WARNER ROBINS — Mayor Donald Walker says he has a way to save city taxpayers millions of dollars as it builds a new police department.
The city already has $5 million in sales tax revenue earmarked for the project. But Walker knows the complex is going to cost more, maybe $10 million. And he says he can get the money without going to city taxpayers.
But you’d better vote for him, he said, if you want to know how.
You see, Walker’s grandmother made the best pudding in the family. And when she made it, no one was allowed in the kitchen to watch. Walker developed this approach into a political strategy, one he calls the “banana pudding theory.”
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“When she died, the banana pudding died,” Walker said last week. “Well, I’m gonna take it with me” if I don’t win.
“I’m not gonna tell anybody that,” he said. “That’s why I’m mayor.”
MAYORAL CANDIDATES BEGIN TO EMERGE
Walker has had a vise grip on the mayor’s office since he was first elected in a 1994 special election.
He rocketed to popularity, saving the city from near bankruptcy and moving it past a major scandal that landed previous Mayor Ed Martin in prison.
In 1997, he won re-election with more than 85 percent of the vote. Then in 2001, state Rep. Pam Bohannon, with whom Walker already had a tense relationship, dared to challenge him.
Walker took 64 percent of the vote, and that election essentially marked the end of Bohannon’s political career.
In 2005, no one ran against him.
Walker’s brother is longtime Houston County Commissioner Jay Walker. Their father was the city’s mayor from 1968 to 1972. The city municipal complex, where Walker works in the corner office, is named after his father: Homer J. Walker.
And yet there are some observers who sense a change in the political atmosphere, a turn in the road as Warner Robins transitions from a small-town-turned-fast-growing-city to a population center reaching for a higher profile.
There are some who think this place, where a steady stream of new arrivals attached to Robins Air Force Base mixes with people who remember Watson Boulevard when it was a dirt road, is ready for a new chapter. That Walker himself has helped grow the city past his usefulness.
Enter Chuck Shaheen, a political neophyte who has good name recognition in the city. Shaheen works in pharmaceutical sales, and for years his parents ran Shaheen Office Supplies. He said his father started the Junior ROTC program at Warner Robins High School, and he himself is chaplain for the football team.
“The city of Warner Robins raised me,” said Shaheen, 48. “I’ve been whipped by every principal, I’ve been fed by every mother in town. I love the city of Warner Robins.”
Shaheen’s manicured, wavy black hair shows just a bit of gray at the temples and bangs. His campaign slogan came from a local businessman: “Old enough to know what to do, and young enough to go do it.”
Said Andy Thomas, an active local Republican unhappy with Walker’s administration: “We need a mayor that is going to put aside personal agendas for what’s better for the citizens of Warner Robins and Houston County. In my opinion, right now ... it would be Chuck Shaheen.”
But Shaheen’s lack of experience is a major strike against him, City Councilman Clifford Holmes said.
Holmes is “leaning toward” his own run for mayor, he said last week. He served as the city’s interim mayor for about two months last year while Walker was on leave seeking medical treatment for an injured foot.
Holmes and other council members pushed the mayor into taking that break, saying the pain in his foot kept him away from city business too often.
Like Shaheen, Holmes is careful not to criticize the mayor too openly. He said the city is going in “a good direction.” Asked what he thinks of Walker, Holmes simply said, “If I run, then that means that I don’t think he needs to continue.”
“We can stay in a place so long as we think it’s ours,” Holmes said. “It belongs to the citizens. City Hall belongs to the citizens.”
EXPERIENCE VS. NEW BLOOD?
Whether anyone stands a chance of taking down Walker remains to be seen. Incumbency comes with a lot of friends, a few enemies and, often, the benefit of support from the silent majority.
“I’ve heard people say that they think it’s time Donald Walker stepped down,” said LaVerne Norris, who served five years on the City Council in the early 1990s. “Then I’ve heard others say as long as he lives, he’ll still be elected.”
At 60, the decades of heavy smoking and the long hours in the mayor’s office have taken their toll on Walker. Some of the fire seems gone from his eyes, and there’s a wheeze to his voice as he fidgets in his chair.
But he’s cut back on cigarettes, he said, taking prescription medicine to compensate for the nicotine. He monitors his blood pressure with a machine he keeps in the office. And a sure way to put the old strength back in his voice is to suggest that his time might be passing.
“Shoot,” he said last week, pausing and smiling and looking just a little bit angry.
“I’m not tired,” he said. “I’m not worn out.”
But that, he knows, “is what my opponent’s going to say.” And if the strategy works on Election Day, Walker said he’ll be “seriously worried.”
G-RAMP, a multimillion-dollar project to build new hangars for maintenance work next to the base, is coming to a crucial phase as the city and its partners apply for federal grants to fund construction. Walker says he’s going to get $40 million for the project, but he adds “if I’m not here, that’s somebody else’s problem.”
It’s the banana pudding theory again: Vote for him, or he takes his plans with him.
Walker’s time in office can be summarized simply: growth. The city has doubled in size since he took office, annexing more than 17 square miles into the city limits. There are more than 60,000 people living here now, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
That has helped Walker and the council to repeatedly lower the city’s millage rate. He can still rattle off details of every budget’s he’s worked on, but the bottom line is that the millage rate has dropped from 14 mills in 1994 to about 9.2 mills today.
He calls this orderly growth and efficient government. His critics see the city’s jigsaw-puzzle map and the traffic backed up on major thoroughfares as signs of unchecked, unplanned growth. They see Walker as a micromanaging remnant of the city’s good-ol’-boy era.
But Walker’s influence is so great that many people are unwilling to criticize the mayor publicly. Fair or not, they fear retaliation, either from him or his supporters.
Last week, outside of grocery stores on Watson Boulevard and Russell Parkway, there were plenty of people who said they thought Walker has done a good job and deserves another term.
“I think he’s probably one of the best mayors we’ve ever had,” one woman said.
Others said it’s time for new leadership. And, in a sign of Warner Robins’ constant population churn, more than a half-dozen folks said they were too new to the city to know what to think.
“He’s had his time,” another woman said. “I’m hoping the good ol’ boy network will let him go.”
“I’ll vote for (Shaheen) if I have to,” she said. “But he’s a salesman.”
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.