Now that he is the only Democrat in the race for Richmond County sheriff, Richard Roundtree said he is meeting new people and making friends every day.
“A lot people want to meet now,” Roundtree said, explaining that he was reaching out to voters and taking phone calls from people whom he hadn’t been able to speak with before his Aug. 21 runoff victory over sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles.
That change is evident in the allies that have already come to his side. Peebles endorsed Roundtree last week, and Lewis Blanchard, a close friend of Peebles and one of his chief campaign advisers, has scheduled a meet-and-greet event Thursday at his business, the Foundation Club, on Azalea Drive.
“I wanted him to get as many people as we can get together so they can hear my message,” Roundtree said. “It is an opportunity to get in the room with some folks I’ve never spoken with before.”
One of his friends and advisers, attorney Harold Jones, said Roundtree is reaching out to widen his base and get the message across that, if elected, he expects to be the sheriff for all Richmond County residents.
Jones said he helped Roundtree examine voting numbers before the July 31 primary and later runoff and come up with a strategy to get voters to the polls.
“In a primary you expect a small turnout, so it is all about getting out the voters,” he said. “You have to know where to find them.”
In the November general election, a much larger turnout is expected, especially in a presidential election year, he said.
“You know you have to broaden your base and include as many people as possible, and that is what he is doing,” Jones said.
Jones said Roundtree can expect a lot of Republican voters who crossed over in the primary to vote for Peebles to vote for Republican Freddie Sanders in November.
Those voters almost carried Peebles to the Democratic nomination, but Roundtree was able to counter that in the runoff by an effort to energize his base. Jones said the three weeks between the primary and runoff helped create the circumstances for a Roundtree victory.
“They start to see this momentum and saw that he had a chance of winning and the fact that he wasn’t going to back down,” Jones said. “That’s huge.”
Going into the runoff, it appeared Peebles had a lot in his favor. He had come in first in the primary with 47 percent of the vote. He had the most money. He had the support of many community and business leaders and endorsements from the mayor, sheriff and the local newspaper. But all those apparent advantages were an illusion, some political observers say.
“The whole election from the beginning was set up for Richard to win it,” said Sam Nicholson, who served as Peebles’ campaign adviser.
Nicholson said the reality that 80 percent of the Democrats who vote in a majority Democratic county are black forced the campaign to court white Republicans and persuade them to cross over. Voting statistics indicate that strategy was successful in the primary, with at least 5,000 such voters crossing over for Peebles.
“If we didn’t have the crossover we wouldn’t have been in the hunt,” Nicholson said.
The crossover vote might have helped Peebles in the primary, but it gave Roundtree ammunition to motivate voters for the runoff.
Gene Hunt, a retired banker and veteran of other political campaigns, said editorials published in The Augusta Chronicle encouraging Republicans to vote for Peebles created a backlash among black Democrats.
“It made people not trust Peebles,” he said. “It made them think he wasn’t a Democrat, but a Republican disguised as a Democrat.”
Mike Ryan, the editorial page editor of The Chronicle, said the newspaper didn’t create the crossover movement, but did actively promote it because Peebles was the best candidate.
“When we learned great numbers of Republicans were crossing over to vote for Scott Peebles in the Democratic primary for sheriff, we were delighted to encourage it,” he said. “We only wish more would have done it, and that our Democratic friends would have joined them.”
Former Augusta Commission member Bobby Hankerson said that strategy backfired because it created doubts about Peebles.
“It put doubt in their minds whether the candidate was Democrat or not,” he said. “People are looking for truth. They don’t appreciate hypocrisy.”
Hunt said the crossover vote coupled with endorsements from Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Sheriff Ronnie Strength created the impression among black voters that Peebles was a west Augusta candidate being pushed on them a little too hard by local power brokers.
“I think that is what created a big problem for Mr. Peebles,” he said. “I think that (Roundtree) and his folks did a real good job of exploiting that.”
Voice for change
Nicholson said something motivated black voters because he knows many switched their support from his candidate to Roundtree between the primary and runoff.
He said there was evidence that hundreds of voters in District 4 changed allegiance, but a lot of that had to do with Roundtree working hard to get them to change their minds and get them to the polls. Vote totals show he gained nearly 2,000 voters in the runoff.
“Richard just finally realized what he had to do and went out and did it,” he said.
Roundtree acknowledged that having politicians and power brokers behind Peebles helped his message of change resonate in the black community.
He said Strength’s endorsement might have hurt Peebles more than it helped. Even though Peebles’ platform was similar to his in many respects, voters looking for change could see the endorsement as a reflection of the status quo.
Now that Strength has endorsed Sanders, Roundtree said he expects that to help him.
“It is just making people more conscious of how important the election is,” he said.
Helen Blocker-Adams, a vocal Peebles supporter who now backs Roundtree, said the similarities between their platforms is what needs to be emphasized. She said she is seeing people stepping back and taking another look at Roundtree and realizing that he and Peebles share a lot of ideas about law enforcement.
“Richard is a good guy,” she said. “He wasn’t our first choice, but he is our choice now.”
Blocker-Adams said she decided to get behind Roundtree after meeting with him and getting assurances that he wanted to “build bridges” between political factions and bring people together.
“He is reaching out to be a part of the healing process,” she said. “It will benefit him and the entire community.”
Roundtree said his broadening base also is bringing in more campaign money, which he will need leading into November.
“Donations are up as opposed to last time,” he said. “We are definitely getting more financial support, but we saw that money doesn’t win races.”
Being the Democrat in a historically Democratic-leaning county should give him an advantage in November, but nothing in politics is certain, he said.
“We are feeling good and we are optimistic, but we aren’t taking anything for granted,” he said. “We are not going to let up at all.”