Macon mayoral race could have air of deja vu if trio face off again

“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare once wrote.

Sometimes the past is more than that, though. In Macon, it often seems that the past is the past, the present and the future all at once.

Consider: Not only is Jack Ellis, Macon’s mercurial and controversial first black mayor, promising to run again for his old office next year, but he seems set to do so against a familiar cast.

There’s current Mayor Robert Reichert, whose landslide run into office nearly three years ago was supposed to help cleanse Macon of discord from the Ellis years. There’s state Sen. Robert Brown, who is telling people around the city that he’ll be running for mayor as well, but due to his policy of not answering reporters’ questions until he’s ready, has not said so publicly.

What’s the prologue for all of this? It wouldn’t be the first time these three men have faced off in a race. They ran against each other in 1991, with a seat in the Georgia Senate on the line.

First, what about Ellis?

Love him or hate him, Ellis is Macon’s headliner. Reichert is the incumbent and Brown has been in the state Senate for 19 years. But Ellis is the one that people would pay to see — or a least read about in the newspaper.

That’s probably been true since Ellis helped rescue John Rocker’s professional baseball career in early 2000, shortly after the Macon native’s disparaging remarks in a Sports Illustrated article upset folks nationwide.

In May 2001, the mayor used the flashing blue lights on his city-provided Lincoln Town Car to pull over a guy and berate him for poor driving. That led to a lawsuit and pretty much began the public relations slide that would dominate much of Ellis’ tenure.

Sure, Ellis was the mayor who brought a lot of federal grant money to Macon. He was also almost certainly the mayor who tore down and rebuilt the most homes in decaying black neighborhoods. And, just as certainly, some people who criticize him do so largely because he’s black and they’re not.

But at one point in his eight years as mayor, Ellis sent Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez a thank you letter of sorts. He traveled the world. There were a lot of “he did what?” moments with Ellis, who followed his impetuous nature head first through a series of public relations blunders.

He also made some downright questionable decisions that led to grand jury investigations and, eventually, the U.S. Attorney’s office forcing the city to pay back part of a $1 million Safe Schools Initiative grant that the city won in 2002.

Of course, Ellis is also remembered for announcing, in February 2007, his conversion to Islam and his plans to change his name to Hakim Mansour Ellis. For that, Ellis got interviewed by Al-Jazeera, basically the Arab world’s CNN.

But Ellis never changed his name. And prepare yourself for this update: He’s Baptist again.

Ellis said he made the change back to Christianity about two years ago. For a while he attended Greater Travelers Rest, a large church in Decatur pastored by E. Dewey Smith, who is from Macon. Now Ellis is a member at Unionville Baptist Church, which isn’t far from where he grew up as one of 13 children in a poor Macon family.

And for those ready to question Ellis’ residency in Macon, the former mayor says he still owns his home on Courtland Avenue, though he’s in the process of moving. He said Forest Pointe Apartments off Forest Hill Road has been his primary residence while he’s closing on that deal.

Views on Brown, Reichert

In 1991, Tommy Olmstead left the Georgia Senate to run for mayor of Macon, leaving a vacuum.

Reichert, then a Macon councilman, stepped up for the special election. So did Ellis, who’d made a name for himself as a local activist and was still a few years from the end of his car salesman career.

No one ever seems to mention it, but Reichert sold cars once, too. Like Ellis, he’s a Vietnam veteran. He worked a car lot between returning from war and finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, and then his law degree at Mercer University.

By 1991, Brown had already tried, and failed, to unseat state Rep. David Lucas in the Georgia House of Representatives. He was on the Bibb County school board but resigned to seek the Senate seat. Another man, Jake Mullis, also ran, but he was quickly outdistanced by the three others.

Ellis waged something of a bitter campaign against Brown. And when Brown and Reichert made it into the runoff, Ellis found himself unable to endorse either man. When he wrote a letter to The Telegraph explaining why, he focused on Brown.

“Maybe it would be the politically expedient thing to do,” Ellis said of endorsing Brown. “But it also would be the height of hypocrisy to support someone with whom you are that far apart on key issues.”

Brown became the first black Macon resident to hold a state Senate seat since Reconstruction. His election began a 19-year run that’s seen him rise to be the top Democrat in the state Senate. He is, like Ellis and many other politicians, a divisive figure.

The Rev. Ronald Slaughter of St. Paul AME Church on Macon’s east side said Brown has done “an outstanding job as a state senator.” He was “a voice of the black community” in the Senate, Slaughter said.

But Brown has blocked Macon and Bibb County consolidation efforts, as well as an effort to shrink the size of Macon City Council. Brown has said he didn’t “block” these efforts. He simply supported different versions of plans on each. But at the end of the day, it’s been Brown’s vote in the state Senate that kept these ideas from moving forward.

Like Brown, Reichert declined several requests for an interview for this article. He has said he plans to seek re-election, but it’s clear the mayor’s job has been more difficult than he expected.

“I think he’s done a credible job,” said the Rev. Eddie Smith of Macedonia Church, who backed Ellis against several recall efforts. “It’s a wild position, and I think it takes a special person to hang in there.”

Some people, though, hold a quiet disappointment in Reichert, perhaps born of the great expectations that often follow a landslide victory.

“People don’t feel he’s done as much in the community as he could have done,” said Albert Billingslea, one of Bibb County’s first black county commissioners.

Asked to assess Reichert’s two years and nine months in office and his chances for a second term, City Council President Miriam Paris paused.

“Well, most executive positions like the mayor or the governor, they may hope for two terms, and it’s theirs to have if they can pull it off,” she said. With Reichert, “that’s yet to be seen.”

Said Terrell Sandefur, who owns the SoChi Gallery downtown and considers Reichert a friend: “As far as who I’m voting for, I’m not even sure yet.”

But if there is a lukewarm feel to some of Reichert’s support and an air of uncertainty surrounding Brown, then there is a palpable unease about Ellis.

Smith, Slaughter and Billingslea said the former mayor remains popular — as Slaughter put it — among “the everyday common folk” in black neighborhoods.

But it is not so elsewhere.

“Him coming back and running for mayor again is asinine,” said Sandefur, one of Macon’s biggest cheerleaders. “And I think he is very much polarizing between the races, which I don’t think is a good thing, obviously.”

Sandefur’s thoughts mirror those of a lot of Maconites, white and black. And there’s a feeling among some black leaders that Macon doesn’t need Ellis stirring up a lot of hard feelings just so he can be mayor again.

“I’m not sure it’s the best idea right now,” Smith said. “I think Jack is perceived as polarizing. I don’t believe his heart polarizes, but I think the perception more often than not is that he’s polarizing ... in the white community.”

Asked whether someone ought to sit down with Ellis and persuade him to abandon this bid, Paris said yes.

“I would think that that conversation does need to be had,” she said. “Just frankly, I think that Mr. Ellis had his two terms.”

Challenges aplenty

Macon’s electorate is dominated by black voters, who make up 64 percent of voter registration rolls.

But these voters have shown more than a willingness to elect white candidates. Ellis was the city’s first black mayor, and Reichert easily bested four well-known black candidates in the 2007 Democratic primary that essentially won him the mayor’s office. Even if those four could have added their vote totals together, Reichert would have beaten them handily.

But that sort of unity hasn’t been evident for a while. Reichert finds himself at odds with the City Council, much as Ellis did. He finds himself fighting Bibb County Commissioner Sam Hart over various tax and government service agreements, just like Ellis fought Hart’s predecessors.

During Ellis’ tenure, the city and county reworked the local option sales tax split in a deal that eventually cost the city, which had shrunk in population compared to unincorporated Bibb County, millions of dollars in tax revenue. The 2002 deal sped Macon’s slide toward near insolvency and, as mayor, Ellis led those negotiations for the city.

The process will begin again once the 2010 census is complete, so the stakes will be particularly high next year when the mayor’s race officially begins.

And that’s a key word: “officially.” Filing deadlines for the race haven’t even been set, so it will be sometime next year before any candidates have to make a final decision.

Ellis says he’s definitely running, and he’s contacted former staffers and supporters to discuss his plans.

But the former mayor has repeatedly told The Telegraph over the years that he planned to run against U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, or that he might seek former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s seat in Atlanta, or that he definitely planned to sue the Macon City Council, or that he’d change his name, only to decide against doing any of that.

And though Ellis has had plenty of time to reflect since he left office, he remains predictably unpredictable. During last week’s interview with The Telegraph, which took place over Ellis’ cell phone as he drove across the Mississippi Delta to see clients for his political consulting firm, his stream-of-conscious style was evident.

He said he didn’t want to discuss religion, and then he discussed religion. He said much of the criticism against him is based on his skin color. Then he said he doesn’t play the race card.

Brown, who generally plays things close to the vest as long as he can, has made no announcement about the mayor’s race. Word of his candidacy came from area politicos who said the senator has told them he plans on seeking the office, just like he intended to in 2007, when undisclosed health issues sidetracked him.

It also remains to be seen who else will get into the race. Republican David Cousino has said he’ll take another shot. But he tallied fewer than 500 votes against Reichert in 2007’s general election and campaigned in part on a desire to return much of the city to the Creek Indians who use to live here.

Also in play is the fact that Brown’s decision would open up his Senate seat. Someone’s going to run for that, and it could shake things up enough to change the mayor’s race on its own.

Paris predicted that the mayoral ballot isn’t set yet and that candidates are likely to “come out of the woodwork.”

Asked if she’s considering a run, Paris paused again.

“I’m really focused on my council position right now,” she said. “That’s more than enough to deal with on a daily basis right now for me.”

Yes, the past is prologue to all of this.

How the drama will play out this time is anyone’s guess.

Travis Fain was a Telegraph staff writer from May 2000 to May 2010. He covered the Ellis administration, state Legislature and local politics for The Telegraph and now lives in Garner, N.C., where he is a freelance reporter.