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.

Macon-Bibb County will have a new mayor come January 1, 2021. The nonpartisan race wasn’t even close in the August 11 runoff that pit attorney and school board member, Lester Miller, against businessman, Cliffard Whitby, with Miller taking fifty-nine percent of the vote. There are 104,558 registered voters in the county, but only 38,520—36.8 percent—voted, a bit less than the 39 percent that voted in the 2013 mayoral election.  

Miller touted his campaign as a broad coalition of citizens, while Whitby depended on a cadre of Black ministers from large and small congregations to support him. It wasn’t enough for Whitby. And it is visible evidence that the days of powerful preachers being able to guide their flocks—at least in Macon-Bibb County—are over. Black registered voters outnumber white voters in the county by 12,729, and yet Whitby could only attract 15,716 votes to Miller’s 22,840. Whitby won the precincts considered majority Black but not by the expected margins.  Miller won the majority-white precincts by a wide margin.  

Rev. James Bumpus, Ph.D., who was head of the Macon-Bibb County Office of Small Business Affairs until 2018, and Interim Pastor at New Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, said he was “heartbroken” by Whitby’s loss. “The math favored us [the Black community] but we were unable to mobilize our community,” said Bumpus, who expressed his concern that disillusionment and apathy among Black voters might have dampened turnout. “They don’t believe the opportunity is there, even when state officials tell them the opportunity is there. When it comes to politics, there is a sense of unbelievability that there could be Black people in the highest decision-making roles.” Historically, many Black legislators in the state House and Senate expressed concerns that consolidation of the city and county government might dilute Black voting strength as part of the overall Republican strategy. 

This election was shaped by a force that none of the candidates in the runoff––for mayor, county commission, or school board––control or predict: COVID-19. Certainly, the pandemic should receive part of the blame for lower turnout. Most houses of worship in the area were still meeting virtually, if at all. Standard ways of campaigning were tossed aside as candidates participated in Zoom debates and virtual town halls. The usual down-home glad-handing was nowhere to be found.

And the local newspaper, The Telegraph, that used to cover all of Middle Georgia, now owned by Chatham Asset Management, which purchased McClatchy, is but a shadow of its former self. In its heyday, when daily circulation topped 100,000, the newspaper had four political reporters, four editorial writers, and a newsroom with more than fifty reporters, plus others stationed in bureaus in Atlanta, Milledgeville, Houston, and Laurens counties. Now there are four reporters—in total.

In the past, the newspaper’s editorial board took its responsibility for informing the communities about political candidates seriously. The newspaper sponsored community forums, interviewed and researched candidate backgrounds, and invited members of the community to take part in the deliberations. All of that is ancient history now. The newspaper abandoned its editorial voice in February 2018; the mix of local and national columnists was drastically reduced and letters to the editor mostly abandoned.

PREVIOUSLY: In rural Virginia, a tale of two Congressional districts

Another great impact on turnout is the timing of the election. Instead of holding nonpartisan municipal elections in November to coincide with the presidential calendar when turnout is heaviest, lawmakers scheduled primary and nonpartisan elections for March—nine months before the offices would be vacated.

This year’s primary and nonpartisan election was originally slated for March 24. The date was postponed to May 19, and again to June 9, all courtesy of COVID-19. Unlike past elections there were plenty of new faces on the ballot to draw voters out, as three commissioners retired, and another ran for mayor. Eight of nine commission seats were contested along with the mayor’s office, four of eight school board seats and the district attorney. But the runoff attracted 1,600 fewer voters than the June 9 general primary. 

Macon’s first African-American mayor, C. Jack Ellis, served two consecutive terms, from 1999 to 2007. After consolidation in 2012, each commission district’s racial mix was affected. When Ellis ran again for mayor in 2013, he was defeated in a runoff by incumbent present mayor Robert Reichert, who still holds the office. Ellis ran for tax commissioner in 2016 and lost by 4,777 votes. It will be interesting to see if another African American runs for mayor any time soon; Bumpus couldn’t see another candidate on the horizon, even though there are two long-serving African American commissioners. Three other major cities in Georgia—Atlanta, Savannah, and Augusta—have Black mayors.

Ever-present pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc in Georgia. Since the pandemic began, 5,576 Georgians have died from COVID-19. Schools are opening as COVID-19 hotspots continue to pop up throughout the state. Atlanta was identified nationally as one of the top ten hotspots in the country. A White House report leaked to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that Georgia had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in a seven-day period in mid-August. The report riled up Governor Brian Kemp—who quickly blamed the media rather than admit his missteps.

In an Op-Ed published on August 23 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kemp wrote, “Georgia is making progress in the fight against COVID-19, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the state’s flagship newspaper… The editorialized front page is crawling with sensational ‘news’ that undermines confidence in state agencies and school leaders.” Kemp also charged the Editorial Board with printing “a list of baseless grievances coupled with a clickbait headline.” Kemp continued, “During this crisis, the AJC has turned into a tabloid rag—appealing to supermarket shoppers waiting in line, six feet from their neighbor. Since the paper of record refuses to live up to their mantra of ‘compelling, credible and complete’ coverage, I’ll do it for them.” He then went on to give his take on still-high but falling statistics.

As Kemp forgot the old axiom, “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” he did decide to end his feud with Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as he dropped his lawsuit against Atlanta over Bottoms’ mandatory mask order. Kemp also lifted his restrictions against local governments instituting their own mask mandates. He did insert a caveat, that counties or cities could mandate masks only if COVID cases reached 100 cases per 100,000 people over a fourteen-day period. It was an empty requirement: only two of the state’s 159 counties were below that threshold.

School openings hit a COVID snag

When schools opened in Paulding County, north of Atlanta, on August 3, COVID came to school, too. North Paulding High School was the scene of the viral video—with kids crowded in a hallway, most without masks. The district called mask-wearing a “personal choice.” The student who shot the scene and posted it on social media was suspended and later reinstated after appearances on national television. By the end of the first week of school, 54 teachers, staff, and students had tested positive for the virus. The COVID rate in the county was 193 per 100,000 as of August 29. The district closed the school for five days to give it a deep cleaning and reopened using a hybrid model where students only have face-to-face instruction two days a week.

Cherokee County shutdown face-to-face instruction in three of its six high schools. More than 1,100 of its 31,000 students who were getting face-to-face instruction were in quarantine as of August 28, along with 49 teachers and staff.  

In Macon-Bibb County, there have been 4,354 confirmed cases with 88 deaths as of August 20. By August 23, the county had 937 cases per 100,000, 5,388 confirmed cases and 118 deaths. Bibb County Public Schools announced on August 13 that schools would open virtually on September 8. The opening date had been announced, pushed back from an August opening, but school officials delayed making the final call for digital-only instruction, hoping COVID-19 would subside. It didn’t, and the system began distributing 13,000 computers and tablets for student use for the first eight weeks of school. The district also cancelled all fall sports and later allowed a diminished schedule of football games with limited attendance.

How successful digital-only learning will be in Macon-Bibb is unknown. Information technology departments in other systems have been swamped, and the high rate of poverty in Macon-Bibb, coupled with the low level of computer knowledge, make for a challenging situation. Many of the district’s parents have to work and face a grim choice: provide food and shelter or assist in their children’s education. Students are allowed to receive virtual instruction with their cameras off due to the worry of possible bullying because of family situations from homelessness to poverty.  

In Houston County, just south of Macon-Bibb, less than a week after schools reopened, thirteen schools had each seen at least one case of COVID. Monroe County Schools, Macon-Bibb’s northern neighbor, opened its middle and high schools virtually and decided on a mixture of face-to-face and digital for elementary students. Twiggs County, east of Macon-Bibb, cancelled its 2020 football season and opened its schools virtually August 17.

University life impacted

Middle Georgia is also home to Middle Georgia State University, Mercer University, Wesleyan College, Fort Valley State University, and Central Georgia Technical College. Middle Georgia State has five campuses in the region; CGTC has eleven campuses and centers. All campuses opened, in one form or another, with face-to-face instruction, but students and faculty are required to wear masks indoors and classrooms have been retrofitted to allow social distancing. Mercer University cancelled its fall sports programs but will play a limited football schedule. FVSU, a member of the southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, cancelled all fall sports. 

In Georgia, football isn’t a sport, it’s a religion. At present, the University of Georgia will play a ten-game season starting September 26. UGA announced that Sanford Stadium, which holds 92,746 fans, would be limited to twenty-five percent of capacity: 23,000. Georgia is a member of the hallowed Southeastern Conference known for its football prowess. UGA’s game against its bitter rival, the University of Florida, will be played in Jacksonville on November 7. The contest is nicknamed “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” How that will play out in the Age of COVID is unknown, but we can guess. Schools there returned to face-to-face instruction, because they had to, after Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an edict requiring school districts to reopen five days a week. However, Corcoran’s order was shot down August 24, albeit temporarily, by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson.  The judge wrote that Governor Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Corcoran, and the Florida Department of Education, “arbitrarily prioritized reopening a schools statewide in August over safety and the advice of health experts.” Florida has been a COVID hotspot since Memorial Day, forcing the Republican National Convention, that was also to be held in Jacksonville, to cancel.

UGA started classes on August 20. The university is known for its social scene and downtown Athens presents many opportunities for student face-to-face contact. Fortunately, Athens-Clarke County has had a mandatory mask ordinance since the beginning of July, but the area, Athens-Clarke County, had a COVID rate of 420 per 100,000 on August 29, and with the influx of almost 39,000 students, “Go You Hairy DAWG,” could have an entirely different meaning by the end of the semester.

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.