In a closely watched race, local activist Ben Hasan faces former Richmond County Republican Chairman Bob Finnegan in the July 22 runoff to represent District 6 on the Augusta Commission.
If Hasan wins, Augusta will for the first time have a black majority on the 10-member commission.
Finnegan shares a connection with current District 6 Commissioner Joe Jackson, who is prevented by term limits from running again. Both have close ties to the Alleluia Community, a community of about 900 mostly evangelical Catholics, many of whom live in a District 6 neighborhood known as Faith Village.
“I love Augusta, but the reason I’m here is the community,” said Finnegan, who settled in the village decades ago when he was a Navy seaman assigned to teach a course at Fort Gordon. He and his wife raised nine children there.
Finnegan said he disregards talk about how the election might shift the racial balance on the commission.
“I don’t know where that matters,” he said. “I’d make a decision based on what’s good for all the citizens, not just one particular group based on race or anything else, for that matter.”
Finnegan, who recently retired from Fort Gordon, said he’ll be the commissioner who does his “homework” and studies the complex documents presented for approval.
“I will listen to what other people have to say,” he said. “Everyone can come up with good ideas, workable ideas. I like to hear what’s going on and then think about it and then make a decision.”
Finnegan said he won’t leave his fiscally and socially conservative values behind in making commission decisions.
“Government has certain responsibilities they must fulfill,” he said,, such as police and fire protection, maintaining safe roads and bridges and clean water. If city revenues are tight, as they often are, non-essential services might be where he’d look to cut, he said.
A close look into the backgrounds of both candidates found little besides a bizarre week in November 1986 when Hasan was charged with selling cocaine to an undercover officer at a Laney-Walker store he owned, then with kidnapping a witness against him.
According to the newspaper’s reports of the incident, Hasan did not make the transaction but later was accused of taking another man into custody to make him go to attorney Chris Nicholson’s office. Nicholson was arrested when he refused to let police enter his law office.
A search of court records revealed that authorities did not prosecute Hasan, and Hasan said Thursday that it was a misunderstanding that he’d forgiven.
“It was a misunderstanding and the courts agreed, in less than a month’s time,” said Hasan, who never filed suit or sought relief for the arrest. “When people apologize, I can accept it.”
Hasan has long been in the public eye as host of a Community Connections program on cable and publisher of the Urban Pro Weekly newspaper. He’s studied the city’s consolidation act, attended many commission meetings and spoken out about city decisions that impact the form of government.
Though his newspaper has a decidedly pro-minority stance, “I don’t see the issues as being black and white; I see them as being policy,” he said. “I would never do business with a company just because they are black.”
Hasan, the brother of former Richmond County Board of Education member A.K. Hasan, was the top finisher in the five-candidate May 20 election, taking 1,103 votes to Finnegan’s 948.
The district was redrawn in 2012 from 53 percent black to 54 percent black, the slimmest majority held by any group among the 10 commission districts.
Hasan said his goal on the commission is to “build relationships among my colleagues” and upon that built trust, “the best interests of the taxpayers immediately become front and center.”
Hasan said greater understanding might have prevented the current gridlock over implementing an excise tax on manufacturers to replace revenue lost when the state exempted energy used in manufacturing from a 2 percent local tax.
“The legislators in their wisdom were trying to make the state of Georgia more competitive,” he said. “But when you have a city that’s struggling, if we needed those revenues, we could have asked them to bear with us for a couple of years.”
Hasan said he expects that under Mayor-elect Hardie Davis, the city will gain a better perspective on its financial position and on whether tax increases are truly needed.
“In many ways, we’re shooting in the dark,” he said. “You just have to see where we really are, how bad are we and what is it going to take to stabilize our budget?”
The CSRA chapter of the Police Benevolent Association screened both candidates and, while it was close, selected Hasan for its endorsement, said chapter President Patrick Cullinan.
With Hasan, “we’ve seen him walk the walk, even before he’s run for office,” Cullinan said. “He is pro-law enforcement.”
The association, which sponsors scholarships for children and helps officers with legal bills, hopes to have Hasan’s support when the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office seeks pay increases to stop the flood of officers quitting to go to other counties, Cullinan said.