Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had strong black support in the last election, but she may face stiff competition this time around.
As former Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce Vice President Colin Martin officially announced his candidacy on Thursday, four black elected officials were front and center, indicating they may be leaning in his direction.
Those who sat on the front row among seven elected officials were Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, Columbus Councilor Bruce Huff, Muscogee County Marshal Greg Countryman, and Muscogee County Tax Commissioner Lula Huff. Also present was Tomlinson's former campaign manager, Tollie Strode, who has parted ways with the mayor since the last election.
One of the co-chairs of Martin's campaign is the Rev. Betty Jackson, pastor of Mt. Commodore AME Church, who made introductory remarks at the campaign launch. When Martin addressed the audience, he stressed, among other things, his commitment to south Columbus, a predominantly black community.
"To the residents of south Columbus who have had too many politicians make promises that are unfulfilled, I say, 'Hold on. Help is on the way,'" said Martin, who grew up in Oakland Park.
"South Columbus is not just where I'm from, it's who I am. We will work together to build on the assets already in place to create jobs and build the quality of life you deserve and create economic prosperity for future generations."
With a black population of about 46 percent, the black vote will be crucial in the 2014 election.
For the 2010 mayoral race, Tomlinson managed to build a coalition that bridged the city's racial, socioeconomic and geographic divides. She reached out to black pastors, politicians, business leaders and grassroots activists.
Despite being in a runoff against Zeph Baker, a youth minister at Spirit Filled Ministries who would have been the city's first elected black mayor, Tomlinson won five of the city's 12 minority precincts in addition to sweeping all the majority-white precincts.
Reasons for support
Black elected officials who attended the kick-off on Thursday gave different reasons as to why they were there.
"Currently many people worry about crime and don't like the direction the city is going in," said Countryman, who supported Tomlinson in the last election and is now backing Martin. "We all have the luxury in this country of supporting the candidate that we feel is in our best interest. Right now, Colin Martin meets the criteria for my interest, and that's public safety."
Bruce Huff said the strong showing of black leaders "speaks for itself," but he wouldn't elaborate further. Lula Huff, his sister-in-law, refused to comment. Vivian Creighton Bishop said she wanted to hear what all the candidates had to say before she decided who to support.
But some people in the black community took the presence of black elected officials as a clear sign that Tomlinson is losing their support.
Brother Love, director of the Grassroots Unity Movement for Change, said the apparent shift toward Martin stems from clashes the mayor had with some black leaders over the future of the Liberty District. He said Tomlinson has also been insensitive concerning matters of justice and equality presented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other grassroots organizations.
"It's going to be quite an interesting race from what I can see," he said in a recent interview. "It is very unusual for elected officials to put themselves out front like that. I think it's a message to the mayor, but I don't think there's anything she's going to be able to do about it. I think the die is cast, so to speak. All she can do is run her race at this time."
But Love said he's not sure if he will support Martin, whom he described as a "staunch Republican conservative," and said it doesn't matter what side of town Martin is from.
"A lot of people are from south Columbus, but that doesn't necessarily make them have a connection with the people that are in south Columbus now," he said. "The question is: Are you connected to people in the community? Do you understand their plight?"
J. Aleem Hud, executive director of Project Rebound, a youth empowerment program, said he's involved with the African Leadership Summit, a non-political think tank that evaluates issues that impact the community.
"I think it's always good to have opposition because it provides the type of dialogue the community needs," he said. "From the perspective of the African-American community, I have not heard anything per se that really addresses the issues head-on that our community is really suffering under, issues such as unemployment.
"Here in Columbus we have a growing under-class and that's where all the criminal behavior is coming from," he added. "If Mr. Martin is open to having diverse voices and perspectives represented in his policies and his plans, then I think it will be a good thing."
Baker, Tomlinson's opponent in the 2010 election, said he thinks the positive response to Martin's candidacy suggests some people are looking for new leadership.
"I think what it shows is that there is a lot to be desired, not just among African-Americans, but -- if I'm not mistaken -- I saw white elected officials as well who attended his announcement," Baker said of Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and Councilors Glenn Davis and Gary Allen, who also attended Martin's event on Thursday. "I just think it shows people are wanting to hear if there are new answers and new ways of handling the challenges that Columbus faces."
Baker has expressed interest in running for mayor again, but he still hasn't officially launched his campaign. He said he will be making a public announcement in the next coming weeks to inform the community of his intentions.
But Baker said he's not worried about Martin splitting the black vote.
"People are going to vote for who they want to vote for, whether they're white or black," he said. "I believe that it's about the issues."
Since being elected, Tomlinson has been very visible in the black community. But in May she pushed for a Columbus Housing Authority redevelopment project that called for 100 units at Booker T. Washington Apartments, a public housing community around the historic Liberty Theatre.
Tomlinson argued that it would improve the lives of south Columbus citizens. But she received staunch opposition from Lula Huff, whose family has long owned property in the area. In 2011, Huff's brother, Joe Lunsford, presented the Housing Authority and city officials with another proposal for the Liberty District, which included economic development around the Liberty Theatre and the intersection of Victory Drive and Veterans Parkway. His wife, Cecilia, was president of Knicon, the company promoting the concept.
Opponents of the Housing Authority plan also included Councilor Bruce Huff, Jerry "Pops" Barnes and grassroots activists. The mayor was supported by City Manager Isaiah Hugley, State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, and other established leaders. Smyre couldn't be reached Friday for comment.
State Sen. Ed Harbison said it was too early to support a candidate for mayor.
"The race has just started and obviously I'm keeping my ears open to find out what the issues are," he said. "It's just good politics to make sure you always listen carefully to what the candidates say and go from there."
On Friday, Tomlinson said she doesn't campaign based on racial politics.
"There's a lot of people in Columbus, Ga., and I go after every vote," she said. "That's what we did in 2010 and that's what we're going to do in 2014 because you have not only to win support of people in the election, you have to govern, and you have to govern all people."
She said black voters could have elected a black candidate in the last election, but voted for her instead. And she believes she can win their support again.
"One of the things that we found in the African-American vote, like the Hispanic vote and all other votes that can be demographically sliced and diced, is that it is not monolithic. People do vote for good government. That's just a fact, and I think we can show that their lives have been better, that the community has been better -- and that's what we intend to run on."
She said some black leaders may have hard feelings over disagreements that they've had in the past, but that's the price of leadership.
"Whether you're talking about the Liberty District or health insurance costs or any of the difficult issues that we talk about, people look for leadership," she said. "And they look for somebody who is going to be consistent and is going to be fair and going to be respectful.
"And so whether or not they agreed with you on a particular issue is not necessarily a determinant of how they may vote. Because in my experience, they vote for the package."
This story has been updated to correct an error. A.J. McClung was Columbus' first black mayor after Mayor J.R. Allen died in a plane crash.