long time.

“I think it’s an absolutely outrageous statement that does have prejudicial overtones,” he said.

Ficklin said his statements are about the Jewish faith, not about Jewish ethnicity, and therefore are not anti-Semitic.

Schlesinger is distributing copies of an email he says comes from Olens, which states that Schlesinger is not under any investigation.

Olens’ office confirmed Friday that an investigation of Schlesinger and Jones found no violation. The Telegraph also asked Counsel to the Attorney General, Daryl Robinson, for a response to Ficklin’s comments.

“The office will not dignify the offensive religious bigotry underlying the second question with a substantive response,” Robinson wrote in an email.

But the two candidates are separated by more than the ethics claims. Ficklin says Schlesinger’s supporters actively encouraged a September candidate, Paul Bronson, to stay in the race to siphon off votes from Ficklin. Bronson has endorsed Schlesinger since his September loss.

A gulf of money also separates the two runoff candidates. In September, Schlesinger reported that he’d raised more than $65,000 for the elections. A more recent report due by midnight Friday hadn’t been filed by the newspaper’s deadline. Ficklin’s campaign reported raising $15,892, just a quarter of Schlesinger’s fundraising in a longer period of time, through last week. That includes a $1,000 loan Ficklin made to his campaign.

Both candidates say they’ve been knocking on doors as they visit neighborhoods to solicit support. Neither candidate said he knew how Tuesday’s election would go.

“I think it’s again going to be a close election,” Schlesinger said. “I’d like to think that as the frontrunner I’ll stay that way, but it just depends on voter turnout.”

Ficklin said, “I don’t know what may happen, but I know what I want to happen.”

In September, Schlesinger received 1,234 votes, Ficklin got 1,149 votes and Bronson drew 530 votes.

District 4

Mallory Jones and Beverly Olson both appear likely to be funding parts of their election campaign for District 4, which stretches along Interstate 475 and Forsyth Road in north Macon.

Jones, a former county commission candidate, and Olson, a sitting Macon City council member, both say they’ve been walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors. They also attended some forums.

“We’ve had umpteen forums, perhaps 13 or 14 or 15 or 16,” said Jones, a real estate agent.

“I’ve been going to, I believe, 16 public forums, in total,” Olson said.

But their campaigning is largely the same kind they’ve been doing for months. In unofficial tallies in September, Jones drew 2,199 votes, Olson got 1,440 and Theron Ussery came in third with 1,024.

Olson says she has the support of Ussery, as well as the support of former Bibb County Commissioner Elmo Richardson.

According to campaign finance records filed last week, Jones reported raising $26,360. After loaning his campaign $2,000, Jones had $83.93 left.

Olson is stretching further. She reported raising about half as much as Jones, at $13,276.85. But she’d spent more than that, leaving her campaign $3,264.44 in the red.

District 6

Longtime City Councilman Ed DeFore took a sizable lead in the Sept. 17 election, getting 2,017 votes to second-place finisher Adah Roberts’ 1,063; but the third finisher, Robert Abbott, garnered 1,001. A fourth candidate, Chhor Chav, drew 242 votes.

DeFore said he was out campaigning Friday morning and would go back out in the afternoon to Lizella and the sub-south area.

“It is really fun, but you know, I always run scared. I ain’t taking nothing for granted,” he said.

Roberts, a former city finance director, said she knows there’s a considerable gap to make up, but she jumped immediately into mobilizing supporters old and new.

“Our first thing was to get more volunteers,” sought from all areas of the district, she said.

The first big effort was a wave of phone calls, but those reached only about half the intended households, Roberts said. So she turned to a ground effort, sending volunteers door to door.

“It’s amazing how many people we’ve reached who don’t realize they have to go back out and vote again -- or that I was running,” Roberts said. “I have stepped it up, and the thing that we’re emphasizing to people is please get back out and vote.”

Roberts said one thing she often hears is that residents are anxious to see someone new in office.

DeFore has been on council for nearly 42 years. Including stints on the school board and Macon Water Authority board, he’s enjoyed 66 years in local office, he said. DeFore has said the new commission’s three-year first term will be his last.

DeFore said he’s got about $400 left to spend from a few recent donations, but he has always run low-cost campaigns. He said he’s relying on union support and longtime backers without setting up an official campaign office.

His campaign style and themes haven’t changed since the Sept. 17 election, he said.

DeFore said he reached out to Abbott, but heard that Abbott had said it was “too early” to endorse a former rival. In late September, Abbott complained of voting problems and asked for a recount.

Roberts said she spoke to Abbott right after the Sept. 17 race and was told he wouldn’t support either her or DeFore. As of Friday she hadn’t yet called Chav, but intended to, she said.

Many new contributions, though not necessarily large ones, have come in since the Sept. 17 election, Roberts said.

“Without it there’s no way I could do the advertising I’m doing now,” she said.

District 8

The top two finishers in the District 8 race, incumbent Councilmen Charles Jones and Virgil Watkins, were close enough that the 597 people who supported third-place candidate Regina Davis could make a big difference in Tuesday’s runoff election. In September, Watkins was first with 1,149 votes, with Jones close behind with 1,075.

Soon after the Sept. 17 balloting ended, Jones called Davis.

“She endorsed me,” he said. Even if she hadn’t, though, he owed it to himself to find out her concerns, as he would any of his constituents, Jones said.

“Going into this new government, we’re going have to be reachable,” he said.

The last days of the race Jones is spending making calls, seeking media attention and diligently knocking on doors. But he’s also had to turn to unfamiliar campaign methods such as Facebook.

“It reaches a lot more people,” he said.

For his part, Watkins said a flow of new donations is fueling a wave of radio and TV ads.

“We’ve been trying to reach out and engage with the voters,” he said. That’s not just advertising but door-to-door work throughout the district: along Pio Nono and Montpelier avenues as well as downtown, Watkins said.

It’s vital to let all registered voters know they can cast ballots Oct. 15, whether or not they voted in the Sept. 17 election, he said. Getting a good turnout throughout the district will be the key to victory, Watkins said.

“I don’t want to see precincts getting 9, 10 percent turnout,” he said.

Jones said he hasn’t frequently asked for money before, but in the last two weeks several people “have really come up to bat to help.”

“But I’ll tell you what, I’ll be broke,” he said. Jones has spent “every dime” in his campaign fund on last-minute publicity, he said.

Jones’ theme in the runoff is his promise to work hard -- he’s got no other obligations that would keep him from attending all required meetings, something essential in the new government, he said.

“This is a part-time job with a full-time obligation,” Jones said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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