Racial balance on commission broken

It seemed like an impossibility three months ago during qualifying -- a white candidate emerging victorious in the race for Betty Beard's seat on the Augusta Commission.


It's a seat representing a district that's 65 percent black, which has never had a white commissioner since city-county consolidation. First it was held by Lee Beard, then by his widow.

But on Tuesday, voters propelled political newcomer Matt Aitken, a 51-year-old compressor building operator for Olin Corp., over a color barrier that's kept five commission seats white and five seats black for the past 14 years. In the District 1 runoff, he defeated former Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority member Bill Fennoy with 53.73 percent of the vote.

When all the votes had been posted at every precinct but two, and Mr. Aitken's reception at the Historic Richmond Hotel became a victory party, he slapped a high five to campaign manager Ed Presnell as the crowd began chanting, "Matt! Matt! Matt!" then, "Hard work! Hard work!"

"You talk about the end of an era, this is the end of an era," said attorney Joe Neal, a supporter of District 1 candidate Butch Palmer in the general election who followed him over to the Aitken camp. "The machine is dead. The machine's over."

"Augusta has spoken," Mr. Aitken said in his victory speech. "Not only District 1, but Augusta has spoken."

He spoke of the time he spent in prison on drug charges 19 years ago, how God changed his life and how it's going to take the power of God to change the city. He spoke of a need for healing, extending an offer to join forces with Mr. Fennoy's supporters and start "bridging gaps."

He thanked Mr. Palmer for endorsing him and actively campaigning for him, said the city needs to address chronic nuisance properties and repeated his platform points about spurring economic development.

"There's going to be some tough decisions ahead for Matt Aitken, but I think the Lord has prepared me for a day such as this," Mr. Aitken said. "I'm going to need your love even more. I'm going to need your prayers even more."

Arriving at his election-night party at the Modjeska Theatre & Bar, Mr. Fennoy said he was more disappointed with the number of people who voted than with the results.

Tuesday's turnout was 25 percent, 6 percent better than District 1's turnout in the Nov. 3 general election, when Mr. Aitken surpassed expectations by placing first out of four candidates with 40 percent of the vote.

With all precincts counted Tuesday, Mr. Aitken had 1,657 votes to Mr. Fennoy's 1,427. As in the general election, turnout was once again the key.

In the two largest white precincts, 101 and 107, voter turnout was 35 percent and 39 percent, respectively. In the two largest black precincts, 103 and 104, turnout was 22 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

Precinct 107 (Julian Smith Casino) provided the cushion that Mr. Aitken needed to pull off the upset, winning in a district where black registered voters outnumber their white counterparts almost 2 to 1. In the general election, Mr. Aitken won precinct 107 by a net difference of 268 votes against Mr. Fennoy. On Tuesday, he increased the margin by 169 votes.

Mr. Aitken won seven precincts in the runoff, one more than his total in the general election.

Asked whether he has any regrets about his campaign, Mr. Fennoy said, "No. I think I ran a good race. It's just difficult to get people out to vote."

Asked whether he regrets that race was injected into the campaign, he said the media injected race into the campaign more so than he.

Mr. Fennoy said the low turnout shows people are disenchanted with government. He said he was not saying the results indicated a racial vote, but if you look at the precincts Mr. Aitken won, they were "dominated by the white residents of Richmond County.

"And we weren't able to get the black votes out," he said.

Mr. Fennoy said he hopes Mr. Aitken does a good job as commissioner, listening to the people of District 1 and addressing their concerns.

Staff writer Mike Wynn and correspondent Sylvia Cooper contributed to this article.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.















101 Asbury United Methodist Church, 1305 Troupe St.35024
102 Crawford Avenue Baptist Church, 507 Crawford Ave.13762
103 Dyess Park, 902 James Brown Blvd.27264
104 Eastview Recreation Center, 644 Aiken Ave.87509
105 Second Mount Moriah Church, 1404 Brown St.288
106 Julian Smith Casino, 2200 Broad St.9147
107 Julian Smith Casino, 2200 Broad St.538101
108 Covenant Presbyterian Church, 3131 Walton Way2367
109 May Park, 708 Fourth St.5625
110 Peabody Apartments, 1452 Walton Way3030
111 Paine College, Gilbert Lambuth Chapel, 1235 Druid Park Ave.10558
112 St. John Towers, 724 Greene St.15351
113 May Park, 708 Fourth St.58101



"Augusta has spoken."

- Matt Aitken

"We weren't able to get the black votes out."

- Bill Fennoy

"It was too high stakes and just got too racial."

- Stanley Hawes, president of Laney-Walker Development Association

"Mr. Aitken is the one they chose and hopefully he will get in and do a good job."

- Calvin Holland, district city commissioner

"It proves a good white candidate can win in a minority district, and people of District 1 are tired of the same old rhetoric. They want some change." - Dave Barbee, Republican Party leader

"The tone of the campaign did a lot to help him win it. ... I think people are just tired of having the 'race card' played."

- Bob Young, former mayor

"It's a new day in Augusta."

- Helen Blocker-Adams, former mayoral candidate