A month from now, voters in Georgia's 22nd Senate District will go to the polls to choose who will fill the seat vacated by Charles Walker after his conviction of multiple federal crimes in June.
The Sept. 20 nonpartisan special election pits three well-known Augusta Democrats against each other. Two of them, Ben Allen and George Brown, are former members of the Georgia House or Representatives. The third, Augusta lawyer Ed Tarver, challenged Mr. Walker for his Senate seat last year and lost in the Democratic primary.
No Republicans qualified to run for the seat this year, despite last-minute efforts by prominent members of the party to persuade someone to run in the predominantly black district.
Many political observers predict a runoff, especially because of Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee's call for Republicans to write in former Sen. Don Cheek's name. The thinking of some is that if Republicans follow Mr. Barbee's recommendation, it will siphon off white votes from Mr. Tarver, who is popular in the white community.
"All he'll do is hurt Ed Tarver," said Dr. Ralph Walker, professor emeritus and the director of the Research Center at Augusta State University. "Any votes Don gets will hurt because the area where Don would garner most of his votes is where I would think Ed would be the strongest of the candidates."
Though write-in campaigns rarely work, with three candidates in the race, even a few votes could mean the difference between a win and a runoff, Dr. Walker said.
However, Mr. Tarver says he's not concerned.
"I think as a registered voter you have a right to vote for whomever you want," he said. "Within that right, if you want to write in somebody's name or Mickey Mouse, Daniel Boone or whoever else, that's your right. But in terms of analyzing the options available, we need somebody who's going to represent the entire district, that's going to unite rather than divide, and that's going to work to provide positive leadership."
Meanwhile, the race is heating up, and The Augusta Chronicle interviewed each candidate last week about the race.
On Thursday, Mr. Tarver checked in at his weekly Exchange Club meeting before visiting with a group of seniors at Elim Baptist Church on Mount Auburn Avenue.
At the Exchange Club, he was hail-fellow well-met by members, such as Mike Taylor, Royce Boone and Sam Pursley.
"I tell him he ought to be governor," Mr. Pursley said.
"Ed's a winner. I'll tell you that," member Skeeter Griffin said.
The only problem is that Mr. Pursley and Mr. Griffin, like many of the club's members, don't live in the 22nd District.
"You don't pick your friends by what district they live in," Mr. Tarver said. "I never thought about that until I had to run. Then you say, 'Where do you live?'"
The logical question for any candidate is, "Why are you running for the office?"
In Mr. Tarver's case, he says it's because he wants to improve his community.
"I live in the second-largest city in the state of Georgia," he said. "I don't think we get the recognition that we're due. I don't think we have progressed as we should."
Although he's never held public office, Mr. Tarver said he thinks he can handle the job.
"I'm going to try to do what's right and try to act in accordance with how I was raised and how I've lived my life, and I have to believe that will be sufficient," he said.
Some have criticized him because he and his family attend Aldersgate United Methodist Church in west Augusta, but he gives his religious affiliation as Doyle Grove Baptist Church in Blythe.
Mr. Tarver says he's a member of Doyle Grove and always will be because his family was instrumental in founding it.
"My grandparents attended that church and are buried on the grounds of that church," he said. "You know, folks can say what they want, but that's part of who I am and my roots."
On Thursday, Mr. Allen was at Ryan's restaurant on Peach Orchard Road for a lunch meeting with nine Augusta ministers he hopes will help him in his quest to gain the Senate seat. They sounded as though they will do just that.
"I think he is a very, very positive candidate, and we look forward to him being in the position once the votes are counted," said the Rev. Clyde Hill, the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist, Mr. Allen's church. "We believe he is indeed the responsive and responsible one to represent us."
Mr. Allen was in the Georgia House for seven years, resigning in 2002 to run for the 12th Congressional District. He came in second in the Democratic primary and lost to Charles "Champ" Walker Jr. in a runoff, a contest that engendered bitterness in the final days.
The decision to get back into politics was a struggle, he said.
He was flattered by the encouragement to run for the Senate and the promises of support, but that didn't make him want to do it, he said.
"I talked to my pastor," he said. "I prayed. I said, 'God, look. I've been in politics. I've been to Atlanta. That's not enough for me to want to go back. I've been there, done that.' I said, 'Is this what you want me to do?' I really did."
Then he said he got a phone call from a Savannah State University student who wanted to come by and talk to him.
The young man, a third-year electrical engineering major, was concerned his HOPE scholarship would run out before he got his degree, which required an extra year of study, and that he would not be able to finish his education.
That did it, Mr. Allen said.
"I said, 'I will do all I can to help you, but more importantly I'm going to run for the Senate and, if elected, I will help you and I will help all other students similarly situated as you. I will provide HOPE when there seems to be no hope.'"
Just as Mr. Tarver is criticized about which church he really belongs to, some people fault Mr. Allen for his ties to Charles Walker Sr.
Mr. Allen was the local spokesman and counsel for Mr. Walker and his family after he was indicted on 142 federal charges last year. He said he has known Mr. Walker and family members most of his life.
"As an attorney, if someone comes to me and I can provide some assistance, there's nothing wrong with me providing the assistance," he said. "I don't think anyone should try to punish me because of my relationship with Charles Walker. I think the good people of Richmond County know the truth."
After a decade out of politics, Mr. Brown's decision to run caught many people by surprise.
Mr. Brown said he decided to run because he doesn't like many of the things he sees happening in Augusta.
"We need to get back the competitive edge," he said. "One equation is missing from Augusta. We have forgotten about the economic viability we need to sustain us."
Augusta should build on its two world-renowned assets: Augusta National Golf Club and soul singer James Brown, he said.
Augusta also should be touting its many other assets, such as climate, low housing costs and taxes, and the ability to travel almost any place you want to go in two hours, he said.
The city also is missing out by not raising the flag to become a retirement mecca, he said.
But first, Augusta must get rid of its rotting houses, overgrown lots and litter, he said.
Mr. Brown said he believes he has the ability to reach across party lines and get legislation passed to help the people of Augusta and Georgia.
"The delegation needs to work across party lines to get things done for this community," he said.
Mr. Brown vowed to work for racial unity.
"It's not Democrats and Republicans that people talk about, but black and white," he said.
He says most people in Augusta know him as a person who got things done in the General Assembly.
"We annexed Albion Acres and portions of Glendale Subdivision into the city," he said. "Those folks were right at the city line. They were on septic tanks and did not have garbage service. For those who wanted it, they got it, and they got sidewalks and they got off septic tanks."
As a representative, he also wrote the Georgia Right to Know law, he said.
"Now all public employees in Georgia have the right of protection from hazardous chemicals and materials in their workplace," he said.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.