Macon Mayor Robert Reichert nearly managed to win the race to become the mayor of the new consolidated government Tuesday, but he fell a few hundred votes short of getting the total he needed to claim the race outright.
Instead, he’ll face former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis in an Oct. 15 runoff. Ellis managed to stay alive in the race thanks to a late surge when absentee and advance ballots were counted after the precincts closed.
Reichert beat Ellis by about 500 votes for the mayor’s race in 2011, but he has a much bigger margin of support going into the Oct. 15 runoff.
Reichert finished with 17,810 votes, ahead of Ellis’ 10,838. Bibb County Chairman Sam Hart finished third with 4,101 votes, while former Chairman Charlie Bishop took in 2,452 votes. Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen earned 613 votes, and businessman David Cousino managed just 107.
Bibb County Elections Supervisor Jeanetta Watson said an unknown number of provisional ballots still need to be tallied Wednesday.
A total of nearly 36,000 people -- about 39 percent of the county’s 93,000 registered voters -- turned up to cast ballots to select those who would serve in the city and county’s first consolidated government.
Reichert, 65, a Macon native and attorney, was elected mayor in 2007 by a wide margin. In 2011, he narrowly won a second term in a runoff with Ellis, winning by just over 500 votes.
Reichert has long been an advocate of consolidation, frequently calling for collaboration between governments throughout Middle Georgia. A former state representative, Reichert inherited a city in deep financial trouble, which only worsened during the nationwide recession. Though some of his economizing moves weren’t popular, the city’s credit and cash reserves rebounded dramatically. Reichert has pushed several initiatives to clean up blighted housing, but he fell short of his stated goal of tearing down 100 abandoned houses each year.
In the 2013 mayor’s race, Reichert raised more money than all the other candidates combined -- more than a quarter of a million dollars, according to the finance report filed two weeks before the election.
It was a long night at the Armory Ballroom for Reichert supporters, but enthusiasm built steadily. Their low point was the earliest result, which showed Ellis slightly ahead. Reichert took the stage soon after 8 p.m. to address more than 100 people.
“Regardless of what happens later tonight, Dele and I want you to know how much we appreciate how much you have done for us and this community already,” he said.
A cheer went up at 9:30 p.m. when Reichert pulled ahead for the first time, and a louder one at 10:30 p.m. when, with 30 of 40 precincts reporting, his lead jumped above 50 percent of the total vote -- enough, if the trend held, to avoid a runoff with Ellis.
“It looks like we’re doing well in the precincts that have the higher numbers,” Reichert said. “We’re doing poorly in the precincts that have the lower numbers; so I’d much rather that be the case than the other way around.”
He acknowledged that a runoff was a strong possibility.
“With seven candidates in the race, you know you’re going to be slicing the pie a lot of different ways,” Reichert said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how this is going to pan out.”
Ellis served as Macon’s first black mayor from 1999-2007 during a tenure sometimes marked by controversy, including the city’s fund balance at a $12 million surplus when he took over then plunging to $4 million in the red during his time in office.
While awaiting results Tuesday night, Ellis said his campaign plan was pretty straightforward: to push hard in districts from which he has had traditionally strong support, to try to go after votes in districts that were in play, and to not concentrate too many resources in districts which he felt were strongholds for his opponents.
“There were areas we have to win, areas that we would like to win and areas we know where we’re not going to win,” he said.
Given that he didn’t have a comparable war chest to Reichert, Ellis said he was proud of the hard work his volunteers turned in on his behalf.
“I feel good about the effort we put forth,” he said. “All those volunteers worked extra hard for a T-shirt and a sack lunch.”
Ellis said he wanted to see a higher voter turnout.
“It’s very disappointing, given the importance of this election,” said Ellis, who hoped for at least a 50 percent turnout. “I don’t know what more my campaign could’ve done.”
Hart, 71, spent a decade on the commission starting in 1996, then took a two-year hiatus, when he moved to a different district. In 2008, he ran for and won the chairman’s seat, to which he was re-elected easily in 2012. Hart endorsed consolidation and chose “Think Community” as his theme for the current race. A 45-year resident of Macon, he worked at Mercer University for 32 years, retiring as associate dean of students and director of special programs.
“Certainly, I hoped I would at least get into a runoff,” he said. “I told (Reichert) that if it wasn’t me, I at least hoped it was him. I’d rather it have been Sam Hart, but I’m very happy it’s Robert Reichert.”
Hart raised just over $50,000 for the 2013 race, slightly less than Ellis, according to his latest campaign finance report.
Hart and Reichert agree on most issues, but Hart said he’s more of a consensus builder than Reichert, used to working as part of a commission similar to the new government’s structure.
Hart said he still has responsibilities as chairman through the end of the year.
“What I will do, I’ve got some responsibilities through December, I will fulfill those responsibilities, and then I’ll hang my hat up,” he said.
Bishop, a former deputy Macon police chief, was elected to the County Commission in 2000 and later won the commission chairmanship in 2004. He later lost his re-election bid to Hart in 2008. Since leaving office, Bishop has been heavily involved with the Police and Fire Pension Board, often serving as a sharp critic of Reichert, whom he accused of underfunding the pension fund.
Bishop said Reichert’s huge campaign war chest, plus Ellis’ strong support in the black community, was too much for the rest of the field to overcome. Bishop said Reichert drew a lot of support based on voters’ “fear factor,” believing Reichert stood the best chance to defeat Ellis.
“It was a good, successful campaign on both of their part,” Bishop said. “It’s kind of disheartening. I did the best I could with the funds I had.”
Bishop said he wouldn’t endorse anyone in the runoff. He said he doesn’t expect this to be his last hurrah in politics.
“There are still some possibilities for me,” he said.
Cousino lost three previous times in general elections -- twice as mayor and once as Bibb chairman. Cousino first ran as a Republican candidate in the 2007 mayoral race, in which Reichert crushed him. He later lost the Republican primary for the chairmanship to Bishop in 2008 before losing to Reichert again in 2011 while running as a write-in candidate.
Cousino, a home security installer who has never gained more than 459 votes any time he has run, was known for having some out-of-the-box ideas, including giving the Ocmulgee National Monument back to the Creek Indians so that they might open a casino in Macon. He was unavailable for comment Tuesday night.
Allen took his low finish in stride.
“The people have spoken -- I’m fine with that,” he said. “I’m a little surprised at the number of votes I got.”
Allen said that while he thinks he may run for office again at some point, the low number of votes means he’ll have to take some time to think about it.
Allen, 63, is a Macon native and retired Macon-Bibb County firefighter who was first elected to the commission in 1989. Losing a 2000 bid for the commission chairmanship, he spent a year and a half on the Macon Water Authority board, then recaptured his commission seat in 2004. He raised just over $10,000 for this race and spent almost all of it by two weeks before the election, according to his latest finance report.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contract writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.