OEDEL: Election dissection

October 16, 2013 

Local voters seem to have picked carefully from among many good people who ran to help lead our new consolidated government. What emerges today is a balanced, civil and competent group to shoulder a start-up job that also includes complying with the tough legal requirement to downsize 20 percent.

Both fresh and familiar faces were elected in the two rounds. The roster features a roughly racially representative blend, and a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

At the ticket’s top, present second-term mayor Robert Reichert trounced former Mayor Jack Ellis. Ellis gained little traction protesting Erick Erickson’s op-ed about Ellis scaring white voters, but Ellis later advanced a number of positive ideas for combating poverty. Yet his base remained relatively restrained: Ellis-leaning districts turned out more lightly than in the mayoral run-off of 2011. The feeling on the ground seemed to be that Ellis’ anti-poverty agenda was tardy. That highlighted Ellis’ apparent remoteness from recent local politics.

Reichert won despite generating less personalized enthusiasm than Ellis. Still, Reichert was viewed as hard-working, intelligent, locally committed and knowledgeable. Those qualities outweighed his perceived weakness of occasionally displaying ham-fisted dogmatism when, in nuanced circumstances, finesse might have served better. Cases in point: Forest Hill Road and the Interstate 75/Interstate 16 interchange, which even MATS and GDOT, respectively, have lost enthusiasm for because of overblown scale and public resistance. Another example: Promise Neighborhood Center. Reichert pounded the podium for it even after the center’s lease was exposed as outrageous.

Nonetheless, despite some occasional tone deafness, Reichert seems well-suited to the nuts-and-bolts job of leading the construction of this government.

Compared with the rather predictable mayoral race, the commission races were more intriguing.

Promising newcomer Mallory Jones upended sitting councilor Beverly Olson in part because Jones paid such close attention to local government. People also know that, as a Realtor, he has a legitimate stake in raising property values community-wide. That race paralleled September’s first round victory for newcomer Al Tillman over City Council President James Timley. Tillman modeled his own campaign message of “civility, integrity and unity.” Both Jones and Tillman out-hustled their opponents. They’ll be fun to watch.

Longstanding councilors Ed DeFore and Elaine Lucas together re-proved the old political adage that listening to your constituents and working hard for them will build strong loyalties, producing votes when it counts. Both had credible opponents, but had too much in the political bank to be beaten. Adah Roberts, who lost to DeFore, needs to run for something again. She’s impressive.

In a battle of two sitting councilors, Larry Schlesinger edged Henry Ficklin, showing that not everything in Macon politics turns on race. District 2 is predominantly African-American, but Schlesinger still managed to win with an endorsement from third-place finisher Paul Bronson and a bizarre boost from Ficklin himself, who ignited voter ire by lately leveling a bigoted charge of Jewish cronyism against Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and Schlesinger.

In District 8’s test of two well-liked sitting councilors, Virgil Watkins Jr. slipped past Charles Jones, just as Watkins had in the September round. One interesting late-breaking distinction in that race was that Jones recently voted for the spay-neuter ordinance, while Watkins voted against it. District 8 voters may not have welcomed that particular form of additional regulation.

Two well-respected sitting commissioners who swept to victory in the first round were Gary Bechtel and Bert Bivins. Both have had long and distinguished stints of local public service.

While W.L. “Scotty” Shepherd’s experience is primarily in law enforcement, he also previously ran county-wide for sheriff. That hard-earned political baptism helped Shepherd in the first round to snag a majority in his home District 7.

Despite prior grumbling in the community about staleness in the candidate pool, this final roster of duly elected leaders is about as well constituted as one might imagine to pursue Macon-Bibb’s historic consolidation, which is perhaps the best thing to happen for Macon since May 17, 1954 -- the day the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, signaled the end to legal segregation. Good luck to one and all.

David Oedel teaches law at Mercer University.

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