Keep An Eye On Columbus Next Tuesday

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Each campaign cycle I try to find one race where I hope I can learn something.  Or, perhaps to put an even finer point on that, I hope to find a race where I can see something different.  A race that is outside the norm.  One that demonstrates, hopefully, somewhere in the future, the current paradigm of how campaigns are won and lost will change.

Part of this is because too many in politics can only view current races through a prism of what they know has worked in the past.  Too many of us in this business – from campaign consultants to candidates to pundits – rely on “conventional wisdom” for this.  As such, a lot of what you see and read about during campaigns is pre-determined.  For those of us that write about it, it is important to try and figure out where things are changing, and why a race might be different.

For Georgia’s 2014 campaign cycle, I’m looking to the city of Columbus Georgia for some differentiation.  Here, there is a contested Mayor’s race.  It pits an incumbent first term Mayor against a former executive of the Chamber of Commerce.   The race looks to be quite competitive. 

Before going into why I find this one fascinating, let’s first set some background.  Columbus is one of Georgia’s cities that has consolidated government with Muscogee County.  Thus, this city race is a county-wide election.

The race is also non-partisan.  That allows for unique coalition building.  Those who are elected partisans or serve in either major party don’t have to fear being negatively branded for working with and for candidates they feel best represent their interests.

In this race, both candidates are white.   That’s a bit of a rarity these days.  While we like to not talk about such matters openly, we should acknowledge, in 2014, that most of the mayoral campaigns in Georgia’s larger cities too often revolve around racial issues, whether we talk about them or not.

In this Columbus race, a substantial number of black voters will be deciding which white candidate will govern their city.  In many partisan races it’s too common for those identified with a local chamber and those of the black community to be on opposite sides of a contested race, but quite a few leaders in the African American community have let it be known that their vote is up for grabs.  Others have decided that they will back the challenger, with business community ties instead of the incumbent who would generally be considered the “progressive” candidate.  And thus, the uniqueness of this race.

Mayor Tomlinson, the incumbent, may have created an opening against herself when she decided to abandon a ten year-old plan to revitalize Columbus’ Liberty District – an area of town important to the history of Columbus’ black community – and replace it with one of her own.  Critics complain that little input was sought from residents or civic leaders, but was instead delivered in a top-down, authoritarian style.

This incident, combined with a perceptible rise in Columbus’ crime statistics, opened the door to challenger Colin Martin.  Martin, most recently an executive with Columbus’ Chamber of Commerce, is a native of South Columbus. Openly supporting Martin are the elected County Marshal and Municipal Court Clerk, both of whom are African American.  Columbus’ Court Clerk also has the distinction of being Mrs. Sanford Bishop, wife of the long serving Second District Congressman.

Martin has made outreach with Columbus’ African American community a staple of his campaign – one that others could learn from.  By emphasizing his ties to the community and for being a life-long product of it, he is able to campaign on issues that transcend traditional barriers and strike at the heart of basic delivery of services and governance.

He pledges to keep Columbus’ property tax freeze in place, fixing the assessment of homes for the duration of the occupant’s ownership.  He directly addresses the crime issue and the changes needed in the police department to counteract it.  And he has made the various diverse constituencies of Columbus feel that they will have a seat at the table when deciding on issues and policies that affect neighborhoods at a more local level.

With a cynical public as anti-incumbent as ever, it won’t be national news if a Mayor of Columbus Georgia isn’t re-elected.  What’s different in Columbus is the coalition that has formed to possibly make that happen.  That in and of itself is minor news.  But if Martin is able to win and govern effectively with the coalition of community leaders that he has assembled, that may in fact be a template for a new model in post-partisan governance.