This past May, The Insider told Augustans to be prepared to see a familiar face on the national political season, but not here in Georgia.
Instead, a new Republican candidate for Congress in North Carolina had rocked the Tar Heel State by upsetting a three-term incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger, in the state’s Ninth District Republican primary.
And The Insider warned that this particular North Carolina race was going to draw a lot of attention because the North Carolina seat could play a key role in the Democrats’ efforts to retake control of the House.
So, who was this blast from the past that might 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 in May, Harris then faced Charlotte Democrat Dan McCready in the November primary election.
And guess what?
Harris won and appeared to be on his way to Washington.
Until… scandal hit.
Last week, the Washington Post revealed that the race involving Harris was facing an election-fraud investigation.
Specifically, state investigators are looking into the action of a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked for Harris’ campaign.
Dowless reportedly oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters throughout the state, but state investigators are examining whether Dowless’ activities in the general election violated North Carolina’s election laws.
As a result, this fraud investigation has delayed the certification of Harris’ narrow victory over McCready.
Believe it or not, the two candidates are separated by only 905 votes, according to unofficial returns.
Due to the controversy over the results and the fraud investigations, state officials might even call for a new election.
Some officials close to the investigation have told the Washington Post it remains unclear how many mail-in absentee ballots were allegedly diverted in this race.
But investigators have identified hundreds of potential witnesses to interview, many of them voters whose absentee ballots were never turned in, according to the Washington Post.
“The state elections board’s probe is homing in on irregularities in mail-in balloting in the Ninth District general election — most of them in Bladen County,” the Washington Post reported. “Unusually high numbers of mail-in ballots were requested in the county — and unusually high numbers of those requested ballots were never returned, according to state records. A disproportionate number of unreturned ballots had been sent to voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic. Nearly 55 percent of ballots mailed to Native American voters and 36 percent mailed to African-American voters were not returned, while the non-return rate among white voters in the district was just 18 percent, according to state records.”
That doesn’t sound good for Harris and the Republicans in North Carolina.
However, Harris has stated that he is open to a new election if the alleged fraud changed the outcome of the election.
“If this investigation finds proof of illegal activity on either side to such a level that it could have changed the outcome of the election, then I would wholeheartedly support a new election,” said Harris, in a video statement released by his campaign.
Harris claims he was unaware of any wrongdoing and is cooperating with the ongoing investigation.
So, why should Augustans care about an election in North Carolina?
Well, for those Augustans who might not have been around 20 years ago, Harris was once the extremely vocal senior pastor of Curtis 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.”
After the commission’s vote, downtown Augusta was reeling.
Harris had stepped on the rights of a small, local business just because it didn’t reflect his Christian views.
Now, Harris’ future is in the hands of state investigators looking into the results of his election.
Could Harris’ dreams of heading to Washington, D.C. be in jeopardy?