With less than one week left before the May 20 election, Augustans are sure to be bombarded with a lot of banter from politicians looking to make their mark on the local governmental scene.
The five candidates for mayor have only a few days left to convince voters they should be the next leader of the Garden City.
They will certainly be talking about “building bridges,” “working for the public good” and all those other cliché catchphrases that sound so good, even if they don’t necessarily have a lot of specifics backing them up.
Over the past week, the Metro Spirit met with each of the mayoral candidates to see which ones have something to say and which ones are simply talking.
So, who will be Augusta’s next mayor?
It’s in your hands now.
When state Sen. Hardie Davis headed to Atlanta about seven years ago, then as a state representative serving the Augusta area, he had one goal in mind.
“My goal was a very simple one,” Davis said, smiling. “When I first went to Atlanta and took office in 2007, my goal was this: I’m not going to embarrass my family. I’m not going to embarrass my community. And I’m not going to embarrass God. And I held to that promise.”
In fact, Davis is considered by some as one of the most well-respected members of the Georgia Legislature because he was so willing to work with both Democrats and Republicans to help pass more than 2,500 pieces of legislation, which have now become Georgia law.
“But in the process of that, I also wanted to make an impact,” Davis said. “From a legislation standpoint, I’ve gotten more legislation authored, passed and signed by the governor than any other member of the minority party, whether that be in the House or the Senate.”
During his time serving under Atlanta’s Gold Dome, Davis said he is extremely proud of his efforts on the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), which allowed each of the state’s 13 regions to decide whether to implement an additional penny sales tax for transportation, which was commonly referred to as T-SPLOST.
That penny sales tax brought millions of dollars into this region for transportation projects that wouldn’t have been accomplished otherwise, Davis said.
And despite the controversy over the name Georgia Regents University, the state senator is also pleased with the successful merger of the former Medical College of Georgia with Augusta State University.
“Make no mistake about it, Georgia Regents University is not a popular name. It is not a good name. But it is the name that has been chosen for the school and I am proud of the consolidation,” Davis said. “In my time in the Legislature, Augusta State and MCG were viewed by legislators as two community colleges. We’ve now consolidated those two institutions and made them a true powerhouse. The fourth research institution in the state, a $1.2 billion enterprise, and I’m proud of being part of that process.”
While in Atlanta, Davis said he also got firsthand knowledge on how much of the rest of the state views the Garden City.
“Everybody always talks about local government,” Davis said. “It is without question, there is always that common thread where people are asking, ‘When are you guys going to get it right in Augusta?’”
Those kinds of comments were hurtful to Davis because he is extremely proud of the Augusta area.
“Well, I will tell you, there is a lot that is right about Augusta. And I want to champion those things that are right about Augusta,” he said. “I want to champion what is good about our public schools. Contrary to popular belief, we have some very good schools in our community.”
Davis, who received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, is a product of the public school system.
“So this notion across the state of Georgia, and certainly at times in Atlanta, of ‘Disgusta,’ I’m going to change that,” Davis said. “I’m committed to one Augusta. Everybody talks about the things that divide us and the polarization of race. My vision for Augusta is not a white versus a black or a west Augusta versus a south Augusta. But my vision for Augusta is truly one Augusta.”
For Davis, that means a mayor who will genuinely work for all of its citizens and efficiently provide basic government services to all areas of the county. It also means that he will focus on economic growth and job creation in the region, so that when local students graduate from college, they can have the opportunity to remain in the Augusta area.
That is one of the reasons Davis also supports the $194 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax vote on May 20.
“I understand how important SPLOST is for us to enhance the quality of life of our current and future citizens,” Davis said, explaining that with the announcement of the relocation of the Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon and the continued growth in Augusta’s medical community, there needs to be more to offer residents from an “arts, culture and entertainment perspective.”
“Those things are in the SPLOST package and they have been there in the past,” Davis said, adding he also strongly supports the SPLOST funding for the sheriff’s department. “So, at the end of the day, we have a unique opportunity to continue an existing tax. It is not a new tax.”
SPLOST is also paid by residents and non-residents purchasing items in Richmond County, he said.
“When you talk about essentially $3 million per month in terms of collections,” Davis said, “that’s a good day.”
As the next mayor of Augusta, Davis said he looks forward to working with the Augusta Commission, which is often described as “dysfunctional.”
“When I look at the opportunity that exists as the next mayor in working with a commission that, quite frankly, has an extremely low approval rating from a polling standpoint, I see nothing but a canvas of potential for us to truly transform Augusta,” he said, adding that he plans to share his thoughts on how business is accomplished in Atlanta with most of the “heavy lifting” taking place in committees, instead of on the floor. “I think that will allow us to truly turn people’s heads and, at the same time, change people’s minds that we can do things functionally, as opposed to this cloud of dysfunction, whether it be real, imaginary or perceived.”
Augusta is ready to grow and leave all the bickering behind, Davis said.
“Our city is ready to move beyond the things that divide us. Without question. And I’ve demonstrated that I know how to do that,” Davis said. “People don’t have to be afraid of Hardie Davis as the next mayor. People cannot only trust me, but they can be proud with me as the next mayor of Augusta.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: As of Monday, May 19, Blocker-Adams has officially withdrawn from the mayor’s race.
As Augusta mayoral candidate Helen Blocker-Adams read this Sunday’s endorsement of her by The Augusta Chronicle, she was beyond thrilled.
The editorial was filled with words such as positivity, enthusiasm, progress and courage.
“She has the potential to put her mark on Augusta history like few leaders we’ve ever seen,” the Chronicle’s May 10 editorial stated. “An entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former economic development ombudsman, Blocker-Adams is action-oriented and an engine of ideas.”
This glowing editorial brought back memories of the first time she ran for mayor back in 2005 and the Chronicle’s editorial staff surprised Augustans by endorsing Blocker-Adams over then-political newcomer Deke Copenhaver.
“The only thing holding back Augusta is our own attitude — our inability to work together toward common goals,” the 2005 editorial stated. “Helen Blocker-Adams has a track record of bringing people together. She has the leadership skills to set a direction and the drive to get us there.”
Looking back on her first race, Blocker-Adams jokes that she even recalled her family and friends teasing her that the editorial read like a “love letter” from the Chronicle‘s editorial page editor Michael Ryan.
But, as charming as Blocker-Adams can be, she insists that she has earned those endorsements by convincing Ryan and the Chronicle’s publisher, William S. Morris III, that she can bring Augusta together like no other candidate.
“I remember meeting Mr. Morris in 2005,” Blocker-Adams said. “That was the first time ever meeting him in my life. People have heard his name, but a lot of people haven’t seen him or met him in person. And to be honest with you, I think he was fascinated by me and he was fascinated with my work each month as founder of the South Augusta Business @ Breakfast.”
Blocker-Adams said she described to Morris and Ryan the diverse group of people who attend the breakfast meetings in south Augusta. Not long after meeting with the editorial board in 2005, Blocker-Adams said Ryan contacted her and asked if he and Morris could attend the next meeting.
“I remember clearly that (then-District Attorney) Danny Craig was our guest speaker that month, so we had a packed house,” Blocker-Adams said. “So, when Mr. Morris, along with Michael Ryan, walked in the room, you should have seen the expressions on people’s faces. They were like, ‘Wow. How in the world did Helen get him here?’”
Before each breakfast, Blocker-Adams always asks first-time guests to stand and introduce themselves to the group.
“So, when Mr. Morris stood up, I will never forget what he said,” Blocker-Adams said, recalling the diverse group that was attending the breakfast that morning. “This is almost a quote. He said, ‘Wow. Now, this is what Augusta should look like.’ People were just kind of blown away.”
Since that day, Blocker-Adams said she believes the Chronicle’s editorial staff have watched her consistent commitment to the entire community.
“What has happened over the past eight or nine years since I first ran in 2005, the question of whether I was going to run for mayor, it never stopped,” Blocker-Adams said, laughing. “I could be sitting at a restaurant or pumping gas, and the question would always come up all the time.”
The questions about her running for mayor began to intensify during the sheriff’s race in 2012, she said.
“As more and more people approached me, I have strong faith, and I believe it is all about God’s timing,” she said. “I began asking, ‘Are you really sending me these signals by having all these people ask me about mayor?’”
Then, Blocker-Adams began thinking about all the young people she mentors through her Unlikely Allies Emerging Leaders Conference, which provides monthly all-day conferences for middle- and high-school students to help build their self-esteem, develop communication skills and encourage health and fitness.
“I am always talking to them about following their dreams and taking a risk and believing in themselves,” Blocker-Adams said. “And I said, ‘You know what? I have got to walk the walk and talk the talk. All of these people are approaching me to run for mayor. I have the skill sets, I know the needs in all aspects of this community and I’m engaged in the community. I have been for years. I have to run.’”
Ever since she ran in 2005, Blocker-Adams said she has never turned her back on her original platform to promote economic development, reduce crime, support community and public health and improve the local schools.
“My platform is a part of who I am,” Blocker-Adams said. “People who know me realize it’s just an extension of me. So, for me to not to continue to make a difference after the 2005 race, that doesn’t compute with me.”
However, this time around, Blocker-Adams said she is more experienced and more prepared to take on the role as mayor.
“I can make a bigger impact and I can touch the lives of more people,” she said. “I can truly make a real, significant difference by utilizing my bridge-building skills and my ability to interact with any group of people, whether they are poor, rich, black, white, Republican or Democrat.”
Those skills make her a stronger candidate than her opponents, she said.
“There is no other candidate who can do that in the way that I can that’s not intimidating,” Blocker-Adams said. “I’m very approachable and I listen. Right now, this community is starving for someone who has the skills that I have.”
Blocker-Adams insists she has more enthusiasm for this city than all the other four candidates combined.
“As mayor, out of all the five candidates, there’s no other candidate who has the energy, enthusiasm and passion all in one package,” she said. “It is unmatched. Combined, all of the others don’t have it.”
And while some will point out that Blocker-Adams has never actually held office, she says that is in no way a deterrent.
“Sure, I don’t have that in-house experience like Commissioner Alvin Mason or even a Hardie Davis, but that can be learned over time. That is not rocket science,” she said. “Dealing with diverse groups of people, being a team builder and a team player, that’s what people gravitate to and that’s what I’m all about.”
Experience. That is what sets Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason apart from the rest of the candidates for mayor.
“I’ve been a county commissioner for seven years and a mayor pro tem for two years,” Mason said. “No one else can say that.”
When Mason first took office in 2008, he said the Augusta Commission was “extremely divided,” even more so than it is today.
Back then, the commission was stuck in limbo on major projects such as the construction of the Augusta Judicial Center. With the help of Augusta commissioners Corey Johnson and Joe Jackson, he was able to help remove the gridlock.
“In 2008, the judicial center had been voted on by SPLOST about 15 to 20 years prior,” Mason said. “The entire project was very, very divisive. It fell down racial lines and I remember a meeting we had in reference to that. Commissioner Don Grantham was not there at the time, so they were assuming that they weren’t going to get the votes necessary because of the fact that it had been so divisive for all these amount of years.”
With a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University in electronic systems and a master’s certification in contract management from George Washington University, Mason said he was able to sit down with some his colleagues and review the contract for the judicial center prior to the vote.
“It was actually a good contract and it ended up coming in on time and under budget, so that is always a good contract,” Mason said. “But I was extremely proud of the fact that we could come together on a project that was one of the most divisive since consolidation.”
While some of the other candidates may talk a lot about bringing all the commissioners to the table and working to unite Augusta, Mason points out that he is the only candidate who has actually been in the trenches with those commissioners.
“I understand uniquely what brings us together and what divides us, because I have been a part of that discussion for the last seven years,” Mason said. “So I don’t need any on-the-job training, if you will. I know the personalities. I know all the districts. I know what commissioners advocate for in those particular districts. And I know what causes commissioners to have spirited debates. The fact is, a lot of it is lack of transparency and communications and false information.”
Mason believes it should be the job of the mayor and city administrator to fully inform commissioners of issues facing the government.
“A lot of times people are looking for six votes instead of talking to the entire 10 commissioners,” Mason said. “That would not happen under Alvin Mason because I realize how important that is to talk to all the commissioners and provide timely information, so we can make good decisions.”
Much like his time as a commissioner, Mason said he is committed as mayor to ask the difficult questions about projects, whether folks like it or not.
“My job is to get the devil out of the details because the devil is in the details,” Mason said. “I am a very detail-oriented and meticulous person. And I think those tough questions are important from the top down. That will stop a lot of the bickering and divisiveness that we see if we address those up front versus on the backside.”
When it comes to projects like the Augusta Convention Center and the city’s parking deck on Reynolds Street, Mason said he tries to get to the truth behind the projects in order to protect the city and its taxpayers.
“Perhaps I have upset the applecart somewhat because, quite frankly, there haven’t been commissioners over time who asked specific, detailed questions that are truly relevant to the city’s contracts,” Mason said. “And I do realize there are some in the community who may look at Alvin Mason as possibly the person you don’t want in the mayor’s chair.”
But Mason insists he will be a mayor for all the people of Augusta-Richmond County.
“I’m not for special interest groups. And I also do not believe in what I consider corporate welfare, which is giving millionaires, multi-millionaires or billionaires millions of government dollars and paying for the operation and maintenance of their operations at the expense of taxpaying citizens,” Mason said. “So if that ruffles some people’s feathers, I guess I’m guilty as charged. But I will continue to do that sort of thing because I just believe that is good government.”
If you want your standard politician who has served within the same dysfunctional government that they are now vowing to change, mayoral candidate and retired businessman Charles Cummings will admit that he is not your man.
But if you want a down-to-earth person who is sensible, practical and realistic, Cummings is asking for your vote.
“We have got to have a better focus and we have to create better priorities,” Cummings said. “We can’t have department heads who are afraid to run their department because they can get fired by six votes. We have got to change that.”
Cummings believes that the mayor’s role in the government should be much stronger and he or she should be given more authority to run the Garden City.
“I don’t think the commissioners should have the power to fire any department heads,” Cummings said. “I think all the department heads, including the city administrator, need to come directly under the mayor’s power.”
Such a drastic change in the local government would require an amendment to the 1996 consolidation law, which would not be easily done.
But Cummings insists that such changes are desperately needed.
“If your child was in a burning home and you were the only one standing out there, you are going in that home to get your child,” Cummings said. “It is just that urgent. I think the folks running our various departments should be free to do their business without being badgered or beaten up by the commission. That is my goal.”
Cummings believes the Augusta Commission also needs more professional development training so they can work better with one another and not embarrass the city during public meetings.
“These commissioners come off the street and, based on their wins during the elections, they say, ‘Now, I am the expert,’” Cummings said. “Well, no you are not the expert. You are an elected official, but you need training to learn how to be a good one.”
If elected as mayor, Cummings insists that he would implement a report card for each of the commissioners, as well as himself.
“The citizens would be the ones to give us scores,” Cummings said. “Everything that happens, they would give us a grade on it. It is going to be passing or failing or not so good. Once the citizens make the report, we will put the results online.
“So, when you get a report card and then you want to act out like a chicken during a meeting, don’t be surprised when they come home roost.”
One of the main issues on Cummings’ platform for mayor is the lack of transit in the south Augusta area.
“Our transit system does not cover south Augusta and it has a very limited schedule everywhere else,” Cummings said. “It doesn’t run seven days a week. It runs six days a week and no holidays.”
Such an inconsistent transit system is devastating the local economy because workers can’t rely on the buses to get them to work on time.
“Look at Atlanta, Savannah, Chicago and New York,” Cummings said. “Those places have transit that is very adequate and meaningful. If you take transit out of any one of those cities, then that city becomes crippled. I submit to you that Augusta is crippled and doesn’t even know it.”
Cummings is also shocked by the lack of support for the soldiers at Fort Gordon and the city’s inability to help include them in activities throughout the community.
“I think the way we did it a long time ago when I was stationed at Fort Gordon as a young solider, they had a USO downtown,” Cummings said. “I think we could do a USO on Tobacco Road and downtown. And I think Augusta should have a bus that would take the soldiers to these location and feed them for free and give them the respect they deserve.”
Instead, Augusta is forcing soldiers to take taxis all over the county at an elevated price.
“They shouldn’t have to pay $40 one way to get downtown,” Cummings said. “We are going to have to provide them affordable, if not free, transportation. After all, we ask them to defend the free world and we are trying to gouge them for transportation? I won’t do that as mayor.”
One question that Cummings has had to face during the election has been about his former club, Super C’s Lounge on Tobacco Road.
In 2007, a teenager was shot to death inside the club on the dance floor.
It was around 2 a.m. and more than 150 people were inside the club dancing when the gunman fired and 18-year-old Stedmund Deaires Fryer was murdered.
Cummings said that such tragedies can happen anywhere, much like the shootings on Paine College last week.
“It doesn’t matter where it happened, it happened,” Cummings said. “I think we are going to have to educate young folks more and offer them a better future. We have got to create a better attitude with their heads and their hearts.”
As mayor, Cummings said he would want to share with the youth of Augusta his own struggles to inspire them to work harder.
“As a former business owner, I can teach young men and women that they can become business owners, too,” Cummings said. “I was a young man born to a 15-year-old and I grew up in this community. Over the years, I joined the military, became a captain and consequently owned a business and now I’m running for mayor of Augusta.
“Anything can happen.”
Mayoral candidate and high-school teacher Lori Myles was inspired to run for mayor because she was discouraged by the other candidates involved in the race.
“I felt that the leadership that was about to be put in place was not the leadership that I thought Augusta or I would want to follow,” Myles said. “I thought the leadership that we were about to deal with would be a leadership that would not be able to bring Augusta together in a definite true sign of teamwork and collaboration.”
The local community needs a mayor who can help the Augusta Commission refocus and concentrate on the major matters at hand, she said.
“I believe that the Augusta Commission has shown that they have too many distractions,” she said. “They seem to deal with the small things that, I’m not going to say that they don’t matter, but they major on the minor. They are making some situations where they really should be dealing with a matter firsthand, but they are either dealing with it last or they are not dealt with at all.”
As a long-time educator, Myles has taught at both T.W. Josey High School and Lucy Craft Laney High School as both a vocational instructor and an English teacher.
Myles also serves as an adjunct professor at Aiken Technical College where she has trained city leaders, executives and their employees in motivational techniques such as strategic planning, teamwork leadership and supervision, and effective management procedures.
She believes those skills will help her bring the Augusta Commission together to work as team.
“I believe, the way the city’s charter is set up, it makes a presumed racial tension or racial divide,” Myles said, adding that is the “pink elephant” in the room. “We are going to have to bring them together in so many ways because I truly believe that part of it is they don’t understand some of the rhetoric, some of the logistics and some of the language in these contracts.”
That can all be solved with more communication and information, Myles said.
“Of course, there have been some complaints that some of the information, when the commission agendas go out, is given at the last minute or not at all,” Myles said. “Now, my thing is, as we all know, ignorance is no excuse for the law, especially when we are leaders.
“When you are leaders you are going to be required to know certain things, so you are going to have to do your homework. And I’m not saying that certain things aren’t going to get away from you, but I truly believe that too many small and big issues have gotten away from them and then it does cause that racial divide.”
Myles also thinks her service to the community, as founder of a nonprofit organization to promote women’s empowerment, health and educational initiatives has proven that she is committed to improving Augusta.
“I have served this community since I got off the Greyhound bus from Memphis, Tennessee, about 30 years ago,” Myles said. “I began my college career as basically a community servant for Ed McIntyre and I learned a great deal from him.”
McIntyre, Augusta’s first black mayor, was a trailblazer in his time. Myles said she wants to be the same for women in Augusta.
“Now is the time. For years, especially in Augusta, we have set back and we’ve allowed our men to go on and lead us,” Myles said. “This time around, we decided enough is enough. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We have been waiting on y’all to do what we need you to do and you all failed us. You failed part of this city.”
It is time for a woman to become the first female mayor of the Garden City, she said.
“What we want to do is to make sure that here is a woman that is going to get in and logistically be able to lead the whole city and bring some teamwork to the table,” Myles said. “I’m your woman.”