Muscogee school board has roller-coaster election night

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 21, 2014 

It took until the wee hours of Wednesday morning for all the results in the Muscogee County School Board races to be released.

And it will take another two months to decide one of them.

When all the counting was done, Kia Chambers prevailed in a three-way race for the nine-member board's lone at-large seat, and District 2 incumbent John Wells came back despite trailing in the four-way race all night to gain a July 22 runoff spot against challenger John F. Thomas.

After the primary and nonpartisan Election Day turned into the Day After, the races dramatically turned as well.

Chambers, a real estate company owner and former teacher, had been leading all night by a wide margin to replace Cathy Williams, who didn't seek re-election. By the time all 27 precincts reported, she had 49.04 percent of the vote but needed a majority to avoid a runoff -- and there still were 9,105 early votes yet to be counted.

Ledger-Enquirer.com reported the final results around 1 a.m., however, and Chambers enlarged the at-large gap and ended up with 52.55 percent (12,306 votes). Owen Ditchfield, a former District 7 representative, finished second with 30.7 percent (7,189) and former NAACP Columbus chapter president Nate Sanderson finished third with 16.57 percent (3,880 votes).

Chambers wasn't reached for comment Wednesday, but Ditchfield didn't sound eager for a runoff anyway.

"It became obvious pretty early that Kia would be hard to defeat," he said. "I just have the attitude that God has a plan for me, and this probably wasn't part of it. I wish Kia well. I think she will do a good job."

With four candidates vying for the District 2 seat, a runoff was almost guaranteed. But the surprise was how we got there.

Wells, the board's senior member with 28 years of service, looked like he would be shut out of the runoff when all five of the district's precincts had reported. Thomas, an IRS agent, led throughout the night, and Wells trailed Kar-Tunes owner John "Bart" Steed for second place by 43 votes. But as in the at-large race, the early votes proved key, and Wells squeaked into the runoff when the district's 1,374 early votes were added, overtaking Steed by 39 votes.

Provisional votes will be counted later this week, but Wells is expected to maintain his lead over Steed.

Thomas finished with 35.27 percent (1,449 votes), Wells 27.56 percent (1,132), Steed 26.61 percent (1,093) and Pratt & Whitney training and development coordinator Victor Morales 10.44 percent (429).

"It was a real shot to me when it flipped around," Steed said. "It was kind of a letdown."

Wells wasn't reached for comment Wednesday.

Thomas looked at the results as a referendum against Wells.

"I would say 72 percent of the people who voted in District 2 indicated they want a change," he said. "They liked my platform calling for a top-to-bottom audit, financial transparency and ending no-bid contracts, but it seems like everybody was in the mood for change on the school board."

Attorney and political consultant Frank Myers ousted the board's only other incumbent facing opposition, first-term representative Beth Harris of District 8. Myers received 64.13 percent (1,507 votes) and Harris 35.32 percent (830).

Thomas said he will contact Steed and Morales and ask for their support in the runoff against Wells. Steed said he will stay out of that campaign, and Morales wasn't reached for comment Wednesday.

"They approached the campaign as trying to get Wells out," Steed said. "I didn't want to have that type of collusion."

Steed was referring to Myers helping Thomas with his campaign. They celebrated Election Night together with their supporters at El Vaquero in Cross Country Plaza.

Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Mark Cantrell of District 6 were re-elected without opposition.

The new terms for each seat start in January.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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