Death of a leader brings competitors to the field

Jupiter must be aligned with Mars because not since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius has there been so much peace in politics. In contrast to the vicious race between gubernatorial candidates Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor, the race for District 121 House Representative is as cordial as sweet tea on the verandah.

That’s because the race is all in the family. Henry “Wayne” Howard is challenging his stepmother, Rep. Earnestine Howard, in the July 18 primary to represent the Democratic Party in the November elections.

“It’s been kind of remarkable,” said Lowell Greenbaum, chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party.

Other Democrats are refusing to comment out of respect, including District 22 Senator Ed Tarver and District 120 House Representative Quincy Murphy. Greenbaum said that’s because the party remains neutral during the primaries.

“Is that good or is that bad, well, you know we’re in politics because we have strong feelings about things, so we have to suppress them no matter what we think and be neutral,” Greenbaum said.

In fact, the most interesting thing about this race may be that there isn’t much interesting about it. No one claims to have heard either Democratic candidate speak a negative word about each other. Even Dave Barbee, chairman of the Richmond County Republican Party, couldn’t cite with certainty if a rift exists.

“I don’t know if there is a family disagreement or what, but it’s really very interesting,” Barbee said.

“There has been very little antagonistic activity in that race and I admire both of the candidates for that,” Greenbaum said. “Apparently they came to an agreement to present the issues and leave the personalities out.”

The agreement Greenbaum spoke of, however, apparently does not include actually developing strong issues. Both claim to be ignorant of the platform of the other. And in truth, neither platform is particularly well-developed.

“I haven’t built my platform that deeply into a more comprehensive, detailed plan. I do have some thoughts and ideas but I’m not going to go on record with them at this point,” Wayne said. Individual issues have been identified, both candidates indicated, but extensive planning has yet to begin.

Both cite teamwork — working with fellow party members and negotiating across party lines — as a key element of success on the job.

Both the Howards and both political parties are in agreement that the concerns for District 121 are the three intertwined issues of power in state government, education and economic development. No matter who wins the primary and the November general election, Richmond County still has to contend with a demotion in state politics. The incoming representative will be a freshman without enough clout to win either key committee assignments or pull some new
government offices to the area as Georgia decentralizes its state agencies. Barbee worries that Bibb, Chatham and Muskogee counties will reap major benefits and leave Georgia’s second-largest city in the lurch.

The Howards are both for education reform. He wants to combat the drop-out rate, and to implement greater vocational training for non-college-bound students who he said are getting shafted by an increasingly theoretical focus. She wants to do away with punitive use of the high school graduation ignore because she said that it measures teaching rather than intellect. And she wants to raise the pay of public school teachers.

Both are supporters of training and resources for entrepreneurs, being small businesspeople themselves, and of the revitalization of the Turpin Hill district. In fact, it is difficult to determine where they differ, except in gender and first name. Both put the name “Henry Howard” on their campaign signs. She adds “Mrs.” He adds “Wayne.” Both say that they will let the people choose.

That actually appears to be their only rift. Wayne says that Earnestine made a verbal agreement at a family meeting after his father’s death that because Wayne was not a resident of the district, Earnestine would run as a placeholder for the Howard family.

“Service means you are a servant to the people. That’s not something that we just wake up tomorrow morning and say ‘I’m going to do it,’” he says.

Earnestine says that the agreement never took place, but that the family did later ask her to step aside so that Wayne could run unopposed. “We should work to make sure that our people have the best that we can give them. It’s going to take good leadership to bring about the kind of changes that are needed,” she said.

If either of the Howards win the general election, they have to contend with being in the minority party under a Republican governor, a situation that Barbee said that his party contended with for years in Georgia.

“If you’re not in the majority party you really can’t buy a roll of toilet paper without getting permission,” he said.

Whether or not they saw it coming before the tide turned, the Democratic caucus is swimming against the current now.

“They come back pretty upset sometimes,” Greenbaum said. “They just get beat up up there.”

And being in the minority party means that they have an uphill battle when it comes to fundraising.

“I just know that the primary is going to be a tough race because they don’t have a lot of money, and it’s going to be a low turnout,” Barbee said. “That’s what drives primaries is money. If you don’t win that one, you’re not in the big one.”

Earnestine wonders if family ties that bind are strangling her ability to raise campaign donations.

“It’s not something that I dwell on … but it could be a factor,” she conceded with a wry smile.

While she did not have fundraising totals at hand, she said that the amount was disappointing and that she suspects most contributions are going to the higher-ranking state officials.

“Really and truly just talking with some of my colleagues just across the state of Georgia, they’re encountering the same identical problems with finance. People are just not making contributions,” she said.

Wayne refused to answer specific questions about campaign finance and to define more precisely his platform as of press time. Likewise, telephone calls to Republican challenger Davita L. Johnson, who lists her profession as a paralegal, went unreturned.

Because her listed phone is also a fax machine, callers hear an annoying screech when they try to reach her. Calls to the state by the Metro Spirit turned up irregularities in financing for the campaigns of Wayne and of Johnson. Neither has filed a Declaration of Intention to Accept Campaign Contributions with the Secretary of State’s office, and thus cannot legally begin fundraising, as is clearly stated in the Candidate Training Guide.

“They could be found in violation,” said Rick Thompson, executive secretary for the State Ethics Commission. “I can’t prejudge the situation.”

Even if they have not accepted a single penny in outside contributions, however, the state of Georgia says they are in violation of the Ethics in Government Act just by paying their qualifying fees.

“It’s called an in-kind contribution,” Thompson said, even if it comes out of their own pockets. The law states that the donation of anything of value to a campaign — cash, goods or services — is included, and candidates may not accept such things before filing with the state.

To many, however, this race is interesting only for the out come — which Howard will carry on the political dynasty.

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