July 13, 2008

Mood for Change Might Affect Local Races

By Phillip Ramati, The Macon Telegraph, Ga.

Jul. 13--Thanks to hot summertime temperatures and a dearth of high-profile offices up for grabs, local political experts are predicting relatively low voter turnout in Tuesday's primaries.

Houston County voting officials are predicting turnout of a little more than 20 percent, while Bibb County officials expect that about 30 percent of registered voters will cast ballots.

"Typically, you have lower voter turnout in a primary than a general election," said Mike Digby, chairman of the government department at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. "People came out for the presidential primary, but you don't have a lot of executive or statewide offices like governor or senator" on Tuesday's ballot.

Chris Grant, associate professor of political science at Mercer University, said low turnout combined with partisan primaries could provide the ingredients for a few potential upsets of incumbents.

Grant listed the Democratic primary between incumbent Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena and challenger Bill Lucas as one possibility.

He pointed out that some potential Modena supporters could end up voting in the Republican primary because they want to have a say in the Bibb County Commission chairman's race, in which incumbent Charlie Bishop is taking on challengers Theron Ussery and David Cousino. In addition, Bibb voters in District 3 may want a say in the Republican race between incumbent Commissioner Elmo Richardson and challenger Jimmy Allen.

"It has to do a lot with white Modena supporters voting in the Bishop race, which could leave a lot of African-Americans to vote for Lucas," Grant said. "That's not to say that Modena doesn't have a biracial appeal," he said, but white Democrats may be pulled into the Republican primary.

But there's also a strong chance there may not be much party crossover in Bibb County, Grant said. Many Democratic voters will be voting for Sam Hart in the Bibb chairman's race in November's general election, and they may not feel a need to jump into the Republican primary, he said. Bibb Democrats also may want to vote in their own party Tuesday so they can weigh in on the school board District 1 race between Kenny Rodgers and Ella Carter.

In the Houston County sheriff's primary between Republican incumbent Cullen Talton and challenger Chad Payne, Grant said the steady growth of the county and rise of younger voters would make the generational gap as much a factor in the race as anything.

Talton is seeking his 10th term in office, but Grant said younger voters could opt for change in the form of Payne, who has 17 years of experience as a deputy in both Houston and Butts counties.

"Houston County has had a lot of high growth, and that's when you see upsets," Grant said. "There's a national mood to see change right now, but we'll have to see" if that trickles down to Houston County."

Several other key primaries will be decided Tuesday throughout Middle Georgia:

--In Jones County, longtime incumbent Willie Fluellen is being challenged in the school board District 2 race by Alfred Pitts, retired principal of Gray Station Middle School.

--In Monroe County, Republican incumbent Harold Carlisle seeks his fourth term as County Commission chairman against James Green.

--In Crawford County, both parties will have primaries in the race to replace Sheriff Kerry Dunaway, who is retiring. On the Democratic side, Mike Becham, a security officer with the U.S. Marshals Office in Macon, faces Lewis Walker, a patrol captain in the sheriff's office. On the Republican side, Lee Henley, a deputy with the office, faces Scott Moore, a captain in the Roberta Police Department.

--In Twiggs County, Sheriff Darren Mitchum faces a challenge from Democrats Greg Stone, a former deputy and son of former Sheriff Doyle Stone, and Harold Etheridge, a volunteer firefighter with no law enforcement experience.

While Digby said the national trend is moving away from partisan primaries in local races, they are still prevalent in Georgia, especially at the county level.

"Georgia has been resistant to that (trend)," Digby said. "Frankly, throughout the state, the one level that has been resistant to that change is the county level."

Digby said the county-level offices often serve as a springboard to higher offices later on, so candidates want to establish themselves with a party. In addition, Digby said elected officials in the county often make their appointments in various departments with the contacts they make through the party.

But Digby said he didn't know if factors such as Bibb County voters being forced to choose between the sheriff's race or the commission chairman's race in this primary would spur change any time soon. He pointed out that Georgia has gone to nonpartisan judicial races only within the last 15 years.

"It's something that could lead to a change," he said. "Generally, the public is showing a dislike of political parties. When you have the public distrusting parties and then this kind of situation (in Bibb County), you could have renewed calls for a brand new primary system."

To contact writer Phillip

Ramati, call 744-4334.



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