District's demographics will play key role

If Matt Aitken is to pull off what would be a monumental upset on Dec. 1 -- tipping the racial balance on the Augusta Commission for the first time since city-county consolidation -- it will come down to one thing: turnout.

 

Can he get his supporters back to the polls, and will blacks in the heavily minority district again fail to turn out?

The voter demographics should favor Mr. Aitken's opponent, William Fennoy, because the district is 65 percent black. But on Tuesday, Mr. Aitken made inroads into the black precincts while winning big in the predominantly white precincts.

Barbara Gordon, the publisher and owner of the Metro Courier , a black weekly, said Tuesday's turnout in the black precincts was disappointing and community leaders must make sure there isn't a repeat performance next month.

"We have a second chance to pull it off, and black folks got to realize how important this seat is," she said. "I don't think black folks fully understand what we stand to lose if we lose this seat.

"The black leadership will make sure they understand," she said. "Folk want to say race is not an issue anymore but it is, and it is what it is. The black community needs someone who understands the dynamics of the black community."

District 1 has 13 precincts, 10 of which are majority black. Mr. Aitken won seven of the precincts, compared to six for Mr. Fennoy.

A peek at turnout in the district's four largest precincts -- two majority black and two majority white -- helps explain Mr. Aitken's surprising showing.

In the overwhelmingly black precincts of 103 (96 percent black) and 104 (93 percent black), turnout was 16 percent and 15 percent respectively. In the two majority white precincts -- 101 (81 percent white) and 107 (59 percent white), the percentage turnout was much higher at 26 and 32, respectively.

Overall turnout in Tuesday's election was 16.94 percent, slightly exceeding Richmond County Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey's prediction of 10 percent to 15 percent. The turnout barely missed breaking the record low for a commission election.

Turnout in District 1 exceeded the overall percentage, reaching 19 percent.

Ralph Walker, a longtime Augusta political observer and political science professor at Augusta State University, said he expects dismal turnout to again work in Mr. Aitken's favor next time around.

Normally, he said, when an election goes to a runoff, the first-place finisher goes on to lose. Such was the case in 2005, when then-interim Mayor Willie Mays came in first in a special election to replace former Mayor Bob Young, then went on to lose to Deke Copenhaver in a runoff. Voters who backed the other candidates typically rally behind the second-place finisher, Dr. Walker said.

But he doesn't think that will happen this time. Turnout Dec. 1 will be even worse, he said, with Mr. Palmer's and Ms. Jenkins' supporters probably staying home, and Mr. Fennoy facing the same challenge as always of getting black voters to the polls.

"There just doesn't seem to be momentum behind the other three, that I can see," Dr. Walker said.

Mr. Fennoy said when he hits the pavement during the next month, he'll stress to voters what's at stake if Mr. Aitken wins.

They disagree on the proposed trade, exhibit and event center, with Mr. Aitken saying he'll vote to build it on the site adjacent to the existing convention center inside Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites, and Mr. Fennoy leaning toward moving it to James Brown Arena.

He said he'll also be telling people that if Mr. Aitken wins, the political influence of black Commissioners J.R. Hatney, Alvin Mason and Corey Johnson, and District 5 Commissioner-elect Bill Lockett, will be diminished.

"We cannot afford to allow them to be voiceless," Mr. Fennoy said.

Asked about his strategy for winning the runoff, Mr. Aitken said it was too early to say.

"Tomorrow, we'll have a new game plan," he said, "but right now, we're still in celebration mode."

Reach Mike Wynn and Johnny Edwards at (706) 724-0851.

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