District 1 candidates asked to meet, debate

The tone of the District 1 Augusta Commission race has turned overtly negative, Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said in a news conference Tuesday, and it's time for both candidates to come together -- publicly, at a forum or debate -- and show voters they're willing to work for all of them regardless of race.

The city "can't afford to have this government turned back into a circus," he said.

"As the mayor pro tem of Augusta-Richmond County, I appeal to candidates Matt Aitken and William Fennoy," Mr. Mason said, reading from a prepared statement. "One of you will be commissioner-elect for all the people that reside in District 1 on the night of Dec. 1, 2009 ... This district and this city deserve to know that you will represent and take into account the interests of all the residents, regardless of skin color."

Mr. Mason called on the candidates to come together in a mutually agreed-on format Monday.

Thus far, Mr. Aitken has declined invitations to attend events with Mr. Fennoy present, saying the issues were hashed out exhaustively in forums before the Nov. 3 election and that such events wouldn't be productive because of the racial tone of the campaign.

"District 1 needs to hear and question where you both stand today before a vote is cast next Tuesday," Mr. Mason said.

Mr. Aitken said he wishes Mr. Mason would have talked to him before making his statement. He said he is not changing his mind about joint appearances.

"We'll just let the voters decide who's going to step into this seat," he said. "We're running our campaign. We'll run it the best way we know how, and we'll continue doing that."

Mr. Fennoy said he's willing to have a representative of his campaign meet with a representative of Mr. Aitken's campaign and come to an agreement on the time, location, format and moderator for a public debate.

"I have never had a problem meeting anyone anytime," Mr. Fennoy said. "I have always shown up at any event when I've been invited, and that hasn't changed."

Last week, Mr. Fennoy appeared at forums at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Lucy Craft Laney Museum; Mr. Aitken was invited to both but declined. Mr. Fennoy also attended a Summerville Neighborhood Association meeting at the Partridge Inn, which Mr. Aitken backed out of after learning Mr. Fennoy would be present.

Mr. Mason said he didn't call the news conference to criticize either candidate.

He referenced Monday's news conference by a group calling itself a "collective body representing every aspect of the black community," which criticized Mr. Aitken for skipping debates held by black organizations and said the commission's 5-5 racial balance needs to be preserved.

"At a press conference yesterday, it was mentioned that this may be the most important election since consolidation," Mr. Mason said. "I'm inclined to agree with that statement. What I don't agree with, though, is that there is any collective body that represents all black people or any collective body that represents all white people.

"As to the 5-5 racial balance of the commission, the charter does not mandate a racial outcome, but the lines were drawn so that if people came out in great enough numbers and voted, then there could be a balance on this commission.

"So to me, the message should be to encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote, and each candidate get proactive in energizing the voters to come out and decide how you want your commission to act, look and think on your behalf."

Mr. Fennoy said he has never advocated rhetoric saying he should be elected solely because he is black. However, he said he's opposed to the commission tipping 6-4 in favor of either whites or blacks.

He said he was "knocking on doors" during Monday's news conference behind the Municipal Building and was not responsible for what was said.

Mr. Mason said after the news conference that while he does have a preference between the two candidates, he is not making a public endorsement. He said he hopes to initiate a healing process, given the way the District 1 race has gone so far.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

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