Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, the Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

COVID-19 has turned the political scene in Macon-Bibb County on its head: no live events, no Sunday church visits, no in-person campaign rallies or forums. However, the campaign season is finally heating up. Candidates are getting their digital legs underneath them, putting their campaign commercial spiels online and employing robocalls. Lots of robocalls.

A bipartisan group of community organizations is trying to help. An online forum for the five mayoral candidates using Zoom was sponsored by The League of Women’s Voters, Georgia Women, and LINKS. Eleven days later, The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce sponsored another one. Forums over two nights for sheriff, county commission, and water authority candidates initially drew 4,500 views on Facebook. Although municipal elections are nonpartisan, these were sponsored by the Macon-Bibb County Democratic Party.

PREVIOUSLY: At the edge of a pandemic, its direction unknown

But it’s getting nasty. Several candidates for mayor, county commission, and district attorney, are using push polls that single out one or more of their competitors and propose a question, such as: “If you knew Candidate A was an ax murderer, would that change your opinion of him or her? Press 1.” While the question used here as an example is facetious, the technique is meant to alter a potential voter’s view of a candidate and is really no poll at all––it just masquerades as one. The real sponsor of the push poll is never revealed.

Diving into the mud for mayor

The race for mayor has been dragged into the deep muck.

On May 14, readers of The Telegraph were met with this headline: “Companies tied to Macon mayoral candidate Cliffard Whitby under GBI investigation.” Whitby is the leading African-American candidate for mayor in a consolidated county where African Americans hold more than a 12,000 registered voter advantage.

Whitby has already been acquitted on all charges from a federal case about the same issues.

The new “investigation” stems from Whitby’s time as chairman and executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority and calls for an investigation of the three-year-old case file. Georgia’s Deputy Attorney General Blair McGowan sent a letter to GBI Director Vic Reynolds, saying in part: “I am writing to request that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation open an investigation into possible theft, forgery and false statements involving former chairman/executive director of the Macon Bibb County Industrial Authority, Cliffard Whitby, and three companies owned by Whitby’s family members.” This is puzzling, because the deputy attorney general requested the GBI investigation in March, but the probe didn’t become public until mid-May, less than a month before the June 9 election.  Who pushed for this investigation, at this time, is unknown. While the mayor’s office is nonpartisan, partisan politics can’t be ruled out. McGowan is a Republican, and at least one of the mayoral candidates has positioned himself as aligned with President Donald Trump.

Three years ago, the Industrial Authority did an investigation of its own in an effort to distance itself from Whitby after he was served with the federal indictment. But that investigation took a nasty turn that reeked of politics. It charged that work on an Allied Industrial Park project wasn’t completed, but the authority’s own internal documents––with before and after pictures––proved the work was completed according to contract, and several authority board members had visited the site according to board records. In addition, board minutes proved Whitby was open about his connection with the three companies before the authority approved the contracts that were also subject to competitive bidding. Now enter the GBI to conduct a duplicate investigation on the state level where all concerned parties already know the outcome––but that outcome won’t be revealed to the general public until after election day, if then.

Whitby, as head of the Industrial Authority, had a very successful tenure bringing Kumho Tire, Tyson Foods, Irving Tissue and other employers to town. Whitby, for the first time in the authority’s history, reached out to minority contractors and vendors. Then there was push back. And there is more to the back story that preceded Whitby’s tenure as chairman. The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce acted as the area’s industrial recruiter, but that relationship was brought to a halt––ruffling feathers in the process––by former Industrial Authority Chairman Frank Amerson with Whitby at his side.

Whitby says the attack is “politically motivated.” The Telegraph quoted Whitby saying, “Anyone who ever attempts to do anything of substance will always have enemies. In this current political environment, it does not surprise me that after three years, some would choose to bring up these old allegations at the Industrial Authority that were fully reviewed previously.”

The Black community has little doubt about the origin and timing of the investigation. Whitby is seen as a hero who faced down federal charges and supports Black businesses. He has been a thorn in the side of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Education which has a sorry record of not employing minority contractors while spending more than $1 billion in construction contracts in the last dozen years. One of his mayoral opponents served on the school board and has racked up contributions from the contractors who have benefited from the board’s largesse, at the same time he openly attacked contracts targeted at minority contractors.

While The Telegraph, the 194-year-old daily paper, announced the investigation, it left the follow-up response, two days later, only to television reporters, choosing not to cover local Black clergy, current and former local politicians, and others gathered to support Whitby. “This is what you call a political lynching,” said State Senator David Lucas In front of the Macon-Bibb County Government Center. “When you don’t want somebody that’s talking about serving the community, but you got another part of the community that has another agenda, then they come up with all kinds of tricks.” Pastor Bryant Raines said during the same press conference, “What we are experiencing is an intentional assault on the collective consciousness of our community, all in the name of politics.”

This election for Macon-Bibb County is pivotal. The mayor’s office will transition for the first time in twelve years. Eight of nine county commission seats could have new occupants as only one commissioner didn’t draw opposition. Twenty-one candidates are running for those eight seats. No matter who is elected, the commission will have four new members, due to the retirement of three members and one who decided to run for mayor. Four of the eight board of education members will also be new, and the Macon Water Authority is guaranteed a new member as the District 2 representative, Javors Lucas, who served on the authority for thirty-seven years, died at age ninety-six.

This election is also fairly weird. Aside from the municipal nonpartisan races, the June 9 election is a partisan primary for district attorney, sheriff, state senate and one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats which has seven Democrats seeking the nomination to face Republican Senator David Perdue. The other U.S. Senate seat is a “jungle” primary in November that includes twenty candidates of all political stripes, Republican, Democrat, Independent and everything in-between.

Another complicating factor

There is another factor raising its ugly head that will impact all municipal races: The Macon-Bibb County budget. What started as an example of fiscal responsibility is now something else. The county was projected, before COVID-19, to have a rainy-day fund of twenty-eight million dollars, up nine million dollars from fiscal year 2019, but that’s all changed. One day after early voting began on May 18, Mayor Robert Reichert revealed his 2021 budget, which begins July 1. He seeks to cut $16.6 million because sales tax, hotel-motel-taxes, and fines and fees revenue are all down due to the COVID-19 shutdown and the rainy-day fund has become an undefined figure.

Personnel costs are eighty percent of the county’s budget and Reichert is proposing furloughs for all personnel, except public safety. That means a furlough of as much as four days a week for Recreation Department employees over the summer. And that means swimming pools would close during the height of what is always a hot summer. Reichert said, “It’s hard to imagine a way to balance our budget without adversely impacting our employees.” Reichert is also proposing that other county employees lose a half-day’s pay each week for the entire fiscal year. “I recognize and understand, however, that this is not what you deserve,” the mayor said. “I ask only for your understanding of the circumstances that compel the proposals of this budget.”

This forces all five mayoral candidates, one a sitting commissioner, to chime in on Reichert’s proposal and puts four commissioners with opposition in the unenviable position of having to debate and finally vote the mayor’s proposal––up or down––and that final vote comes on Election Day on June 9. “We have to do more with less, and there’s going to be difficult decisions moving forward,” Larry Schlesinger, a candidate for mayor, said. Commissioner Virgil Watkins who has two contenders for his seat said, “We know we need to put paying our employees and adjusting the pay at the forefront.”

Was this consequential commission meeting covered by The Telegraph, a newspaper that touts its watchdog responsibility? No. Fortunately the meeting was livestreamed and reported by television reporters who have picked up the mantle dropped by the newspaper.

The county isn’t the only government looking to cut expenses. Governor Brian Kemp is looking to cut $3.5 billion and has ordered each state agency––from the GBI to the University System of Georgia––to cut budgets by fourteen percent, no exceptions. Furloughs have already been announced for the university system’s twenty-six schools. This at a time when face-to-face classes have had to transition to online. Summer classes are being held online only––and it’s not known whether students will return to campuses in the fall.

State government has other issues and COVID-19 is at the heart of them all. Unemployment claims increased 1,041,401 claims in April to reach a total of 1,353,921 claims. The unemployment rate hit an all-time high in April: 11.9 percent.

Kemp started opening up the state before any of his fellow governors and he’s paying the price in the polls: Kemp is at the bottom of a Washington Post-Ipsos poll that ranked the approval percentage of all 50 governors for their handling of the virus. But more importantly, Kemp is paying the price in the health of the people in his state. There have been several data snafus coming from the Georgia Department of Public Health––one that made the trend line in COVID-19 cases appear to decline, but in actuality it was flat, and then inflated the number of tests by adding together the nasal swab (viral) and antibody tests. That artificially increased the number of tests performed and lowered the percentage of positive cases in the state.

At the same time, Dr. Carlos del Rio, chairman of the Global Health Department at Emory University and the dean overseeing physicians at Grady Memorial Hospital, states that Georgia had experienced a twenty-six percent rise in COVID-19 cases between the weeks of May 11 and May 18 and those numbers were not all attributable to an increase in testing but to the partial end of stay-at-home orders. Businesses here rushed to open, but was it too soon?

One of the most successful restaurateurs in Macon, the Moonhanger Group, led by Wes Griffith, with three downtown eateries, released this statement: “On Tuesday, May 26th The Moonhanger Group made the decision to open our dining rooms at H&H, Rookery, Dovetail and Natalia’s. As we prepared to open, we not only implemented the state reopening guidelines and CDC recommendations, but we also arranged testing for all of our employees last Tuesday and Wednesday. We were not required to do this but thought it prudent to go the extra mile. Though we didn’t have all the results yet, we re-opened anyway. We were confident, based on the low number of positive results reported in Bibb County, that none of our employees would test positive and we hoped to share that news with the public. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, we have employees who have tested positive. All of them were asymptomatic. We feel that the only appropriate thing to do at this point is to close dining rooms at Rookery, Dovetail and H&H. Natalia’s (located in the north end of the county) will remain open due to no positive results among the staff. We will spend the coming days retesting, examining the data, and identifying team members who are COVID free. We hope to resume to-go business soon.”

No one knows what the future will look like––but it will be far from “normal.”

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

Charles Richardson has lived in Macon, Georgia, since 1982. His journalism experience spans newspapers, radio and television. He is the recipient of Knight-Ridder fellowships at Duke University and the University of Maryland, College Park. He was the editorial page editor at The Macon Telegraph, from which he retired in 2018.