Election could determine fate of TEE center

There are two main schools of thought about changes in the modus operandi of the Augusta Commission as a result of Tuesday’s election.

One is that nothing will really change. The other is that the racial balance on the 10-member board will tilt white with the election of either Matt Aitken or James “Butch” Palmer to the District 1 seat, a cause of concern among some in the black community.

One of those espousing the first view is Ralph Walker, director of the Research Center at Augusta State University.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a difference at all,” Dr. Walker said. “That commission is pretty much five-five, and it’s going to stay that way. And when somebody doesn’t like something, they’re going to abstain.”

Dr. Walker said he doesn’t see any difference in the philosophies of the candidates for the District 1 and District 5 seats, except for Mr. Palmer and Mr. Aitken, from those they would replace – Commissioners Betty Beard and Calvin Holland.

The District 1 race is the one many are following closely, as it has the opportunity to change the complexion of the board – racially and some say, politically. Barbara Gordon, publisher and owner of the Metro Courier newspaper, a weekly that focuses on African- American issues, said that race is, by far, the most important race on Tuesday’s ballot because the black community must maintain a 5-5 racial balance and cannot trust other representatives to do the right thing for them.

“In my analysis, I believe the District 1 race will be won by William 'Bill’ Fennoy,” Ms. Gordon wrote in an e-mail response. “The other frontrunner, Matt Aitken, is a good, decent man with good intentions. But we know when the chips are down, he will not be able to withstand the pressure from the white power structure.”

Black businessman J.R. Riles has similar concerns. “In District 1 if anybody wins besides a black it’s going to change the whole dynamics of the commission,” he said. “It would upset the racial balance. You’d have six white commissioners and four black. I think if they had six white commissioners they wouldn’t have a problem with the TEE Center.”

The city’s $38 million politically stalled trade, exhibit and event center on Reynolds Street adjacent to the Marriott Hotel & Suites is a hot campaign issue that has received unqualified support from only Mr. Aitken and District 3 incumbent Joe Bowles.

District 5 candidate Bobby Hankerson said voters voted for the TEE Center and commissioners need to carry out their wishes, but he would first try to find out why it is stalled.

Mr. Hankerson’s opponent, Bill Lockett, said the issue should go back to the voters because they approved only $20 million for the project in 2005.

Mrs. Beard shares Mr. Riles’ opinion that the election of a white candidate to the District 1 seat would upset the board’s racial balance and give the project the sixth vote needed to get built.

“I think if Aitken is elected we will see a lot of changes,” she said. “I think those changes will set us back 20 to 30 years. I think we need diversity in the commission because when you have diversity you have people looking at issues from different perspectives. That way you have balance. For so many years it was like the only thing that was important was downtown. Downtown is important, but other areas are important as well. If Aitken gets in, the TEE Center will be built.”

Former Augusta Mayor Bob Young also agreed that if Mr. Aitken wins the District 1 seat or former Augusta Commissioner Mr. Hankerson wins the District 5 seat over Mr. Lockett, the TEE C enter will go forward on Reynolds Street. But that would be the only big change for one simple reason: The city is fresh out of money.

“The only issue out there now that’s fallen along racial lines is the TEE Center,” Mr. Young said. “Other than that, the common denominator is how do you fund the government. The city doesn’t have any money.

“So it doesn’t matter who gets elected. The city’s finances are going to dominate the discussion. And as much as the public doesn’t like to hear it, the new commissioners and the current commissioners have got to learn to say no. And no is a hard word for somebody in public office to say. I can tell you that.”

Former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek said Mr. Palmer would do the most in shaking things up if he’s elected to the District 1 seat.

“I don’t see (William) Fennoy doing anything different than Betty Beard,” he said. “He’s part of the same old political machine that basically ensures that we continue to see District 1 suffer with high crime and lack of job creation.”

However, Mr. Cheek said he thinks Mr. Fennoy is the most likely candidate to win.

“I think he’s positioned himself quite nicely as the defender of the black population,” he said.

In the District 5 race, Mr. Cheek said he thinks Mr. Hankerson should win.

“Bobby Hankerson suffered an awful lot of abuse from bigots in the black community because he wouldn’t be their lap dog,” he said. “I think people have had enough of (District 5 Commissioner) Calvin Holland. And I don’t think Bill Lockett is like Calvin. So if either one wins, the city wins.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Holland, who endorsed Mr. Lockett, said Mr. Lockett is “not easily persuaded” and would stand firm against the Tee Center.

“If Palmer or Aitken are elected in District 1, it would upset the racial balance,” he said. “If Mr. Palmer is elected, the city would have a very, very vocal and concerned commissioner.”

Tenth District Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee is another political insider who doesn’t see “a whole lot of change” coming from the election.

“I don’t see Aitken winning,” he said. “I see Fennoy winning. But I think if Aitken could pull this thing out and Hankerson pull this thing out, I think you’d have a less rancorous commission than we have. We’d have more discussion and dialogue for the betterment of Augusta – the overall Augusta.”

It just depends on turnout, Mr. Barbee said.

“If it’s a low turnout, it favors Aitken and Hankerson,” he said. “If it’s a large turnout – 25-30 percent – it would favor Fennoy and Lockett. I think Hankerson and Aitken would be more moderate if they win. The others would be more partisan. So no real change.”

As for the District 3 race, where newcomers Joy Mitchell-Booker and Cleveland O’Steen are challenging incumbent Joe Bowles, everyone predicted Mr. Bowles would win and continue to push his agenda of less government and fiscal conservatism.

“If people in District 3 have got a lick of sense, Joe Bowles will go in with an overwhelming majority,” Mr. Cheek said.

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