Although there have been a few elections in the past decade, there hasn’t really been a race for Richmond County sheriff in 12 years. Even when there was, there wasn’t much sport in it.
The last contested race was in 2000, when Ronnie Strength blew past his Democratic opponent Elmer Singley in the general primary and went on to lap the Republican candidate Leon Garvin in November.
In 2004 and 2008, Strength was unopposed.
This year however, political spectators have a contest where the outcome is anything but certain.
As of Friday, there were four Democrats in the starting blocks – Lt. John Ivey, Capt. Scott Peebles, Lt. Richard Roundtree and Lt. Robbie Silas – all peering ahead at a finish line some four months away.
HOW IT WILL turn out is anyone’s guess, but some of those handicapping the race doubt a clear winner will emerge in the July 31 primary. With four candidates on a ballot, a runoff – which would be held Aug. 21 – might be needed to determine a winner, said Democratic Party Chairman Lowell Greenbaum.
With two black candidates and two white candidates in the running and with Augusta’s history of voting falling along racial lines, a runoff is almost ensured, Greenbaum said.
Each candidate will need a broad coalition to win outright in July.
Roundtree, a former sheriff’s investigator and current lieutenant with the Richmond County school system, thinks he has laid the foundation to do just that.
“July 31 is our day. We are putting everything into July 31 primary,” said Roundtree, who was campaigning for weeks before his official announcement. “I think we can garner that 50.1 percent of the vote based on the things we’ve already been doing. I think I’ve been put in a place to be right here right now.”
Roundtree said his plan to run for sheriff has been under way for a while now, working with community groups and speaking at public functions whenever he had a chance. In the past three years, he said he has spoken to at least 30 area church congregations in preparation for the campaign.
“I’ve been working for three months and I’ve been preparing myself for five years,” he said. “We’ve laid the foundation and we think we are ahead of the curve.”
WHO WILL LINE up behind which candidate is uncertain, but some have bases of power to draw upon.
Ivey, a longtime city police officer before joining the sheriff’s office after consolidation, is well-known in old Augusta political circles. His wife, Colis Ivey, was an Augusta City Council member from 1991 to 1996, and the couple has deep roots in what used to be the city’s First Ward, she said.
Willie Lewis was among a large group of Lucy C. Laney High School alumni who came to Ivey’s formal announcement Friday.
“I really feel like he would be the best man for the job,” said Lewis, a retired Savannah River Site engineer and 1964 graduating classmate with Ivey. “Any time you call him for anything, he will be there.”
Silas, a sheriff’s road patrol shift supervisor and one-time deputy of the year, said he expects a lot of his support will come from south Augusta, where he has lived for the past 23 years with his wife Rene and two children.
“I do have a lot of south side support,” Silas said, pointing to his long history of community involvement. Silas brought a strong contingent of south side residents to his formal announcement Friday, including former state senator J.B. Powell.
Peebles said he is confident that he has the broadest base of support of any candidate.
“I’ve got a lot of support all over, but I would say that the majority of my support is coming from the black community,” said Peebles, noting that he has a long history of working across racial boundaries to solve community problems.
“They will tell you that I am not Johnny-come-lately,” Peebles said. “I’ve been out there in those districts on Saturdays, Sundays, night time, you name it, when I am off duty I’ve been out there trying to solve the problems that are going on.”
ALL THE CANDIDATES say that no matter who wins, the next sheriff needs to reach out to all areas to seek more community involvement.
“I’m a people person,” said Ivey, at 65, the oldest among the four men. “I actually believe the law enforcement side should help the people.”
Ivey said the sheriff’s office has gotten away from seeking interaction with the public and become a “reactionary department.”
“We’ll come if you call us,” he said. “The problem with that is that we don’t stay in touch with the public and sometimes when we do that becomes adversarial.”
Peebles said the key to changing that relationship is changing the mindset of officers.
“We have to make sure that every single person in the agency understands that our mission is to serve the community,” he said. “We have to make sure that there is a culture within the agency that fully understands that every day when I walk out that door that I’m going to serve people. I’m going to improve somebody’s quality of life today.”
Silas said it will take having the right leader in charge of the department to make improvements in community relations.
“As bad is the racial divide is in our county, I believe that having a good sheriff at the top that we can bridge the gaps,” said Silas, explaining that compromise was the key to bringing the community together.
“It’s everybody meeting in the middle to make the whole community better. Not the west side, not the south side not the east side, but meeting to bridge the gaps with everybody.”
Roundtree said he believes that in order to overcome the problems in the city, people will have to look beyond the divisions of race and take on the real issues.
“A lot of people want to make this race about race itself, but it’s not about that at all,” he said.
Roundtree said when he was a homicide investigator about six years ago, he began to see a large number of homicides committed by 17- and 18-year-olds.
“There was just one common factor in all of them and it wasn’t socioeconomics,” he said. “It wasn’t race; it wasn’t a lack of a two-parent household; it was that not one child who was accused of committing homicide had graduated high school.”
He said seeing the correlation between a lack of education and violent crime made him want to run for sheriff.
“I can’t help the fact that I am an African-American. I grew up in this city, I’ve seen the plight that some of the young males are going through,” he said. “I think that by seeing a positive role model that is out to help the people and also just happens to look like them, I think that will make an impact itself.”