AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – While many races resulted in clear cut winners three Augusta races are heading for runoffs in a few weeks. WJBF NewsChannel 6’s senior reporter, George Eskola, has followed Augusta city politics for years. He breaks down what happened at the polls and what we can expect when voters return to those polls.
Brad Means: We’re gonna keep our focus on the city of Augusta and Richmond County as we take a look at what just happened in the primary elections. A lotta big races being decided in Augusta. And here to take a look at those is our senior reporter, George Eskola. He’s been covering politics for several decades here in Augusta. He knows the workings inside and out. George, thanks for what you did Tuesday for us, and for coming today.
George Eskola: Oh, thank you, Brad. I’m happy to be here.
Brad Means: Let me ask you about the mayor’s race first. That seems to garner all the attention. You’ve got Steven Kendrick versus Garnett Johnson in the runoff in a few weeks. George, those two gentlemen got almost the same number of votes. What are your thoughts?
George Eskola: It was a very close race, Brad. I think a couple of hundred votes separating the two. I think if you would’ve gone back several months, that you would not have seen Steven Kendrick, Garnett Johnson being that close. But once the campaign started, Garnett Johnson’s campaign caught fire. And then we got down to Tuesday with that record breaking early vote total, that they came out both right at the 39%. You know, it is anecdotal, the sort of conventional wisdom in Georgia, that the second place person wins a runoff. They were so close that maybe they didn’t wanna be in first place. I believe Kendrick was the leader, but you can see that they are very, very close. And I think we’ll see that as we carry towards the June 21st runoff.
Brad Means: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna ask you. We really can’t label one of them an underdog. Are you anticipating just, I mean, this sounds obvious, it’s who can get the most people out in a few weeks, right?
George Eskola: And that’s difficult. I mean, that is going to be the key. We’re going to be a runoff, we’re going to be just little bit less than a month. You gotta get your voters back. It’s summer, school’s out, the pandemic is waning. People are gonna wanna get out. The last thing a lotta people, unfortunately, are gonna wanna do is go back and vote. Early voting’s gonna start, wasn’t I just here? So, getting voters back to the polls will be key. Usually, again, conventional wisdom is you don’t see as many people coming back with the runoff. Of course, there’ve been exceptions. A classic Bob Young, Ed McIntyre battle back many, many years ago brought more people for the runoff than actually voted in the general election, the regular election. So we’ll have to see. The one most successful bringing their voters back to the polls will be the next mayor of the city of Augusta.
Brad Means: You talked to former first lady, Gwen Fulcher Young, speaking of Mayor Young, the other day. She talked to you about the importance of the role of the mayor. George, tell the viewers how important it really is, other than tiebreaker and ribbon cutting. What do we not see?
George Eskola: Well, I think the mayor sets the agenda for the city of Augusta. He’s the number one, could be, should be number one economic development driver. Face of the city. Bringing the corporate executives in. That’s what the mayor’s job is. You mentioned, of course, the meetings and stuff like that. But he, the bully pulpit. The mayor is the only member of, the 10 commissions and the mayor, elected citywide. He’s the one that has the support. So the mayor could easily set the agenda, get votes, get things done. Really the toughest job for the mayor is to get the six votes to get his policies in place, something we really haven’t seen be that successful with the consolidated government.
Brad Means: Can you tell who might be better at that? I know that commissioner Alvin Mason told you this past week, it doesn’t matter to him who wins, he can get along with anyone. Do you think Kendrick or Johnson might be better at getting those six votes or more?
George Eskola: Well interesting, what Commissioner Mason actually said was the commissioners should not endorse a member, a candidate in the runoff, because of what the atmosphere, it could poison, that’s my word, not his. So, Kendrick would be the establishment. Been there before, knows the ins and outs, been tax commissioner for three or four terms, chairman of the Economic Development Authority Board. Kendrick is the man who knows the ins and outs. Garnett Johnson would be the guy is, are you happy with the ins and outs? Are you happy with what you’ve seen in local government? Well, vote for me if you’re not, and vote for change. Garnett Johnson, I think, is being seen as the change agent, where Steven Kendrick is the guy that, day one, I don’t need any on the job trading.
Brad Means: Let’s take a look at some other close contests. Beginning in District 10, that commission race also headed to a runoff. John Clark versus Wayne Guilfoyle, the former commissioner. How do you read this one? Is it why didn’t the incumbent get to keep his job, a vote of confidence from his constituents? Or do you read it, no, no, no, it’s Wayne Guilfoyle, beloved. Of course he made a run at Clark.
George Eskola: I think that is why would you take on a sitting incumbent. I think John Clark, not without controversy, John Clark stirs it up, you know. And Wayne Guilfoyle, two term commission district from District 8, two terms, solid commissioner, well liked. Clark only has one term, but I think one of the most interesting things we saw in that race was the strength of John Clark. We did have Robert Cooks in there as well, but for a lot of the evening, Clark was over the 50% threshold, despite having two challengers. Cooks on the planning commission has run before, District 3, I think just two years ago. Well known. And of course, two term commissioner from District 8, Wayne Guilfoyle. So, Clark held off both of them. Now again, where did Robert Cook’s votes go will decide that election. Clark though, I think with a big lead. And will Guilfoyle’s people come back, and how well does Guilfoyle do in District 7, which makes up district 10 and District 3. Sure, Wayne’s well known in District 8, but so is John Clark. He went out there before. So, Clark is known probably better, the four district-wide, than Guilfoyle is. So Guilfoyle’s gonna have to make some inroads up on the hill in District 3 and West Augusta District 7, where Clark has already made inroads outta District 10, winning last time.
Brad Means: Go to District 2 now. You have Dennis Williams term limiting out, and you have Von Pouncey and Stacy Pulliam vying for that. I don’t know a lot about these two candidates. I look forward to getting to know one or both of them, certainly. What do you think’s gonna happen in District 2?
George Eskola: Well, we know that this runs next week, the Monday?
Brad Means: Yeah, we record Thursday, airs Monday.
George Eskola: All right, well, I think by Monday or sometime next week, term limited commissioner Dennis Williams is going to make an endorsement in this race. He has not said yet, but will be saying. That will help Stacy Pulliam, much like John Clark out in District 10. Big lead. Surprisingly big lead. Will be connected somewhat to the Kendrick camp. Those two will be latching on together. So voters probably, if you vote for Kendrick, you’ll likely vote for Pulliam on that. Von Pouncey, well known from her run for District 1 a couple years ago. Very interested in food desert, which is a big need in District 2, as much as it is in District 1. I think the surprise was the margin between those two candidates. I think a lotta people thought they would advance to the top two and a runoff. A runoff was expected there, with six candidates. But that the difference between Pulliam and Pouncey wasn’t gonna be that large. I think if there’s one big surprise Tuesday night, that was one of ’em, certainly.
Brad Means: Let me ask you about endorsements. You mentioned those. Historically, George, do those work? Do the masses say, all right, Deke Copenhaver, you said Garnett Johnson, therefore I shall vote as you say. Does that really work?
George Eskola: The people I talk to about endorsements say, you know, people are always coming to former Mayor Copenhaver. They said to him, “Who are you voting for?” People wanna know. You’ve been there, I trusted your opinion, I voted for you. So Deke said, yes, he thinks that endorsement helps. It’s not gonna turn the table completely around. We saw that Tuesday in Georgia, that Donald Trump endorsement doesn’t win the race for ya. But in a very tight race, a couple hundred votes. And then Marion Williams. Marion Williams is going to endorse the mayors. He finished third, and he’s going to endorse. And I asked Marion Williams about that. He says the same thing. People are coming up to me, “Who you voting for? “I voted for you before, I trust your opinion.” And Marion Williams has said both candidates have reached out to him. Well, they know, they’re fighting for votes. Marion got third place. So Marion Williams, both candidates. He ran against both of them, so he hasn’t really made up his mind yet, but says by early next week, he will also endorse somebody in the runoff.
Brad Means: George, let’s talk about Marion Williams for a moment. I’ll never forget one time, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn, we were participating in a Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, you and I. And he walked by. It may have been a Christmas parade. It was one or the other. And you said he walks tall in his district and in this town. Respected, loved. And ever since then, I’ve seen that come true. It’s true. People like Marion Williams. He knows this city inside and out. Why didn’t he make more noise in the mayor’s race?
George Eskola: I did talk to Marion about that. I asked him that very question. He was up against two candidates whose fundraising was near $200,000. Marion Williams said he raised $15,000. He couldn’t canvas, couldn’t pull, didn’t have the number of signs. He said he thought the strength of name recognition alone would get him into the runoff. That was his hope. I gotta knock either Johnson off. It was clear that Johnson and Kendrick were the top of the ticket there. They were definitely leaders. He just thought maybe on name recognition, I can knock one of those two down a peg, move into the runoff, and then who knows. But he answered that very same question. Even in local Augusta. You know, Augusta mayor’s race isn’t like it used to be. That’s a big dollar race now. They were 200,000, and they’re gonna have to raise more money for this runoff. I talked to both candidates about that. They didn’t say how much, but they said fundraising is already underway. They’re gonna have to raise a bunch of money, both of ’em, to win this runoff. So, Marion could not compete with that kind of campaign financing that was in front of him on that Tuesday night.
Brad Means: Yeah, it was a tall order for sure, but still a name that’s widely respected, and always will be in this town.
George Eskola: He did say to me, he’s done.
Brad Means: It’s over? No!
George Eskola: Never say never in politics, but we may see the last run of Marion Williams, that was this Tuesday election.
Brad Means: Well, an incredible run for sure. George Eskola, great job as always. Thanks for the insight.
George Eskola: Thank you.
Brad Means: George Eskola, our senior reporter here at NewsChannel 6.