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ELECTION NOTEBOOK

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Mostly crickets during qualifying week; all but 3 incumbents to run unopposed

  • ELECTION NOTEBOOK
    Bill Massee
  • ELECTION NOTEBOOK
    John Westmoreland
  • ELECTION NOTEBOOK
    Kelvin Butts
  • ELECTION NOTEBOOK
    Amy Burt
  • ELECTION NOTEBOOK
    Skye Gess
  • ELECTION NOTEBOOK
    Hoganne Harrison-Walton

Last week generally was an excellent week to be an incumbent in Baldwin County.

Few challengers emerged during qualifying, which ended last Friday afternoon at the courthouse. Out of the 16 local incumbents who qualified last week, 13 will run unopposed and not face any competition in 2020.

A democratic district?

Two candidates qualified for the District 145 Georgia House of Representatives seat.

Rick Williams, the incumbent Republican, was first elected in 2016, when he emerged from a list of five candidates to replace Rusty Kidd in the General Assembly. Williams then ran unopposed in 2018.

Democratic challenger Quentin T. Howell, a medical equipment salesman and radio personality, qualified last week as a Democrat. Howell first ran for the seat in 2010, when he was defeated by Kidd by 14 percentage points. Howell again ran against Kidd in 2012, when he fared better and only lost by 2.6 percentage points.

Howell also is the chairman of the Baldwin County Democratic Committee, and he insists that his committee’s advanced voter data shows that District 145 is a “democratic district.”

“We’re one of only two democratic districts in the entire state that is represented by a Republican,” Howell said. “We’re ready to turn that around.”

District 145 covers all of Baldwin County and the three southernmost precincts in Putnam.

Williams, meanwhile, said seniority and party affiliation are both things that voters should keep in mind, adding that “it’s difficult to get things done for your district” when you’re not in the majority party. Republicans control the General Assembly, something that’s not likely to change in the near future.

“It takes experience, and it takes seniority to get bills out and get things accomplished around the capitol,” said Williams, adding that representatives from the majority party are far more likely to receive meaningful committee assignments.

Howell, meanwhile, says that he’s “ready to put District 145 back to work.” Among other things, Howell is advocating for raising the state minimum wage.

“It’s been far too long. People must be able to make a livable wage. We have far too many people in Baldwin County who are working full-time jobs and who are still considered ‘working poor,” Howell said.

Another piece of Howell’s platform is medicaid expansion. He said that “the republican leadership in Georgia has turned down more than $40 billion in Medicaid expansion” from the federal government.

“Rural hospitals all over Georgia are closing. We have two hospitals that are struggling right here in this district,” Howell said. “Not only would (Medicaid expansion) save hospitals, but it would also create jobs.”

Sheriff all by himself

Bill Massee qualified for his ninth term as Sheriff. Massee was first elected in 1988, defeating incumbent Louie Arrington with 58 percent of the vote.

Not since 2004 has Massee had any opposition. In the past, challenging Massee has not exactly been a great idea or a winning proposition. In 2004, Republican challenger Bob Williams received a mere 22 percent of the vote against Massee. In 2000, which was Williams’ first try, he tallied 19 percent. Also that year, Massee had a challenger in the general election. That challenger - Bruce Specht garnered only 21 percent against Massee. Finally, in 1996, Stann Lynn recorded 16 percent of the vote against Massee in the primary, while Allen Martin, Jr. managed a mere 14 percent in the general election.

However, 2020 marks the first time that Massee will run as an independent, as opposed to a Democrat. For many years, Massee has insisted that the Sheriff’s election should be non-partisan, similar to the local Probate Judge and School Board elections, where candidates do not have a “D” or an “R” beside their names on the ballot.

Lonely incumbents

Massee is running unopposed, as are Baldwin County’s three other constitutionally-elected officers - Probate Judge Todd Blackwell, Clerk of Superior Courts Mitch Longino, as well as Tax Commissioner Cathy Settle. Magistrate Judge Shane Geeter also will not have any competition this year.

There are three School Board seats on the ballot this year, and all three incumbents will run unopposed. Shannon Hill was first elected in District 2 in 2016, Lyn Chandler in District 3 in 2012, and John Jackson in District 4 in 2008.

More lonely incumbents

It will be a relatively light campaigning year in terms of the county commission, despite the fact that all five seats are on the ballot in 2020.

District 5, which covers a large swath of north Baldwin County, has three entrants. Two-term republican incumbent John Westmoreland qualified last week, as did democratic newcomers Kelvin Butts and Amy Burt. Butts and Burt will square off in the May primary, with the winner challenging Westmoreland in the November general election.

Butts, 47, is a lifelong resident of Baldwin County and is an educator at Rockdale County High School in Conyers. Butts said he is running on a platform of “conservative spending and transparency.”

“It was around the end of 2019 when I decided to run. We need to be selective in what we spend our money on, and we need and ear and a voice in this district,” he said.

Burt, meanwhile, is a 55-year-old rhetoric professor at Georgia College and someone who’s lived in Baldwin County for the past 27 years, according to her qualifying affidavit.

“I became concerned about the course of the county commission after the decision was made to defund the library,” she said. “We need equitable services in Baldwin County in all districts.”

Running unopposed in 2020 will be incumbents Emily Davis, a Democrat in District 1, Sammy Hall, a Republican in District 3, as well as Henry Craig, a Republican in District 4.

Tommy French, who’s represented District 2 since 2012, decided not to seek reelection, thus opening the door for political newcomer Kendrick Butts, who was the only candidate to qualify in District 2. French and Butts were classmates at Baldwin High, and French said Butts “definitely has the ability to get the job done.” Butts, 53, is a lifelong resident of Baldwin County who works as an “electrical and instrumentation technician,” according to qualifying records.

“There’s a huge learning curve, and the job requires a lot of work,” French said. “But, I believe that (Butts) is committed.”

French has “had some health issues” in recent years, specifically chronic back pain and nerve damage. He is now retired from Central State Hospital and said his focus is now on spending more time with his family, as well as his health. During his eight years, French was someone who could find common ground with different commissioners and someone who wasn’t necessarily interested in the spotlight or making headlines. A large part of French’s legacy will be upgrades and improvements to the Collins P. Lee Center in Harrisburg, which has become a center of activity around District 2 in recent years.

“I had a great relationship with all of the county commissioners,” French said. “We all come from different backgrounds and different parts of the county, but we were always able to come together, even when we didn’t always agree.”

Ifs, ands or Butts

For the record, Kelvin Butts says that he and Kendrick Butts are not related.

“There a lot of us Buttses in Baldwin County, but we’re not all related,” said Kelvin.

Nationally, “Butts” is a relatively obscure last name, ranking as the 1,381st most common, according to www.mongabay.com However, in Baldwin County, it’s one of the more common last names.

Nevertheless, there’s a chance that the county commission in Baldwin County could be “40 percent Butts” by this time next year.

It’s been a minute

How long has it been since Baldwin County had a contested Solicitor General’s election?

Well, nobody around here could immediately remember.

Maxine Blackwell, the previous Solicitor General, was first elected in 1993 during a special election. Blackwell was the only candidate on the ballot that year. Blackwell then was re-elected five times, running unopposed each time.

Prior to Blackwell, Jimmy Watts was the longtime Solicitor General in Baldwin County, and he rarely, if ever, faced election-year competition.

However, what is clear is that the 2020 election will be contested. Skye Gess, who was appointed as the Solicitor General in August 18 following Blackwell’s passing, qualified as a Republican, while local attorney and political newcomer Hoganne Harrison-Walton qualified as a Democrat.

Both candidates already are in full gear, in terms of digital media campaigning. Gess’ website is www. skyegess.com, and her Facebook is “Skye Gess for Solicitor General.” Meanwhile, Harrison-Walton’s website is www. hoganneforsolicitor.com, while her Facebook is “Hoganne for Baldwin County Solicitor-General.”

Gess, 33, first moved to the area in 2013, when she was hired by then-District Attorney Fred Bright as an assistant district attorney. As solicitor general, Gess said that “right around 70 percent of her caseload” has been domestic and domestic violence-related cases. Gess said that she’ll continue Blackwell’s legacy of advocating for domestic violence victims and promoting domestic violence awareness.

Gess, who was raised in suburban Atlanta, previously lived in Hancock County before relocating to Baldwin County following her appointment in 2018. Gess and her husband have several farms around Middle Georgia.

“I am a very seasoned and experienced prosecutor. It’s my passion, and I feel as if I have a calling for this,” Gess said. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do for a living.”

Harrison-Walton, meanwhile, is a Milledgeville native, graduating from Baldwin High in 1999. She’s had a private law practice for the past 10 years.

“When Mrs. Blackwell passed away and the position became vacant, I saw it as an opportunity and an opportunity to serve the community,” she said. “I want to work to promote the family unit and work with vulnerable families. It’s a job where you can make an impact.”

Another history lesson

Many years have passed since there was a contested Solicitor General’s election in Baldwin County.

The same also can be said for District Attorney.

For the first time since 1993, more than one name will be on the ballot in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s election. T. Wright Barksdale, a Jones County resident and an assistant district attorney in the circuit, will take on Carl Cansino, a Milledgeville attorney.

The position became open after current District Attorney Steve Bradley announced in January that he would not seek re-election, instead opting to run for Superior Court judge. Bradley was first appointed to District Attorney after Bright became sick in 2015. Bradley then ran unopposed in 2016. Bright was first elected during a special election in 2003, defeating Jim Cline, who’d been the interim District Attorney for three months following the resignation of Joe Briley, a man who’d served as D.A. of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit for more than 20 years.

This year’s primary election is scheduled for May 19 and the general election for Nov. 3.