When the final votes were tallied Tuesday night in the Democratic runoff for Richmond County sheriff, the result left a lot of people scratching their heads.
Many wondered how the candidate with the most media presence, the largest war chest and endorsements from the likes of Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Sheriff Ronnie Strength came up short – and how the underdog came out on top.
The winner, school system public safety Lt. Richard Roundtree, said his secret to success was no secret – he and his campaign team tried to make personal contact with as many voters as possible, from the time of his announcement in March to when the polls closed Tuesday.
Part of that strategy was out of necessity. Roundtree’s campaign didn’t have the deep pockets of his opponent, sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles, so buying a lot of campaign signs and billboards or paying for mailings was not an option.
When campaign finance reports were last filed with the state in early July, Peebles had more than $57,000 cash on hand. Roundtree had about $3,300.
Roundtree said his team had to be creative with few resources.
“Scott had over 600 signs. We only had 50, but we just kept moving ours,” he said. “I’ve always said they might outspend us, but they won’t outwork us.”
Roundtree said his strategy of reaching out to individual voters was ramped up for election day. His team of 35 volunteers continuously worked the streets, seeking out potential voters in stores, parks and other public places. They reminded voters to get to the polls and arranged rides for those who had no transportation.
Roundtree said he went to convenience stores all day Tuesday looking for voters who hadn’t made it to the polls.
“I must have bought 15 packs of chewing gum,” he said. “All day long, our strategy was to get our voters out.”
The numbers indicate the strategy worked.
Roundtree received almost 2,000 more votes in the runoff than he did in the July 31 primary, the accumulation of gains in 62 of 77 precincts. Peebles’ total dropped by almost 700, losing votes in 47 precincts.
Peebles’ supporters attributed the loss to complacency among those who voted for him in the primary.
“I have to hand it to Richard; he beat us fair and square,” said Strength, who endorsed Peebles after he came in first in the primary with about 47 percent of the votes cast.
“There’s not much else you can say about it,” he said. “Apathy will get you.”
Roundtree said it wasn’t just a matter of Peebles voters’ failing to show up. He said some of those voters came over to his side.
“We had folks tell us, ‘You know, I voted for Scott, but this time I’m voting for you,’ ” he said.
There is some evidence that might have occurred. Many of the precincts where Roundtree had his largest gains were the same majority black precincts where Peebles had his biggest declines.
Roundtree said he has learned a lot of lessons he intends to apply in the Nov. 6 race against Republican Freddie Sanders.
“Throughout this race we had no political advisers or a political machine behind us,” Roundtree said. “We made some mistakes along the way, but from the beginning we said we weren’t going to do a traditional campaign.”
Sanders said he expects a tough fight but intends to focus on issues and leave personal politics out of it.
“I have to congratulate Richard,” he said. “He ran a good campaign and worked hard. But I’m going to go after him, and I know he is going to go after me.”
Sanders said that despite Richmond County’s history of supporting Democrats, he thinks a Republican can win in November.
“I believe the people will look at the candidates and look at the issues and pick the best man,” he said.