During the Covid-19 shelter in place order, everyone has had to make considerable adjustments to how they live their everyday lives. Unbeknownst to most, candidates for local political offices have been running for office. In a normal election cycle, there would be plenty of attention on the different races across the CSRA in the 24 hour news cycle.
Canvassing neighborhoods and meeting voters in the streets, allowing candidates to communicate their messaging and connecting with the public in the current COVID-19 climate is challenging. Debates, town hall meetings and public forums give candidates the opportunity to speak to the media, providing the media with their content to funnel to the general public.
This election cycle, candidates have been sitting in their homes, hungering for connection and making due with a computer screen.
In races most familiar to the public, the Augusta-Richmond County Commission has three seats up for grabs and the Columbia County Board of Commissioners has one.
Trey Allen, who has served on the Columbia County Commission for the past 12 years, is seeking to make the move to Atlanta. He is competing against retired educator and former member of the United States House of Representatives from 2003 to 2005, Max Burns.
The Richmond County Coroner, Sheriff, Marshall and District Attorney all have seats for voters to consider. (The Sheriff and Marshall’s races are essentially unopposed-with the sheriff announcing weeks ago he was forgoing campaigning for office altogether).
There are many first time candidates seeking to join these two local governing bodies, as well as a few experienced former office holders or candidates who have mounted past campaigns. Political insiders who usually predict the outcomes using past voting patterns and historical references are stumped as to what this election will hold.
Campaign managers, hired to read the tea leaves and plot a path forward are instead working to keep their candidates engaged and upbeat. It has been hard on everyone.
So, how do you campaign from home? Zoom forums are an option, however the audience tends to be of the friends and family variety, and the news media has no appetite for watching and reporting on them. Lacking the spontaneity and natural give and take of in person appearances, on-line appearances lack the energy and urgency, reducing candidates to two dimensional cutouts.
What will be key to winning June 9th? Name recognition? Voter turnout?
Insiders say it will likely be the candidates with the broadest network and name recognition. Tapping into established voting blocks gives office seekers the head start that rookie candidates lack.
The Richmond County Commission’s District One race to replace term limited William Fennoy features real estate investor, Michael Thurman, Brenau University professor and human resources generalist, Von Pouncey, head of the Richmond County Democratic Party, Jordan Johnson, and Shawnda Griffin, a social media specialist for the Macedonia Church of Grovetown.
Thurman, who continued campaigning after his defeat by Fennoy in 2016, is the more experienced candidate. The rest of the field are new-comers who have garnered popular political endorsements. Johnson picked up the endorsement of Stacey Abrams, 2018 gubernatorial candidate and former Georgia House Representative. Pouncey picked up the support of Charles Walker and Charles Lyons-and their established networks.
Will Thurman’s long game pay off? Will the connections of Johnson put him over the top? Or, will the political might of Walker and Lyons propel Pouncey?
District 3 also features newcomers and old political hands. Newbies Sean Mooney and Catherine Smith McKnight are pitted against long shot Lori Myles and former head of ANIC (Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corporation), Robert Cooks.
While Myles isn’t making a serious challenge, on paper Cooks appears to have a decades-long head start. Cooks was a close ally of former State Senator Charles Walker prior to the Senator serving 10 years in the federal pen on corruption charges. Yet Cooks doesn’t appear to be putting up much of a campaign.
McKnight, the daughter of the late Richmond County Commissioner Grady Smith whose district was South Augusta, is vying for the hill seat. Mooney, a graphic artist by trade, would be considered a long shot candidate in a race for commission in normal times, but in this cycle the playing field may have leveled out enough for him to make a serious run. He also has the endorsement of former mayor Deke Copenhaver, whose endorsement of Davis propelled her to election in 2012.
The field is not considered very strong or deep, and the seat has been relatively quiet in the eight years since Davis was elected, unlike the District 1 tenure of Fennoy and District 9 tenure of Marion Williams..
Speaking of Super District 9, which spans commission districts 1, 2, 4 and 5 and includes downtown and much of south and east Augusta, current commish Marion Williams is term limited out of office. Five candidates are seeking to replace the verbose Williams: Former nightclub owner Charles Cummings, retired state employee Francine Scott, businesswoman and former commission candidate Jo’ Rae Jenkins, former two-term commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson, and Gregory Hall. The slate of candidates will be vying for ballot in the runoff a field of six unknowns is sure to generate.
In Columbia County, the race is for the District 2 seat being vacated by Trey Allen. There are four candidates in the running: Don Skinner, Lee Benedict, Mark Petersen and Bob Willis Jr. Insiders are predicting a two way race between longtime banker and community volunteer Don Skinner and recent military retiree and resident Bob Willis. Skinner has many years of practical experience volunteering on boards at the county level, while Willis is relying on his years of military service as proof he is the man for the job.
Recently, Willis went on the Austin Rhodes Show and stated he had been recruited ‘by republicans’ to run, which spurred the Columbia County Republican Party to release a statement clarifying that the local republican party does not endorse or recruit candidates.
“Well I tell ya, I never gave it much thought until some members of the Republican Party approached me I guess folks had declared, and they looked around and said we know about your background, your leadership, your management skills and so forth and we think you would be excellent for the job.”
The Chairman of the Columbia County Republican Party Debbie McCord posted on their Facebook page, “After being provided with a clip of the Thursday Austin Rhodes show, it is clear that the candidate involved did not state that he was endorsed by the Columbia County Republican Party. The recording is attached. I will be posting a corrected statement regarding endorsements during the primary season.”
Trey Allen is looking to take his twelve years of experience managing the historic growth of Columbia County and apply it in Atlanta. His opponent, Max Burns, held office twenty years ago as a one term Congressman, narrowly defeating the longest shot candidate ever Champ Walker. Both candidates are conservative republicans, so the race is being run on experience. While Burns’ experience in Washington at the turn of the century helps, the more relevant to the seat experience of Allen, who has been networking the past decade, appears to make it his race to lose. The District includes Richmond, Columbia and McDuffie, as well as a number of much smaller counties.
Allen received the endorsement of former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle, Representative Jodi Lott, as well as the behind the scenes support of the sitting commissioners in the county. Burns received an endorsement from the Augusta Home Builders Association, whose president Mark Herbert garnered just 9% of the vote in his quest to become Columbia County Commission Chairman in 2018, a race ultimately won by Doug Duncan, with the full support of…you guessed it…Trey Allen.