Aitken preaches renewal

John Curry/Staff
Candidate Matt Aitken, who started ministry work after serving time in prison, talks with resident Willie Lovett while campaigning. Mr. Aitken said he believes District 1 residents are ready to look past race and want to see Augusta move forward.

For most political candidates, a 19-year-old prison sentence would be something to avoid talking about, perhaps something to conceal or deny.

For Augusta Commission District 1 candidate Matt Aitken, it's part of his campaign literature.

"I know what it means to rebuild a broken life time and time again," he writes in his profile.

"Thirty-eight years ago I chose a path of drugs and drug dealing to which I finally received a prison sentence.

"However, God used this experience of being isolated in jail to see that I needed something/someone to help turn my life around. This is when I surrendered my life to Christ."

His conversion began a new life that led to a career at Olin Corp., a wife and daughter, an eldership at First Presbyterian Church and now a shot at public office.

It also led him into ministry work that he hopes will make a difference Nov. 3. Winning the seat would be an unprecedented feat. District 1 is 65 percent black and has not had a white representative since city-county consolidation in 1996.

Along with historic neighborhoods, the downtown business district and industrial areas, District 1 includes 30901, one of the highest inmate-producing ZIP codes in the state.

Incarceration affects a lot of families, Mr. Aitken said, and he's counting on his personal history, his prison ministry, his inner- city outreach work with Agape Ministries and his work for the Martin Luther King Observance Committee to give him credibility.

"Life experience," he said. "It's made me to be the man I am today, a person who cares about our city."

He said he believes the district is ready to move past race, and his election would be a big step toward bridging the divide.

His campaign slogan, "Grow Augusta," describes his vision of attracting investors and jobs to the city center, the riverfront and the canal.

"People want to see the city move forward, black and white business owners," Mr. Aitken said.

Assuming Joe Bowles retains the District 3 seat, Mr. Aitken's election would tip the commission's racial balance to 6-4.

Asked how he would vote on the trade, exhibit and event center -- which has had the board in a deadlock along racial lines since early May -- Mr. Aitken had no definite answer.

At first, he said, he would have voted for City Administrator Fred Russell's funding plan. Given the points brought up since then by black commissioners, he has doubts now. He said he would have to study the issue more.

"I think our current commissioners will work those details out before I get into office," Mr. Aitken said.

If he does win, he'll have a short walk to work. He and his family live on Telfair Street, across the street from the Municipal Building, in a 139-year-old house he spent 14 months renovating. That's the same amount of time he spent imprisoned on cocaine and methamphetamine charges in another lifetime.

"I believe prayer changes things," Mr. Aitken said. "I believe someone prayed for me when I was out there messing up, and I believe it was my mother.

"And as a Christian, I have faith in great things for Augusta."

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

MATT AITKEN

AGE: 51

FAMILY: Wife, Melissa; daughter Cecilia, 3

EDUCATION: Diploma from Academy of Richmond County, class of 1978

CAREER: Compressor building operator for Olin Corp.; director of the Matt Aitken Prison Ministry; former truck driver for Superior Carriers

LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE: Board member, Coalition of Prison Evangelists; past president and former board member, Martin Luther King Observance Committee; elder, First Presbyterian Church; board member, Medical College of Georgia Human Assurance Committee; former associate director of Agape Ministries

CAMPAIGN PLATFORM: Growing Augusta; economic development; implementing sections of the 2009 master plan; creating an environment that invites private investors