Talk about a close race.
While Duncan, the current District 1 county commissioner, was the top vote-getter with about 47 percent of the votes, Tucker, the county’s former EMA director, was a very close second with about 44 percent.
The big question now is, who will be able to get his or her supporters back to the polls for the July 24 runoff?
Next year, will it be Chairman Doug Duncan or Chairwoman Pam Tucker?
Only voters in Columbia County can decide.
“I will take my endorsements of 200 citizens who donated what money they could to me over all of the politicians that he had, any day. Any day.” — Pam Tucker
As the two candidates prepare to face one another in the July 24 runoff, Tucker says she is confident that her loyal supporters will head back to the polls next month to ensure her win.
“All of my people are saying, ‘I am going back!’ And that’s what I need,” Tucker said, smiling. “If all of my supporters who voted for me in the primary will go back to the polls, I can win. They just have got to come back.”
But Tucker realizes that during the summer months, a lot of voters will be headed to the beach or spending time vacationing with their families.
They probably aren’t thinking about the July runoff.
“That’s why, when I run into them face-to-face, I’ll say, ‘I’m so tickled that you are supporting me, but you’ve got to go back to the polls,’” Tucker said. “Everybody has to make a little effort. Even if you are going to be gone that week, you can early vote starting on July 2. Surely there is a day somewhere in there that people can vote. That’s the hope.”
Despite the fact that Duncan received some impressive political endorsements from state and local elected officials such as Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle and Grovetown Mayor Gary Jones, Tucker says she’s not worried.
“I will take my endorsements of 200 citizens who donated what money they could to me over all of the politicians that he had, any day. Any day,” she repeated. “It’s not hard for a sitting commissioner, who is being fully supported by the current chair, to call up elected officials and say, ‘Hey, I need you to do this.’ And they are going to do it.
And he beat me by 2.74 percent, so I think that also speaks volumes that people didn’t care about his endorsements.”
Voters also proved that the most money spent on a campaign doesn’t always matter if your message is clear and connects with the people, Tucker said.
“Of course, the money difference has been huge. My opponent has spent as much money with one marketing firm as I’ve spent on my whole campaign, as of the March disclosure,” Tucker said. “He spent $23,735 with Parlay Marketing (of Athens, Ga.) and I spent a total of $24,154 on my whole campaign. But I made good use of my campaign funds.”
Tucker said she valued each and every penny that she received from local donors.
“My money came from average citizens who were able to give me $50 or $100,” Tucker said. “I have had over 200 donations, but most of those have been the amount that people can afford. And I have really treasured those because those donations are from the people.”
Asking local residents and supporters to donate money to her campaign has been the toughest part of running for office, Tucker said.
“I wrote thank you cards every single night,” Tucker said. “Seriously. I sat and wrote thank you cards from my heart to those people because I know how hard it is for a lot of them just to make ends meet, much less donate to an election. But they said to me, ‘Don’t worry about it. We need you to win.’”
Her donations came from people desperately wanting change in Columbia County, Tucker said.
“What I hear from people is that I’m their last hope,” Tucker said. “That if I cannot beat the establishment, nobody will be able to.”
When Tucker uses words like the “establishment” or the “good ol’ boy system,” she insists that it’s not political propaganda.
Instead, she believes such a power structure currently controls Columbia County.
“The good ol’ boy system exists. However, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be a boy,” Tucker said, laughing. “My definition of the good ol’ boy system is whenever the sitting leaders pick who they want to be on the commission and they throw money at them and get other people to throw money at them to win the seats because they are going to be in lockstep with the philosophies and visions of the current leadership. That’s my definition of the good ol’ boy system. And yes, that happens 100 percent.”
There needs to be a variety of people with new ideas for the future of the county to serve on the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, Tucker said.
“That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’m still trying because I realize what I’m up against,” she said. “Right is right and wrong is wrong. And I don’t owe anybody anything, and nobody owes me anything. I’m a clean slate. I’m a smart woman. I’ve had 40 years of experience working in local government. I know what to do going in the door, and I care about the people. I’m the people’s choice.”
As chair of the Columbia County Commission, Tucker said she pledges to represent every single person in the county.
“I want to represent the entire county and make sure that every single citizen is treated equally and fairly, no matter where they live in this county,” she said. “And you know what? Not everybody in Columbia County is wealthy, but everybody does pay taxes. We have got to look out for our taxpayers, and right now, I don’t see the transparency that we need. People certainly have a right to know how their money is being spent.”
Tucker says she is also looking forward to working with all of the current and newly elected commissioners.
“I understand different personalities. I realize there are existing relationships with the commissioners,” Tucker said. “There are going to be three of us who are new to the commission, and Trey Allen and Gary Richardson have two more years in their terms. I think the world of Gary, and I have worked with Trey about eight years. I have no problem working with any of the commissioners.”
Attitudes will definitely change once Columbia County Chairman Ron Cross leaves the office at the end of the year, Tucker said.
“I think once the change occurs and the current chair evacuates the building, then I think we can sit down and we can have serious discussions about where we need to take this county,” she said. “We will lay everything else aside.”
Tucker says she wants to work with everyone in the county.
“I am going to go in with open arms. What they do will be entirely up to them, but I strongly encourage that they also have that positive attitude and let’s work together,” Tucker said. “People don’t have to like me. That’s fine. But they have to understand that when I win, I’ll be the chairperson and I’m going to have meetings and have open discussions with everybody to get everybody’s point of view on everything. But we are going to need to get on a track together.
“None of us can do anything alone. But together we can move mountains and with the growth that is coming to Columbia County; that’s what we are going to have to do.”
As for the possibility of working with her former boss, County Administrator Scott Johnson, Tucker said only time will tell.
“I don’t know what will happen with him because he’s got this other business,” Tucker said, referring to Johnson’s side business called Exceeding Excellence Consulting, LLC, which was created in 2017 with deputy administrators Matt Schlachter and Glenn Kennedy. “I think he set this other business up, as I heard him say on the radio or something, as a back-up plan. So I don’t know if that will even be an issue or not. That’s up to him.”
Tucker says she is concentrating on the entire county as a whole.
“I am not running against him. My thing is, I know where the problems are in the county,” she said. “And a lot of the problems have come from a culture in management that causes people to be very unhappy. And I think, no matter what it
takes, we need to change that. Happy employees are going to better serve the public. They are not going to come to work feeling anxious and nauseous and nervous.”
One of her greatest joys in campaigning over the past 16 months has been meeting new people and talking to citizens all over the county about their concerns, she said.
“There are people who have had long-term, existing, serious problems that impact their homes. And you know, a home is a huge investment, but what they are told by the county is, ‘Well, you can try to sue us but we will just tie you up in court until you can’t afford it anymore,’” Tucker said, shaking her head. “In fact, I have sat in a woman’s home during a heavy rain and the water went through the back door and out her front door. Can you imagine? That’s her home.”
But county officials just threw up their hands and said there was nothing they could do about the flooding, she said.
“If I am elected chair, we are not going to run a government where we disrespect our citizens,” Tucker said. “We are going to show them respect and we are going to listen to them.”
After serving as EMA director for about four decades, first in Augusta and then in Columbia County, Tucker said she is well-versed in helping the public.
“There is always a compromise that you can make with people. There is always something you can do,” she said. “And in that tiny percentage of times where you simply can’t directly help, you can still help them to understand why and guide them to ways that they can get help. You simply can’t say, ‘That’s not my problem.’ There are always ways to help somebody and I’ve done that over and over and over throughout my career.”
Even as just a candidate for chair of the Columbia County Commission, Tucker said citizens have reached out to her and asked for assistance.
“I hear from people who have been trying to call a county department about a problem and they can’t get an answer,” Tucker said. “I just tell them, try to go through 311, but if that doesn’t work, here are other avenues to try to get your answer because I can’t answer in an official capacity. At least not yet.”
However, Tucker did get a call from a citizen who needed immediate help and she couldn’t send her back to 311.
“I did have one situation that I felt was an immediate danger,” Tucker said. “A lady called me and she had been calling over and over and over and could not get any help with a tree that was on county property, on the right-of-way. The tree had been badly damaged after a storm and it was close to falling on her property, so I gave her the direct number of someone who I knew would go and help her.”
Within hours, Tucker heard back from the woman regarding the damaged tree.
“She called me back and said, ‘They are going to have a bucket truck out here in the morning,’” Tucker said. “So after her many, many efforts, I got her the help she needed, even as a citizen, which is what I am now because I couldn’t ignore her. That’s just who I am. I know the operations. I know the people. And they know me.”
“It’s another election and we have to start all over, to a certain degree. I got about 400 more votes and then, of course, Mark Herbert endorsed me. But runoffs are different. It is just who you get to show up to the polls.” — Doug Duncan
District 1 Commissioner Doug Duncan said he fully expected there would be runoff in the race for chair of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.
“There were three viable candidates so it was unlikely that one person was going to win without a runoff,” Duncan said, referring to his opponents Pam Tucker and Mark Herbert. “It was fortunate that I got the most number of votes and made the runoff, so that was two wins. And now it’s just round two.”
The runoff will be all about who gets the most early voters and reminding people to head to the polls on July 24, Duncan said.
“It’s another election and we have to start all over, to a certain degree,” Duncan said. “I got about 400 more votes and then, of course, Mark Herbert endorsed me. But runoffs are different. It is just who you get to show up to the polls.”
Fortunately, the July 24 ballot will also include the Republican primary runoff for governor between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp as well as Republican candidates for lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan and David Shafer and the runoff for Republican Secretary of State, Duncan said.
“The more races, the more people come out to vote,” Duncan said, adding that he is a statistician at heart who has thoroughly looked at the May 22 election results. “I looked at the numbers and studied them. Right now, I have a number in my head where I think it is going to happen. So I’m working to ask those people to return to the polls to vote.
I need 50 percent plus one to win, so I’m going, face-to-face, to those people and asking them, ‘Please vote.’ But early voting is critical.”
While Duncan realizes the primary election was close, he’s confident he will win on July 24.
“If you do the work and stay focused, then you should get out of the gate early and predict reasonable results if you have a solid plan,” Duncan said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a lot of support and a lot of endorsements.”
Very few local candidates in recent history have gotten such statewide endorsements as Duncan in this year’s election, including nods from Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
When people ask Duncan how he got such impressive endorsements throughout Georgia, he simply says it’s all about “being involved.”
“I have worked with them on issues, and I communicate with them,” Duncan said. “A lot of people don’t communicate or talk to people until something materially affects them, and then usually they are upset.”
That’s not how he operates, Duncan said.
“I have been involved with these people for years on different projects,” Duncan said. “I know them personally. I have helped them with their campaigns; I have engaged in issues and I’ve been working within the community, so I know them.”
Therefore, when the primary approached, Duncan said he just gave people a call to ask for their support.
“I just called and asked and they said, ‘Sure,’” Duncan said. “Several years ago, the governor appointed me to the State Workforce Investment Board. I know him. I worked with him on several issues. So I just called and asked.”
Such endorsements are proof that he is connected to valuable leadership all across the state, Duncan said.
“I have these relationships and they help where it matters,” he said. “For example, you talk about road projects. Road projects are all about funding. Where are you going to get the money to do it? And you can’t do major road projects without federal funding, state funding or some type of retail tax, like the TSPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax).”
As Fort Gordon and Cyber Command continue to grow and expand, there will be necessary road projects to improve the traffic flow throughout the county, but also leading into to the fort, Duncan said.
Such road projects could be millions of dollars, so the county will have to look to the federal and state governments for funding.
“Where my relationships benefit Columbia County is, I can pick up the phone and call the right people and start the dialogue and get a response,” he said. “It’s all about relationships. Relationships matter in order to get things done. You are not going to stand on anybody’s desk and shout at them and get any results.”
Duncan said it’s crucial for the county to work with state and federal officials to help prepare the entire area for the growth of Fort Gordon.
“I am a big supporter of Fort Gordon. I will do anything I can to support Fort Gordon’s growth,” he said. “And that’s where those important relationships come in, being able to engage those folks who have that influence in the process where it benefits Columbia County taxpayers and Fort Gordon.”
But it is also important for county leaders to listen to the concerns of its residents and try to mitigate the impact of such incredible growth on the community, he said.
“We are blessed with great growth. We just have to manage it properly,” Duncan said. “Everybody has their own happy medium when it comes to growth. Some folks are saying, ‘I don’t want any more growth.’ But if you build houses for a living, you know each house built is three full-time jobs.”
The construction industry has an enormous impact on the county’s economy, Duncan said.
“Most people don’t think about the plumber, the electrician and the roofer as well as the HVAC units and the refrigerators and stoves being sold and installed in these homes each day,” he said. “That drives the economy and it filters down to other folks, so we are blessed with the growth. We just have to manage it as properly as you possibly can.”
One of the aspects of being a county commissioner that Duncan said he enjoys the most is managing the community’s growth and watching the progress throughout the county.
“It’s also refreshing to keep my thumb on the spending and make sure that we are not wasting money,” he said. “I enjoy
having control over spending to make sure that we don’t have a runaway government. We just passed a balanced budget and there was very little change.”
In fact, Columbia County is known for its low cost of living and Duncan is determined to keep it that way.
“The commission has only lowered taxes in the last 10 years,” he said. “The county is very well aware of the need to keep the low millage rate. If someone is complaining about higher taxes, well the value of their property is going up, not the millage rate. If the value of your house goes up, that’s good. You are making money.”
Duncan is also extremely proud of the positive relationships he has with his colleagues on the commission, as well as the city employees.
“We have a strong relationship,” Duncan said about the members of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. “We consult each other on issues. We call. I will say, ‘Hey Gary (Richardson), what do you think about that?’ We talk. That’s why I think meetings happen so quickly. We communicate. And if I disagree with something and if the vote is 4-1 and I’m losing, that’s just the way it is. I accept that.”
The last thing the current Columbia County commissioners want is to publicly fight with one another, Duncan said.
“We work and go out of our way not to embarrass the citizens,” he said. “We don’t want to be seen in public fighting. I mean, we do butt heads. Oh, yes. We do butt heads and sometimes it’s bloody, but out of the respect for the citizens and each other, we don’t fight in public.”
When asked how he thought the relationships on the commission might change if Pam Tucker was elected chair, Duncan said he wouldn’t comment on anything regarding his opponent.
“No drama means I don’t engage any comments about the other candidate,” he said. “No response is a strong response.”
Besides, as a commissioner, Duncan said there are too many important issues facing the county to get bogged down by personality differences.
“We’ve got half a billion dollars worth of projects on our plate,” he said. “That is going to dominate our time, just seeing those through and completing them on time and on budget. I am trying to keep the county moving forward, and I am trying to control the expenses because they can run away quickly. Let’s get these roads and buildings and parks completed on time and under budget.”
While a lot of people consider “quality of life” issues as items such as parks and community programs, Duncan says he puts the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and fire department in the same category.
“To me, those are quality of life issues,” he said, adding that Columbia County is blessed with an outstanding sheriff’s office and fire department. “And I want to keep them that way. I want the sheriff’s office to have everything they need, within reason, to make sure this county is protected. I’ll say it this way: good schools, good shopping and great roads mean nothing if you have high crime.”
It also meant a great deal to Duncan that Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle endorsed him earlier in the race, he said.
“I was honored,” Duncan said. “I have known him a long time, but I don’t know him awfully well. But he came out for me very strongly and even offered to do an ad. That’s very nice, and I really appreciated it.”
Duncan said he believes the sheriff understands that they both view the importance of law enforcement as one of the county’s top priorities.
“Back when the governor offered state law enforcement a 20-percent raise across the board, I immediately called Clay and said, ‘We need to talk. With those kinds of salaries we are going to lose people, possibly our seasoned people,’” Duncan said. “I went to the commission and said, ‘We need to address this and find a way to raise their pay.’ And we did. I am out there with the sheriff trying to do whatever they need to make sure the streets and roads are safe.”
But Duncan said it is important for the new chairperson to be able to work with everyone within the county government.
“Our form of county government is not unlike a business,” he said. “The board of directors are the commissioners, your administrator is like the president or CEO, and the assistant administrators are like your vice presidents.”
Each has a very important role within the county, Duncan said.
“The chairman does not run the county,” he said. “I will not run Columbia County. That is not my job. I just oversee and give direction. I remember (Commissioner) Trey Allen described it one time by saying the commission is the conscience of the county. I agree with that. And I want a good relationship with everybody because we are all on the same team.”