Should he succeed in defeating Freddie Sanders on Tuesday, Richard Roundtree will be the first black man to hold that office in its 230-year history.
Years from now when historians look back on this year’s election, many in Richmond County are hoping it will be one worth more than an obscure footnote.
“I think it is important in a very basic sense,” said Mallory Millender, a retired Paine College professor and a longtime observer of Augusta politics.
“There has been an historically strained relationship with law enforcement and the black community,” Millender said. “With a black sheriff, the black community will be looking forward to getting justice – from the way they are treated on a day-to-day basis all the way to the top of the department.”
Millender explained that he doesn’t mean that previous sheriffs – including Sheriff Ronnie Strength – have intentionally been unfair to black residents. But it isn’t about good intentions, he said.
“I’m talking about a different level of understanding,” he said, explaining that black residents expect Roundtree’s life experience would inform his decisions as sheriff. People’s expectations will be higher, he said.
“They are not looking for there to be unfairness against white people,” Millender said. “People expect a kind of justice that transcends that of previous sheriffs.”
Millender said that if Roundtree wins, he will be watched closely for missteps and mistakes.
“He should be scrutinized,” Millender said. “All (sheriffs) should be scrutinized.”
Roscoe Williams, a retired dean of students at Augusta State University, agreed that Roundtree’s actions as the first black sheriff will attract critical attention, but he’s not concerned.
“I think he will be as just as adamant about providing law and order as a sheriff as anyone, even more so,” Williams said. “I think he has been there and he has seen how devastating it can be when disorder begins to rule the day and he won’t let that occur.”
Williams said he thinks both Roundtree and Sanders have the qualifications and experience to do the job, and whoever is elected will serve the county well, “if they do what they say they will do.”
But if Roundtree becomes sheriff, Williams said he will need to make an immediate effort to demonstrate his fairness and leadership to all his constituents. If he does that, Williams said, in time, even his critics will come to respect him.
Retired ASU professor Ralph Walker said the outcome of Tuesday’s election is anything but certain. However, because he is a black Democrat in a majority black county, Walker said Roundtree has the inside track at winning on Tuesday.
“I think Freddie Sanders has a shot, but I know how difficult it is for a Republican to win a countywide office in Richmond County,” he said.
Walker said the fact that President Obama is up for re-election will help Roundtree greatly, as it will all Democrats on the ballot by attracting more voters who lean that way to the polls. Although former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney should win in Georgia, Walker fully expects Obama to carry Richmond County easily – as he did in 2008 – and also help carry other Democrats to victory in local contests.
Millender said watching the Roundtree campaign also reminds him of another historic election, the 1981 victory of Ed McIntyre, who became Augusta’s first black mayor.
“That was a terribly, terribly important moment,” Millender said
McIntyre, a former county commissioner, only held office a little more than two years because he was convicted of bribery and extortion during his tenure as mayor. He served a year and two months in federal prison.
Millender said Roundtree must guard against even the appearance of any impropriety and demonstrate exemplary leadership, should he take office. He should also surround himself with trusted advisers, people who understand his vision for the department, he said.
“I think he would get in and immediately do an audit and do everything else he can to cover his bases so he can’t be blamed for something that happened before he got there,” he said. “The hope that the community placed in McIntyre is being placed in Roundtree. [McIntyre] turned out to be a huge disappointment.”
Millender said no one wants that episode of Augusta history to repeat itself.