EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth installment of a 10-part series on the top stories of 2012.
When Ronnie Strength announced in March that he would not seek another term as Richmond County sheriff, a flurry of hats was tossed into the ring as candidates lined up to take his place.
Few predicted the election’s outcome eight months later.
In March, Richard Roundtree was one of six men who announced their intentions to become the county’s next sheriff.
Over the next few months, he would battle his way from an underfunded Democratic underdog to the prohibitive favorite facing Republican Freddie Sanders in the general election.
On Nov. 6, he made local history – becoming Richmond County’s first black sheriff in the office’s 230 years.
Roundtree, a public safety lieutenant for the Richmond County Board of Education, was one of four Democrats and two Republicans who competed for the office.
The other Democrats were veteran sheriff’s officers: Lt. John Ivey, Lt. Robbie Silas and Capt. Scott Peebles.
From the start, Peebles appeared to have an advantage over his opponents, both in name recognition and in support. His campaign coffers overflowed with donations, and “Peebles for Sheriff” signs and billboards sprang up on yards and in front of businesses throughout the county.
In the July 31 primary election, Peebles got 47 percent of votes cast, not quite enough to win outright. Roundtree came in second with 39 percent, setting up a runoff election Aug. 21. The winner would face Sanders, who had soundly defeated Mike Godowns in the Republican primary.
Peebles received high-profile endorsements from Strength and Mayor Deke Copenhaver after the primary, and some predicted he would sail into the November election.
Roundtree, however, rallied his supporters and surprised many by doing what few expected – persuading almost 2,000 more supporters to go to the polls than had on July 31.
“I think the citizens of Augusta responded and said we’re not going to let them dictate our destiny,” Roundtree said after his win.
Citing similar ideas for changes at the sheriff’s office, Peebles gave his former opponent his endorsement. Strength, however, backed his longtime friend Sanders in the general election.
Roundtree went on to win in November with 63 percent of the votes.
Roundtree said the victory was the result of a plan that began to form more than six years ago, when he was a sergeant investigating violent crimes for the sheriff’s office.
That’s when, he said, he saw the correlation between lack of education and the rate of violent crime in Augusta.
An Augusta native and a graduate of T.W. Josey High School, Roundtree was able to avoid many of the pitfalls facing black youths when he got a football scholarship to South Carolina State University, he said.
After realizing the win Nov. 6, Roundtree acknowledged it was a big moment in Richmond County.
“Everyone in this room, everyone within the sound of my voice can say, ‘I was there when things changed in Augusta,’ ” he said.