He walked into a sports bar on Pio Nono Avenue around 9:30 Tuesday night to thunderous applause.
“Jack is back, Jack is back,” his supporters chanted.
All the early precincts gave former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis a commanding lead in the race for Macon-Bibb County mayor. But as more results came in, that lead dwindled to a distant second-place finish.
Asked what’s next for him, the smiling but visibly disappointed Ellis replied: “Well probably a good night’s rest.”
“Tomorrow’s my anniversary, I probably want to take my wife some place for some quiet time for a few days, and we’ll, uh, see what goes from there,” he said.
Over at the Armory Ballroom downtown, current Mayor Robert Reichert was visibly surprised by the scale of his victory.
“We had hoped for something like this and prayed for something like this, but we felt like with seven candidates in the race [six on the ballot, one write-in], especially with so many familiar faces, that it was going to be difficult if not impossible” to win a majority of votes, Reichert said.
“But lightning may have struck twice in the same place here, and we’re hoping we’ve got more than 50 percent,” he said.
It turned out Reichert didn’t have the simple majority needed for an outright win. There will be another Ellis-Reichert runoff, just as there was in 2011 when Ellis almost interrupted Reichert’s plans for a second term.
This was, however, a more decisive outcome than many were expecting in an election that has been defined by delays and uncertainty.
After Macon and Bibb County voters passed a consolidation referendum in 2012, Republican state legislators converted local elections here from partisan to non-partisan and rescheduled the election from November to July.
Democrats viewed that as a Republican attempt to make their candidates more electable in traditionally blue territory by obscuring party labels and holding local elections at a time of year when turnout—particularly among African Americans—is usually low.
The U.S. Department of Justice forced the postponement of the July election as federal officials contemplated blocking the election changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
After the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down that section, local election officials in Bibb County scheduled polling for the next available date: September 17.
Many court challenges and intra-party squabbles followed; candidates came and went as qualification reopened.
Mistakes with the new voting maps caused poll workers to give at least 90 people the wrong ballots during early voting, prompting an investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State's office and calls from some candidates to halt the election.
Meanwhile, political watchers were at a loss to predict who might win or lose as Macon City Council and Bibb County Commission incumbents competed with newcomers and old hats for a comparatively small number of new city-county commission seats and the office of city-county mayor.
“I’m disappointed at the low turnout, for such an important election as this,” Ellis said at his election night party, having been unable to sufficiently rally his African American base.
About 39 percent of registered voters came to the polls. Reichert was only 300 or so votes short of winning a simple majority.
But Reichert’s strong first-place finish makes his victory in the October 15 runoff likely, said Charles Richardson, opinion page editor for The Telegraph of Macon.
“I think [Ellis] is going to give it everything he’s got, but numerically I don’t think he can win,” Richardson said. “Plus I think you’re also going to have [Bibb County Commission Chair] Sam Hart out there on the campaign trail helping Robert Reichert.”
Hart finished a distant third in the race for city-county mayor. The first black candidate elected to countywide office in Bibb, his political coalition with the white Mayor Reichert was seen as vital to passage of the consolidation referendum.
“Like I told [Reichert] when I left him a message, if it isn’t me, then I certainly hope it’s him,” Hart said at his melancholy post-election party.
Hart supporter Cynthia Knight attended the Ellis party, and said she’s happy with the likelihood that Reichert will win in a runoff.
“I’m pro-Macon. As long as you’re pro-Macon, I can work with you, I don’t care who you are,” Knight said. “As long as that person can effectively lead everyone and be concerned about everyone, I’m excited.”
Old Guard, New Guard Score Wins
It was the old guard versus the new in some of the Macon-Bibb commission races, and both walked away with at least one victory.
The contentious District Three race in East Macon included Elaine Lucas, who has been on the Macon City Council for nearly three decades. Her opponent, Terry Tripp, served on the Bibb County school board for only six years.
In the end, voters went for experience, though it was a close race. Lucas said she was a little disappointed at just how close.
“I don’t think it was so much that people didn’t support me, I think there were outside forces that created doubt in folks' minds and wanted to question someone who had served the number of years that I have served,” she said.
In west Macon, political activist Al Tillman beat Macon City Council President James Timley decisively for the District Nine commission seat. It was a nasty race in which a judge had to settle the question of whether Tillman actually lived in his district.
“We were ready for the negativity and the mudslinging. I think the community rejected it. That’s politics of the old. It’s a new day though and people rejected all of that,” Tillman said.
Tillman has been in marketing and promotions for 20 years, he said. This time, he ran the biggest promotion of his life, and it paid off.
In the District Two race, Macon City Council veterans Larry Schlesinger and Henry Ficklin are headed to a runoff next month.
In District One, Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel scored an overwhelming victory over political newcomer Harold Young.
In all, it was a tough night for incumbents, Richardson said.
“Four office-holders are gone, whether in the city or the county,” he said. “You had seven that are in run-offs, so that could change. And you have only two that won outright. I think the 39 percent of the voters that did bother to cast a ballot are voting for some kind of change.”