Experts: Warner Robins mayoral race hard to call

chwright@macon.comNovember 2, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- After nearly a year of announcements and months of campaigning, Election Day finally arrives Tuesday. But with six mayoral candidates, it’s hard to say who will come out on top.

Two political science professors agree the race is likely headed to a runoff, and for now, the candidates’ biggest challenge will be gaining votes from a unique constituency because many of their backgrounds overlap in one way or another.

“It comes down to, you’re going to have to reach out to some people who you don’t know,” said Chris Grant, a Mercer University associate professor of political science.

Former Councilman Mike Brashear, Robins Air Force Base employee Chuck Chalk, retired educator Eva Folse, Councilman Daron Lee, retired Public Works Director Joe Musselwhite and retired firefighter Randy Toms will appear on the ballot. The Telegraph described the background of each to Melissa Marschall, a Rice University associate professor of political science who studies municipal elections across the nation.

“It’s really refreshing to see a list of candidates that all seem highly qualified,” Marschall said. “You hardly ever see that anymore.”

Grant and Marschall said six candidates in a city of 65,000 likely means the candidates are pulling from some of the same voter bases.

“It’s friends and neighbors who vote for you,” Grant said, referencing decades-old research. “It sounds like there are some friends and neighbors who have some tough decisions to make.”

Split decision

Most of the candidates’ backgrounds -- and attached constituencies -- overlap in some way, risking a major splitting of votes.

Toms runs the risk of splitting the most voter bases. He and Musselwhite could divide votes from city workers. Toms attends Southside Baptist Church with Brashear and Musselwhite, which may cause some indecision among the church’s 3,000 members. Even Toms’ major base of public safety workers may not be rock solid, as firefighters and police officers backed Chalk in his first bid for mayor four years ago. Toms is also a born and raised Warner Robins native, same as Musselwhite.

Brashear faces a few voter base divisions. He shares council experience with Lee. Lee has served nearly four years, and Brashear served two. In an Air Force community, Brashear also shares aerospace backgrounds with Chalk. The difference is that Chalk is a civilian employee at Robins, and Brashear spent most of his 47 years on the corporate side of the defense sector.

Musselwhite shares community ties with Lee and Toms, and city employment background with Toms. He also shares the long-standing family ties to the young city with Lee. Musselwhite’s parents worked in Houston County education. His father was also a coach.

Chalk and Lee appear to divvy up the fewest voter bases.

With Toms, a former firefighter and courthouse bailiff, in the race this year, it’s unlikely Chalk will garner as much of the public safety vote as in 2009. His biggest competitor in a particular voter base is Brashear, with the aerospace-minded voters.

For those looking for city government experience, Lee may face some competition from Brashear. And his family name -- as the grandchild of community civil right activist Ada Lee -- is just as well known as Musselwhite. It could be argued he could split the vote with Toms on those seeking a spiritual leader. Toms is a chaplain for the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs, and Lee runs his own church.

Folse has little to no crossover with the other candidates. She is the only woman, the only expressed animal lover and the only former grade school educator.

Unique voters

Grant and Marschall said the race could come down to who finds the greatest untapped voter base and successfully gets them to the polls.

“It makes the campaigning process a little bit more tricky,” Marschall said, pointing to a former Houston, Texas, mayoral candidate who was the underdog -- until he reached into a couple communities his opponents had neglected. Bill White won the 2003 race and served until 2010.

Lee may draw much of the black vote because of his family’s long ties to the black community. Musselwhite appeals to the senior population. Toms may pull from both the Houston County Courthouse, where he is a bailiff and his brother-in-law is a judge, and Warner Robins American Little League, which he helps year-round.

And Chalk has made the biggest push toward the young voters. Though most of the candidates have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, Chalk is also on Instagram -- which is popular among youth. He has a website that frequently updates with videos and blog entries.

Marschall said going for the youth vote has been a popular strategy since young people successfully helped elect President Barack Obama in 2008. But Grant said the base has its challenges.

“Youth voters have to be motivated, and they have to hear a message that’s important to them,” Grant said. “You got to make them feel it’s worth their time to go and vote.”

Not surprisingly, Grant and Marschall said it’s imperative the candidates ensure their names are synonymous with the race. That’s likely not a problem, as the candidates’ signs, billboards and media appearances have blanketed the city since early September.

Some of their names are recognizable for other reasons. Most of the candidates lack a squeaky clean record in the public eye.

The city recently fined Folse $3,000 for violations related to having too many cats at one of her homes. Musselwhite headed the Public Works department when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division says it illegally dredged Bay Gall Creek, costing the city a $50,000 fine.

Brashear has been in the news for butting heads with Mayor Chuck Shaheen this year. Early in his term, Lee had a blow-up with a former councilman that made national news, and questions have arisen about his brother already working as the city’s Redevelopment Agency executive director -- though the city attorney says there’s no conflict.

Chalk’s campaign posted a blog entry last month that detailed his busy schedule, with a list of his opponents’ current jobs. Only the word “retired” was entered next to all but Lee, who earned a short job description. Some voters told Chalk on the post and social media it was an affront to retired residents.

Grant said the candidates’ colorful actions could cost votes from those who find them “distasteful” but may not severely impact the race.

“Voters are amazingly forgiving when it comes to someone they know and like,” Grant said. “All-in-all, being liked and trusted is the most important issue in local elections.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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