When state Sen. Hardie Davis announced that he was running for mayor of Augusta last year, three local candidates — Augusta Commissioner Corey Johnson, former Richmond County Solicitor Harold Jones II and Realtor Elmyria Chivers — decided to run for his District 22 seat.
If elected, any of the three candidates will be a freshman senator in Atlanta’s Gold Dome, but all of them insist they are ready for the challenge.
Ever since he was first elected to the Augusta Commission in 2007, Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson has been known as the “friendly guy,” who is willing to work with anyone.
Whether the commission is battling it out over the $194 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax package or arguing over the future of the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, Johnson rarely loses his temper or lashes out at his colleagues.
Unlike some of the other members on the commission, Johnson keeps his cool and does not like to have heated arguments on the chamber’s floor.
Many Augustans thought his cool composure and experience on the commission would naturally equate to a run for mayor of Augusta. But, instead, Johnson decided to take his good temperament to Atlanta and serve the people of Augusta as its newest state senator of District 22.
“A lot of people wanted me to run for mayor,” Johnson said, sitting in the living room of his home surrounded by photos of his extensive family. “It was clear that I was going to be the guy for mayor. But, just through conversations with my family and colleagues, I began to change my mind.”
As more and more candidates began announcing that they intended to run for mayor, Johnson said he started to seriously look at his future.
“Of course, (Augusta Commissioner) Alvin Mason decided he was going to run for mayor and, eventually, I talked to Sen. Davis and he said he was going to run, so I knew it was going to be a very crowded race,” Johnson said. “And I just started to think about things that we were missing at the state level. And not against anybody else, I just knew I could bring something to the table at the state level.”
Johnson admitted that many of his supporters were surprised he decided not to run for mayor.
“It was a disappointment for some people because they really wanted me to run for mayor, but they said, ‘You will do good at the senate level. We like you. You are savvy. You understand the political process and you get along with pretty much everybody and you can work with anybody,’” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be able to do that if you go to Atlanta because it is partisan and, the way that it is designed, you’ve got to be able to reach across the aisle and talk to your colleagues, no matter what party they belong to.”
Johnson insists that will be a cakewalk for him after serving about seven years on the commission.
“I’ve demonstrated, through my actions on the commission, that I focus on the issues,” Johnson said. “So when I talk to my colleagues in Atlanta, I don’t care if they are Democrats, Republicans or Independents, that’s what we are going to talk about, the issues.”
If elected to the state senate, Johnson says he will focus on making healthcare more accessible, preventing gun violence through universal background checks, improving funding for education and setting a clear, long-term vision to bring more businesses to the Augusta area.
“With the opportunity now with the Affordable Care Act, we really need to expand Medicaid,” Johnson said, adding that many local seniors and veterans are falling through the cracks of the system. “You have veterans and seniors, especially those who have mental illness issues, that are going unaddressed. We see incidents happen every day as a result of people who have crashed mentally and didn’t have anywhere to turn because they don’t have adequate insurance and they can’t get the care that they need. We need to provide care for those folks.”
Johnson also believes that in order to attract more industry and new businesses to the Garden City, the Augusta area desperately needs an interstate running north and south.
“Any thriving metropolitan city has an interstate going north and south and east and west,” Johnson said. “We must figure out how to create that other interstate and I think we are on a path to do that with Highway 25. But that is one of the focal points that must happen for Augusta to take off and become that major city that we can become.”
As a product of the public school system, Johnson said he is proud of the education that he received at Lucy Laney High School. However, he realizes that there are many students within the school system who need to focus on developing more technical skills than concentrating on college prep classes.
“The education budget has been cut more than a billion dollars over the last eight to nine years. We have to stop that,” Johnson said. “Let’s be realistic, some kids are not going to college and they know that. Now, I think with the current curriculum it is kind of forcing students to fall in line with those who may be going to college and taking the courses that are preparing them for college. But some kids are not able to meet the demands of the curriculum.”
Johnson said he was thrilled to see the opening of the Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School in south Augusta.
“I thought that was a great concept because, for those students who may not be academically inclined to excel, they maybe more technical,” he said. “A more hands-on type of person, who can do much better with a trade of some sort, will feel more compelled to go to school, to be encouraged and not to be intimidated by the challenges at a technical magnet school. They will stay in school and graduate.
“That’s how you build a better community.”
Harold Jones II
As the former solicitor of Richmond County, Harold Jones II says he understands some of the issues facing the region better than any of the other candidates running in the District 22 race.
“There are so many issues facing this community,” Jones said sitting in his law office across from the Municipal Building. “When you look at the fact that our poverty rate is higher than the state average by about 30 percent; if you look at two of our zip codes, 30906 and 30901, lead the state as far as incarceration rates; when you talk about the fact that we know that Georgia is lower than the nation in education and Augusta is actually lower than Georgia when you look at our test scores, so when we have these types of issues facing the community, as a former community servant, I just have to take an interest in the state senate to try to impact some of these issues.”
When it comes to education, Jones said that he understands what Richmond County teachers are facing because he has been in the classroom himself.
“I taught at Glenn Hills High School part-time,” Jones said. “I was a math teacher. I had went there to just do substitute work.”
As a graduate of Glenn Hills High School himself, Jones said he was approached by the principal to become a math teacher because the school had an opening.
“I started from day one and, because of the budget, I guess they didn’t have a chance to hire anybody,” Jones said. “So, suddenly, I was the teacher. I had parent-teacher conferences and everything. I had a 150 students, and I will never forget, the open house PTA night, six parents showed up. So, I always remember that.”
In order for a school to be successful, Jones insists that education needs to be fully funded and teachers must have parental support.
“Because I know how difficult it is on teachers when parents are not involved in the process,” Jones said. “I will work hard in Atlanta to get our schools the funding they deserve.”
When Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation last month that would allow Georgians to legally carry firearms in a wide range of new places, including schools, bars, churches and government buildings, Jones said he was highly disappointed.
“It shouldn’t have passed, we know that, it should not have passed,” Jones said. “Of course, it is here now and the question is: What can we repeal out of it?”
As a former solicitor, Jones fears that the law could endanger police officers and lead to more violence, so he is looking to amend parts of the law.
“Right now, to get a gun license renewed, you don’t have to be refingerprinted,” Jones said. “That’s something that we should certainly get repealed out of that. Because, nowadays with people being able to take your identity over, I don’t understand why that was even in there.”
While Jones understands he will be a freshman in Atlanta, he doesn’t mind turning to his fellow colleagues in the Gold Dome and asking for guidance.
“One of the first acts I’m going to do on May 21 is call Sen. (Brandon) Beach, Sen. (Ross) Tolleson, Sen. (Jesse) Stone and Sen. (Bill) Jackson,” Jones said. “You may ask, ‘Well, who are those people?’ They are the people on my row. Those are the people I’m going to see and look at every day. Those senators are all Republicans, but they are all seated on my row. I have to get to know them.”
It is critical to understand that you must build bridges in order to make a difference in Atlanta, Jones said.
“We get confused sometimes and people believe you can walk up to Atlanta and say, ‘I’m from Augusta, give me all your money,’” Jones said, laughing. “It doesn’t work that way. When (Democrats) controlled the Statehouse, the state senate and the governor’s office, possibly you could do that. But that dynamic no longer exists and it is not going to change anytime soon. So, what we have to do is to find things that will impact the whole state positively, but will also impact Augusta.”
As a vice president and Realtor for Meybohm Realty, Elmyria Chivers says she understands what citizens and future residents of Augusta are looking for in their community.
“As a real estate agent, the first thing people will tell you is where they want to live,” Chivers said from her real estate office on Tobacco Road. “They will say, ‘The reason I want to live in another county is I hear the schools are better and I hear that it is a little safer.’”
As a long-time resident of south Richmond County, Chivers says such comments are discouraging.
“If these are the issues that are driving people away from south Richmond County and keeping them from moving to south Richmond County, let’s change it,” Chivers said. “I want to change the people’s mindsets. And, to me, the biggest thing facing the growth of Augusta-Richmond County is we have got to overcome the negative opinion about our school system. Because at the end of the day, we have a great school system here.
“Does it need improvement? Yes, but all school systems need improvement.”
Chivers insists that Georgia needs to fully fund Richmond County’s education system and eliminate teacher furloughs and overcrowded classrooms.
She also feels that schools need to strongly encourage parental involvement in children at a very early age.
“Me, being the mother of a disabled son, I knew the importance of being involved in his day-to-day living and schooling,” Chivers said. “He was not a fast learner. So it took a little bit of extra time to reinforce what he was taught at school.”
With a little extra help, Chivers said her son was able to keep up with the other students and maintain his grades.
“I’m proud to say he graduated from T.W. Josey High School, he graduated from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and he has received a master’s degree from Mississippi State University,” Chivers said, smiling. “So, you have to start early and encourage parents to work with their children and the schools. You can’t start at 12 and 13 because their mindsets have already been set.”
Chivers insists that the needs and desires of her community will be her top priority.
Some of her goals in Atlanta include getting extra support for military families, caring for seniors, allowing better access to health care, improving highways and promoting economic development and job creation.
“We need continued job growth,” Chivers said, adding that she is excited about the Army Cyber Command being headquartered at Fort Gordon, but she says the area needs additional growth. “I don’t downplay the importance of Cyber Command. I welcome Cyber Command. I welcome Starbucks, but we need more.”
Augusta-Richmond County needs all areas of the community to grow and improve, she said.
“In order for a community to grow, it must have good schools, it must have continued job growth, it must have housing development so people can buy homes and it must have a safe and fully funded law enforcement because people want to feel safe inside and outside of their homes,” Chivers said. “Those things will spell success for Augusta-Richmond County.”
After all, Chivers said there are many companies throughout the country looking to relocated to the South.
“Companies want to relocate to the South because of the nice climate, land acquisition is affordable and wages are cost effective,” Chivers said.
All Augusta has to do is look at Caterpillar’s new manufacturing plant near Bogart and Athens to understand that companies are open to moving to Georgia. Caterpillar recently built a 850,000-square-foot facility near Athens that has a workforce of 1,400 employees.
“Augusta needs to be at the table,” Chivers said. “If Athens can do it, so can we.”
While Chivers understands that being a newcomer to Atlanta has its challenges, she believes her career as a Realtor has prepared her to work with all kinds of different people.
“Everyone has a common bond and each senator is in Atlanta to improve Georgia and make it a better place to live,” she said. “I believe that and I will build those relationships necessary to make a difference here at home.”
Chivers also says she is not afraid to think “outside of the box” when it comes to bringing more industry and businesses to the Augusta area.
“I know the governor is looking at things such as attracting the movie industry here, as well as television shows and music videos,” she said. “I don’t think that is bad idea because when people from the movie industry come into town, they bring in money. They have to stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, rent cars, buy gas and shop. It creates a lot of activity.
“So, while it is already happening in Atlanta and Savannah now, I would welcome that in the Augusta area as well.”