Earlier this month, a familiar face to Augustans shocked Republicans across the country by upsetting a three-term incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina, in the state’s 9th District Republican primary.
This election is one that will be closely watched across the country, because the race could help determine whether Democrats gain the 24 seats they need to retake control of the House.
Politicos are guessing that President Trump will even get involved in promoting the North Carolina Republican candidate before the November election.
So, who was this blast from the past that could have a heavy hand in the nation’s political future?
None other than Pastor Mark Harris, formerly of Curtis Baptist Church on Broad Street.
After stunning the voters across the state of North Carolina, Harris, 52, will face Charlotte Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine, in the November primary election.
For those Augustans that might not have been around 20 years ago, Harris was the extremely vocal senior pastor of the local Baptist church.
In fact, Harris not only preached and tried to guide his congregation, but he also was known for attempting to reform downtown Augusta.
Back in October 2000, Harris led the congregation of Curtis Baptist to protest an alcohol license request for a restaurant called Off Broadway Dining & Dancing located at 1285 Broad St.
Despite the fact that the proposed restaurant met all the legal distance requirements for an alcohol license located near a church, Harris, an extremely spirited pastor, strongly objected to the requested license.
For weeks, Harris and Curtis Baptist Church waged a war against Off Broadway’s owner, Judy Tyler, and the owner of the property, the late Julian Osbon.
Harris and the church took their objections straight to the Augusta Commission.
During the first public hearing about the requested alcohol license, more than 100 members of the Curtis Baptist Church packed the commission chambers demanding the license be rejected because it was threat to the congregation’s safety.
Osbon attempted to explain to the commission in 2000 that Off Broadway was not a threat to the church because it was to be an upscale restaurant.
“This is basically for an older crowd,” Osbon told commissioners. “And if they are like me, they are going to be in bed, asleep by 10 o’clock anyway.”
Osbon stood his ground against the church’s objections to the alcohol license.
“I can totally sympathize with the mission of Curtis Baptist and where they are coming from, but I totally disagree with them,” Osbon said in 2000. “If this restaurant is put into place and the lady doesn’t do what she is supposed to do, or, as the landowner, I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, then we should be held accountable for it. But don’t try to micromanage my life and the community.”
During the debate, Osbon believed that the Augusta Commission would do the honorable thing and approve the alcohol license, which was already supported by the city’s license and inspection department and the sheriff’s office.
“Hopefully, elected officials don’t respond to mob rule,” Osbon said in 2000. “I don’t want something done down at the commission because you bring enough people and they cave in. That’s a frightening way to run a community. … My philosophy in life is that you try to focus on the things that you can do something about, so I’m not going to let the church dictate the way I run this property.”
Unfortunately, Osbon had too much faith in the then-sitting Augusta Commission.
Despite the fact that the restaurant was more than 840 feet from the church, which was well beyond the city’s distance requirements for an approved alcohol license from a place of worship, the Augusta Commission voted 6-4 in 2000 to deny the restaurant’s application for a liquor license, as well as a dance hall license.
Tyler and Osbon were in total disbelief after the vote.
“I’ve been approached by many other businesspeople in the community very concerned that what happens here may affect the long-term use of all the properties downtown,” Osbon said in 2000. “One told me if you eliminate all the liquor licenses in downtown Augusta, you might as well put a fire to it, because downtown would be gone.”
In the end, the commission would allow the restaurant to have only a beer and wine license, but no liquor license or Sunday sales.
Osbon was outraged, to say the least.
“Today, Augusta moved a little closer toward insignificance,” he told commissioners. “It was agonizing to watch in disbelief as six commissioners — Jerry Brigham, Ulmer Bridges, Andy Cheek, Richard Colclough, Willie Mays and Marion Williams — drove a stake into the heart of revitalization for downtown Augusta and the city in general.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Metro Spirit in October 2000, Osbon did not hold his tongue.
“The six (commissioners) parked their municipal responsibility along with their spines outside the commission chamber door as they caved in to the onslaught of religious prejudice,” Osbon wrote. “In denying a business license to a new upscale restaurant in downtown Augusta that wanted to serve beverage choices other than sweet or unsweet tea, they demonstrated once again that Augusta needs elected leaders who don’t think that the ultimate in fine dining is found at the Waffle House.”
The entire commission hearing was like watching sheep being herded into the “slaughterhouse of ignorance,” Osbon wrote.
“It’s becoming an embarrassment to be from Augusta. I thought this kind of intolerance went out with the Middle Ages,” Osbon stated. “For every great opportunity, there is a window. Augusta’s opportunity to be a significant player in our region during the next 50 years is being squandered by an incompetent government and religious zealots.”
“With the political leadership we have today our descension into the annals of mediocrity is all but a certainty,” he added.
After the commission’s vote, downtown Augusta was reeling
Harris had gotten his way, despite the local ordinance supporting the requested alcohol license.
He had stepped on the rights of a small, local business just because it didn’t reflect his Christian views.
North Carolinians better carefully consider their vote in this Congressional election this November.
Not just for the sake of the state of North Carolina, but for the entire country.