In 2009, Matt Aitken rode a post-Obama election year wave of low turnout to make consolidated Augusta history, becoming the first white candidate to represent majority-black District 1, shifting what many believe was a built-in racial balance on the Augusta Commission to a 6-4 white majority.
Three years later, however, as Aitken’s name appears on the ballot with those of President Obama and black sheriff candidate Richard Roundtree, black voters are expected to come out in larger numbers and possibly reshape the commission.
Aitken’s opponents for the District 1 seat are former Laney Walker Neighborhood Association President Stanley Hawes, retired health educator Bill Fennoy, and Augusta Green Party founder Denice Traina.
In 2009’s four-way general election, Aitken won the most votes, sweeping District 1’s majority white precincts of Asbury United Methodist, Julian Smith Casino (107) and St. John’s Towers, but losing majority-white precinct Crawford Avenue Baptist to Harrisburg activist Butch Palmer.
The previous year’s voter registration surge that added about 1,600 voters to the District 1 rolls – about 80 percent of whom were black – and a presidential-election turnout in the district of nearly 50 percent didn’t show itself in the off-year 2009 commission race. Only 19 percent of 12,420 registered voters turned out Nov. 3 to pick among white candidates Aitken and Palmer and black candidates Bill Fennoy, a retired health educator, and event planner Jo’Rae Jenkins.
Aitken’s 40 percent of votes in the general election sent him and Fennoy, who won 32.5 percent, into a runoff.
Turnout increased to 25 percent of registered voters for the runoff, with more voters going to the polls in all District 1 precincts except for precinct 106 at Julian Smith, which is 57 percent black. There it dropped by a third. University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock estimated white turnout at 29.9 percent and black turnout at 21.6 percent, with 23.2 percent of blacks voting for Aitken.
Aitken carried the runoff with 54 percent to Fennoy’s 46 percent, a difference of 230 votes. A number of black ministers had urged black voters, who outnumbered the district’s white voters 2-to-1, to return to the polls to defeat the white candidate, but it didn’t happen.
The white majority on the commission, which diminished slightly with the 2010 election of Wayne Guilfoyle, a Hephzibah native whose mother is Japanese, has championed avoidance of the familiar gridlock that delayed construction projects and major decisions on previous commissions. However, the four-member black minority on the commission complains that its interests are ignored as the “gang of six” white commissioners pass actions without consulting their black colleagues.
“When you decide as six, when you walk into the meeting and you already know,” said black Commissioner Bill Lockett, who is unopposed this year for his District 5 post. “In many instances this has happened – the municipal golf course, Mobility, the budget – there are so many things we’ve been force-fed.”
A white majority on the commission voted last year along color lines to adopt a new personnel manual, reorganize the government and outsource management of the city golf course and bus service, despite dire public statements by black commissioners. Outsourcing the golf course and bus service, to Mobility Public Transit, hasn’t gone well, with both private firms struggling and held in default of their contracts.
City Administrator Fred Russell, who has been accused by Lockett of seeking the six white commissioners’ support while ignoring the black commissioners, insists he prefers an even color split because it forces both sides to compromise on important decisions. However, in the 5-5 era, commissioners typically abstained or left to prevent Mayor Deke Copenhaver from breaking ties, Russell said.
Aitken, who refused to attend events with Fennoy before the 2009 runoff, dismissed the issue of race altogether and said he preferred to focus on achievements.
“I think people are missing the mark when they use color,” he said. “People respect a true leader.”
Still, media attention – both good and bad – has given him “a lot more name recognition” and Aitken said people across the district recognize him when he rides through on his bicycle.
The ministers are once again lining up behind Fennoy to level the commission, said former District 1 candidate Lori Davis, who along with former District 1 candidate Thelonious Jones recently dropped out of the race, citing disgust with racial politics, among other factors.
Davis, who is white and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2010, was the outspoken Harrisburg activist teammate of Butch Palmer during his run for commission. The pair threw themselves behind Aitken in the 2009 runoff because he committed to implementing an ordinance to help them deal with landlord absenteeism and criminal activities in Harrisburg, the former mill village where both live and where Aitken was raised.
She no longer supports Aitken, however. After the election, Davis said, Aitken stopped returning her calls about concerns in the neighborhood and did nothing to implement the ordinance.
“Matt Aitken never did one thing,” she said. “We were expecting him to step up.”
In the 2009 race she and Palmer promised to deliver Harrisburg to Aitken, who now lives in Olde Town. In the runoff, Aitken won Harrisburg’s Crawford Avenue Baptist Church and Julian Smith precincts while tying with Fennoy at Peabody Apartments.
Davis, who remains a neighborhood activist as president of the West Augusta Neighborhood Alliance, has thrown her support in the District 1 race behind a black candidate – Hawes, the former president of the Laney-Walker Neighborhood Association.
Hawes “thinks for himself,” Davis said. “He has very strong feelings about right and wrong, not black and white.”
A minister himself, Aitken estimated it might take two terms for him to win over the pastors who oppose his presence on the commission.
“It’s kind of sad that ministers even take a stance in that way,” he said. “I’m just going to have to stand on my record.”
The extent of the “Obama effect” that expanded Richmond County voting rolls by nearly 20,000 and turnout of black and white voters to 75 percent in the 2008 presidential election remains to be seen. Despite some registration rallies and speeches, the rolls haven’t experienced the same dramatic increases this year.
Lowell Greenbaum, the chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party, said the party will strive to ensure that voters go to the polls Nov. 6 and resist fatigue as they wade through a lengthy ballot. The District 1 race might fall at the very end, he said.
The commission elections are nonpartisan, a characteristic Greenbaum said drives the constant reference to race rather than political affiliation, but local Obama voters will likely return to the polls Nov. 6.
A “Roundtree effect,” seen when about 2,000 additional voters turned out Aug. 21 to decide the runoff between Democratic sheriff nominees Scott Peebles, who is white, and Richard Roundtree, who is black, also could influence local elections, Greenbaum said.