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This is the sixth chapter of Year of Fear, a series from The Delacorte Review and CJR. Each week until Election Day, we'll bring you another chapter from one of our towns. To subscribe, click the button below.
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Macon-Bibb County, Georgia

 

Yes, Dorothy, we are way outside the beltway


By Charles Richardson

What happens to a rising city with contentious elections, deep racial fault lines, 24 candidates for two US senate seats, a host of local races and a newspaper too inadequate to help voters navigate it all?

While Macon-Bibb County might seem like your average Southern midsized city, it is different in the grandiosity of its architecture and in personality, a blue county amidst a sea of red. While the rest of the nation is enthralled with the presidential election, Macon-Bibb and the rest of the state don’t seem to be paying much attention. They are more focused on local and statewide politics. By the time the state’s Democratic primary is held on March 24, Georgia may not have much sway in the Democrats’ choice for presidential nominee, and Trump has already been declared the winner in the Republican primary. There is more concern, even trepidation, about the coronavirus threat to the upcoming International Cherry Blossom Festival, March 27 through April 5, that features 350,000 Yoshino Cherry Trees and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Tale of two Senate races

Georgia, due to the retirement of Senator Johnny Isakson for health reasons, has to choose two senators this year. While Senator David Perdue is the incumbent Republican, winning six years ago by beating Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn in a $24 million race, it is the other Senate seat that’s drawing the most attention and angst in Georgia’s Republican circles.

In January 2020, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, appointed Kelly Loeffler, an Atlanta financial services executive and owner of the local WNBA franchise, to fill the Isakson seat. President Trump implored Kemp to appoint his top ally in the House, Representative Doug Collins, from Georgia’s Ninth District and Collins openly lobbied for the seat. Twenty-three days after Loeffler was sworn in on January 6, Collins announced he was challenging her, forcing state and national Republicans to choose sides. Now dueling attack ads are seen back-to-back-to-back in all the state’s major markets. Loeffler has pledged to spend $20 million of her own money to keep the seat. It’s already a nasty race and each day it gets nastier.

Loeffler and Collins face off in a “jungle primary,” and they won’t be alone –– there are four other Republicans who have qualified for the race. A jungle primary is a no-holds-barred election featuring candidates of all political parties. Reverend Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same church where Martin Luther King senior and junior held the pulpit, is the most notable Democrat, but there are six other Democrats and seven more candidates who qualify as either Libertarian, Green Party or Independent. The jungle primary will be held November 3, the same day voters go to the polls to elect the next president. If none of the twenty candidates reach the fifty percent-plus-one mark, a runoff will be held January 5, 2021. And that’s just to fill the unexpired two years of Isakson’s term. The winner will have to run again in 2022.

Not to be left out of the fun, there are three Democrats seeking to unseat Senator Perdue: former Columbus Mayor, Teresa Tomlinson; 2018 lieutenant governor nominee, Sarah Riggs Amico; and former congressional candidate, Jon Ossoff. In the 2017 special election for Georgia’s Sixth District, Ossoff lost in the most expensive House race in history to former Representative Karen Handel, who subsequently lost to Representative Lucy McBath in the 2018 midterms. 

For all its importance, this election season finds the local newspaper, The Telegraph, unable to invest in much coverage. Though a new regional executive editor, responsible for The Telegraph, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and Mississippi’s Biloxi Sun Herald and a new senior editor have been named, it’s hard to say what impact they can have. There are too many local races for the newspaper’s meager staff to follow. The new appointments were made on February 5. Eight days later, McClatchy, owner of The Telegraph and 29 other newspapers, filed for bankruptcy. It is a stunning turn of events for the 193-year-old newspaper, founded just three years after the establishment of Macon.



The Telegraph stopped printing its Saturday edition this year. Layoffs, buyouts and retirements, became the order of the day. The Great Recession and the paper’s lack of digital prowess hit The Telegraph hard.

Local elections top of mind

What is on almost everyone’s mind are local nonpartisan elections to be held May 19. Not only will a new mayor be selected for the first time in twelve years, but eight of nine seats of the Macon-Bibb County Commission are contested, plus five of six board of education seats. 

Retirement, seeking higher office or term limits are responsible for the vacancies. The May 19 election is also primary day for the partisan offices for sheriff and district attorney. Needless to say, interest in the local elections is high drama.

One of the reasons for the high turnover in elected officials is consolidation. While the mayor was always limited to two four-year terms, former council persons and commissioners are, for the first time, limited to three four-year terms. While none have reached that threshold, age and infirmities have taken their toll. Seven of the commissioners are in their late sixties or seventies. But there are other factors that make this election season like none other.

The race for mayor has three white candidates and two African Americans—all men. The tension in the contest, once again, turns to race. The leading African-American candidate has run an effective campaign, although the white candidates have outraised him by hundreds of thousands of dollars. African Americans have a distinct registered voter advantage of more than 12,000 votes—if they go to the polls. If no candidate reaches the fifty percent-plus-one threshold a runoff will be held July 21.

The race has the potential to get testy, particularly between the leading African-American candidate, Cliffard Whitby, and Lester Miller, a school board chair. There is bad blood between the two that has the potential to divide the county along its already deep racial fault lines.
 

A look back

When Mayor Robert Reichert assumed office in 2008, no one knew he would be the last mayor of Macon before consolidation of city and county governments. Consolidation was a process that began as early as 1923 when a grand jury decided that having two governments was inefficient. But voters saw it differently and turned down referendums to merge the governments in 1929, 1933, 1946, 1960, 1972 and 1976. Aside from the referendums, there were also two government-approved study committees in 1983 and 1999. Finally, in early 2012, a measure to consolidate the governments passed the Georgia General Assembly and was approved by voters in July of that year. It helped that both Reichert and County Commission Chairman Sam Hart endorsed the idea and worked for its passage.

Reichert, elected as a Democrat, inherited a city with budget issues. The previous mayor had to, on several occasions, take out tax anticipation notes to make ends meet until property taxes flowed in again. And then came consolidation and an edict in the legislation that required the new government to cut its budget by twenty percent within five years. Reichert had to eventually offer early retirements and use other devices to keep Macon-Bibb from taking on more water. The county has made a dramatic turnaround, from having a negative fund balance to a $13 million surplus. An almost vacant downtown has morphed into an area that Reichert said, “has come to life, a Phoenix has risen from the ashes of decades of disinvestment and businesses moving out.”

But there was no “Phoenix rising” at The Telegraph. In 2006, The Telegraph employed about 320 full- and part-time employees. The signs of distress by 2007 were also being felt in the rest of the newspaper industry. At The Telegraph, circulation was approximately 67,500 daily and 89,500 on Sundays, down from more than 100,000 in the early 1990s. In 2009, printing was outsourced—first to The Telegraph’s sister paper in Columbus, at a cost of almost sixty jobs, and later to the printing presses of the Savannah Morning News, 165 miles southeast, where papers are trucked back to Macon Sunday through Friday. By 2018, the circulation numbers were bleak—19,169 daily and 23,716 Sunday. The Telegraph stopped printing its Saturday edition this year. Layoffs, buyouts and retirements, became the order of the day. The Great Recession and the paper’s lack of digital prowess hit The Telegraph hard.

Advertising and shopping were migrating away from brick and mortar locations and into the digital realm. The Telegraph, once an advertising juggernaut that could demand high rates for its printed pages, was being assaulted from all sides—television and digital—and it was slow to realize its new place in the world. Digital subscriptions were woefully low. And a push by corporate to accelerate movement to digital in a market that loved its printed product was not well received. A former vice president of news for McClatchy admitted that the transformation for some markets, including Macon, was too aggressive.

Now, with pivotal elections on the horizon, The Telegraph’s position as a hearty, trusted media voice has never been weaker. Where will the citizens of Macon-Bibb County get the information needed to make informed decisions come May 19? Can other outlets fill the gap? Some are trying.

The Year of Fear tells the story of the lead-up to 2020 presidential election through the lens of four American towns whose newspapers have either closed or shrunk, and is told by four journalists who once worked for those papers. The project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

Catch up with all of our coverage at CJR.org.
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