Ficklin, Schlesinger look to settle Macon-Bibb commission race

pramati@macon.comJanuary 4, 2014 

Henry Ficklin and Larry Schlesinger hope the third time will be a charm in their bids to secure a seat on the Macon-Bibb County Commission.

After two previous elections and a lawsuit, the District 2 candidates are looking to the Jan. 14 special election to finally settle things.

Ficklin and Schlesinger are squaring off once more after a judge threw out the results of a previous runoff election. Early voting began Saturday, and a full week of advance voting begins Monday.

After Schlesinger took a plurality of the vote over Ficklin and candidate Paul Bronson during last September’s special election, he edged Ficklin by a mere 26 votes in the October runoff.

But Ficklin challenged the results because some voters received the wrong ballots, and a judge ultimately ordered a new election.

Both candidates were in the audience last week to watch the new Macon-Bibb County government be sworn in to office.

“I didn’t feel disappointed,” Schlesinger said. “Watching the new consolidated government -- which I supported from the beginning and my opponent didn’t -- I saw it as a new day in the life of Macon and Bibb County, and Middle Georgia, and not as a personal disappointment.”

Ficklin also said he didn’t feel left out during the historic moment.

“It wasn’t difficult (to watch) at all,” he said. “We had a flawed election.”

During the runoff, Schlesinger outraised Ficklin by a significant amount of money, collecting about $84,000. Ficklin raised just under $16,000. Schlesinger said he doesn’t know how much is currently left in his war chest, and the state doesn’t require candidates to release their financial records until six days before the election.

Schlesinger said he’s been busy raising money, which he hopes will help him get his message out to the voters.

“We’re going to be talking about the same issues as we were in September and October -- economic development, jobs, safe neighborhoods, quality education,” he said. “The message hasn’t changed.”

Ficklin also has been fundraising, acknowledging that any money difference could play a role in the upcoming vote.

“Money always has a big impact on an election,” he said.

Ficklin said he isn’t planning any major changes in strategy this time around and will maintain his grassroots approach to try to get voters to the polls.

“It’s the same strategy. I’m wearing out a good pair of shoes,” he said.

Voter turnout could be even more important than in previous elections, because people aren’t used to going to the polls in January. The recent spate of cold weather likely won’t help either.

“I’m certainly concerned about turnout,” Ficklin said. “It’s very cold right now. You can’t control the weather. I’m still going to be out there knocking on doors.”

Schlesinger, however, said he thinks voters who previously turned out will be motivated to do so again.

“It’s probably more frustrating for the residents in Macon-Bibb County to have the extra expense (of a new election),” said Schlesinger, referring to the $60,000 it will cost taxpayers to hold the Jan. 14 vote. “I’m sorry they have to go through it. ... There are those people who recognize the gravity (of the election) and will make the effort to return to the polls.”

Some District 2 voters have resigned themselves to voting for a third time to decide who will be their commissioner.

“I’ve voted the previous two times,” said Judy Walker, a District 2 resident. “I always vote. It’s my privilege. ... If they have to do it again, then they have to do it.”

Karen Johnson, another District 2 voter, said a third vote is “aggravating” but “necessary.”

“I voted, and I plan to again,” she said. “We need to get it together.”

During the runoff, things got heated between the candidates when Ficklin referred to an earlier ethics complaint against Schlesinger and fellow Councilman Charles Jones. The complaint alleged that Schlesinger and Jones conducted an illegal meeting to choose the council’s committees, but the two denied any wrongdoing.

Ficklin said Schlesinger might have received preferential treatment from Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens in the case because both Schlesinger and Olens are Jewish. Olens determined there was no violation of the state’s open meetings law by either Schlesinger, a rabbi, or Jones, a Baptist preacher.

“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 at the time. “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 said at the time he thinks Ficklin’s comment is “an absolutely outrageous statement that does have prejudicial overtones.”

Ficklin denied what he said was anti-Semitic. He said that because he was referring to Judaism as a faith and not as a race that it wasn’t anti-Semitic.

Since then, Ficklin said because of the furor made in the community about the statements, he thinks the media inflamed the situation to favor Schlesinger.

“I’m still lamenting that I was labeled as something I’m not,” said Ficklin, himself a Baptist pastor. “I’m leery. I know who the media supports.”

Replied Schlesinger: “I think he’s trying to backpedal from what was a rather offensive statement.”

Now that the new government has been sworn in, neither candidate said he is worried about getting passed over for specific commission committee assignments.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert said the commission will discuss what committees will be created during its Tuesday meeting.

While he said it’s possible a final decision could be made about the committees and who would serve on them, he doesn’t think it’s likely.

Reichert and President Pro Tem Bert Bivins still must pick a third member for the Committee of Committees, which decides which commissioners will serve on each committee. In addition, Reichert said, decisions about the structure of the committees -- such as how many commissioners will serve on a committee and when they will meet -- must still be made before assignments are made.

“We’re still seeking input about the committees and how they’re organized,” said Reichert, who has not endorsed a candidate in the runoff.

Ficklin wants voters at the polls to remember his 30 years on the Macon City Council.

“When you look at my record, I was innovative,” he said. “I was a problem solver. ... I’ll support the administration when I agree with them. I think the new government needs innovation and problem-solving.”

Schlesinger pointed to his long-term support of consolidation and his ability to work with others during his time on the council.

“I’m a uniter and not a divider,” he said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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