In a race to represent half of Augusta, the Augusta Commission Super District 9 election pits former Richmond County State Court Solicitor Harold V. Jones against former two-term Commissioner Marion Williams, probably one of Augusta’s most recognizable politicians.
Williams, 64, got on the commission by beating former Commissioner Freddie Handy by a slim margin in a 1999 runoff for District 2, then beat him again in 2003 for a second term.
Term-limited, Williams set his sights on the Senate District 22 seat in 2008 but lost in the Democratic primary to Ed Tarver, now a U.S. attorney. He lost again in a 2010 effort to unseat District 2 Commissioner Corey Johnson.
“They’re not cleaning out the ditches anymore; they’re not sweeping the streets anymore; the water can’t go anywhere,” Williams said of the city’s problems. “I put the blame on the commissioners.”
Canvassing the district recently, Williams said he spotted at least 25 burned-out houses left by owners and the city to disintegrate and house vagrants and vermin.
Williams shares the belief held by many that Augusta’s 1996 consolidation bill established five black districts and five white districts to ensure a balance, despite transiency, an increasing percentage of black residents and greater overall diversity.
“The charter was set up five and five so we have to work together,” he said. “If it was six blacks, it would be wrong.”
He said the commission is imbalanced now with five white commissioners and a white/Asian commissioner, making the four-member black minority powerless.
Williams might be best remembered for an idea that triggered an inquiry by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation – a proposed drag strip at Augusta Corporate Park off Mike Padgett Highway, across from which his son-in-law had purchased land before the proposal was made public.
Williams, who was not prosecuted, stood by his idea for a south Augusta attraction.
“We want the tourism, but for people to come here you’ve got to have a reason for people to come here,” he said. “No other commissioner has said nothing about bringing anything else to the city.”
Jones is far from inexperienced in Augusta politics and won nearly 60 percent of votes against Ben “Swain” McElmurray for State Court solicitor in 2004. He had lost an earlier bid for office, a 2002 state House race to Rep. Quincy Murphy..
Now 43 and practicing mostly criminal law with Shepard, Plunkett, Hamilton & Boudreaux, Jones remains active in politics. He had a hand in the voter turnout efforts that led to Richard Roundtree’s upset victory over Scott Peebles in the Democratic primary runoff for sheriff.
Unopposed for a second term as solicitor in 2008, Jones resigned the next year to run for state Senate against Hardie Davis. Davis won District 22, boosted by success in many white precincts, but Jones outpolled him in the 71 percent black District 9 portion of the Senate district by 1,132 votes.
“I feel very comfortable in District 9, without a doubt,” he said.
Jones said his legal skills would be an asset on the commission, primarily in ensuring that it has the facts and evidence it needs to make sound decisions.
Jones said the city’s big issues are infrastructure, poverty and jobs, and that there’s often no need to invent solutions.
“Most of the things that are affecting us, they’ve been looked at,” he said. “They just haven’t been acted upon.”
Jones said regardless of the color balance on the commission, overcoming Augusta’s racial divide is critical.
“No major city can grow unless you do something about that,” he said. “Atlanta is emblematic for that. No one is going to be on top with (Augusta’s) kind of racial dynamics.”
Beyond working together, Jones said, the commission must set common goals.
“It’s a lot of work that goes into being a commissioner,” he said. “You have the day-to-day; at the same time you have the strategic, the big picture of where you want the city to go.”
Jones suggested having staff establish a metric by which the commission could gauge difficult, complex choices, such as the elaborate deal-making and contracts associated with construction projects.
“Instead, it’s almost as though things are just handed to the commission,” he said.
Gene Hunt, a retired banker and longtime political observer who’s been involved in several campaigns, called the District 9 contest “a very difficult race to handicap.”
“My gut feeling is telling me that Marion is hard to beat,” Hunt said. However, “Harold is the kind that might beat him. Harold has run countywide and done pretty well.”
The higher turnout expected with the presidential election and a hotly contested sheriff’s race would likely favor Jones, Hunt said. He thinks the race will be close and likely result in a recount.
Voters’ familiarity with Williams will both help and hurt him, Hunt said.
“He’s going to be himself, and everybody knows what you get from Marion,” he said.
Which is unpredictability, said Ralph Walker, an Augusta State University political science professor emeritus. He notes that Williams didn’t always march in lockstep with his black colleagues on the commission.
Williams was “sort of an independent voice” with a “certain amount of leadership about him, a certain amount of charisma,” Walker said, predicting a close contest with Jones.
Former Commissioner Andy Cheek said Williams remains a friend but that he could support either him or Jones. Cheek said Williams would restore the openness in decision-making that the commission lacks.
“He’s not afraid to ask the questions,” Cheek said. “He’s not afraid of slick businessmen.”
Cheek predicted the black community might line up behind Jones for his youth, polish and professionalism. The younger community is less angry about the past and more concerned about the future and the basics – safety, cleanliness, infrastructure, Cheek said. The community will likely support “young black minds that will give off a good image for leadership,” and that is Jones, he said.