'My wife, my children, they are off limits': Zeph Baker addresses new accusations
With absentee ballots already in the mail and early in-person voting set to start Monday, time is running out to resolve a challenge to Columbus mayoral candidate Zeph Baker’s residency.
Now the rival challenging it has new evidence to support her claim that Baker lives in Newnan, Ga., where court filings list his address as 40 Lantana Way.
But the judge may never consider that evidence, when he hears candidate Beth Harris’ appeal of the local elections board’s April 5 decision not to disqualify Baker.
That’s because Georgia law says the judge must base his decision solely on the record of the elections board meeting, and the court filings Harris since has publicized were not among the evidence the elections board considered in weighing Baker’s residency.
Harris’ April 16 appeal from the board to Muscogee Superior Court initially was assigned to Judge Maureen Gottfried, but she and other judges in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit recused.
Appointing an outside judge to hear the appeal fell to the senior judge of the Third Judicial Administrative District, R. Rucker Smith, who appointed Senior Judge Gary McCorvey of the Tift Judicial Circuit.
McCorvey has yet to set a hearing on the appeal.
The documents Harris has are filings for divorce and a temporary restraining order involving Baker’s marriage to Sharon Cosby, with whom he owns the house on Lantana Way in Newnan. The papers repeatedly refer to that address as Baker’s home.
Baker maintains he still lives in Columbus, and always has. He and Cosby met in Atlanta, where she works, and they bought the house in Newnan so that she could commute from there, he said.
The address Baker listed on his March 9 notice of candidacy was 1091 Bolton Court, and that remains his home, he said.
In a March 30, 2016, petition for a temporary restraining order, his wife wrote that Baker is a resident of Coweta County, where the court could serve him papers at 40 Lantana Way. She further stated she and Baker were “currently living in the same household.”
Her petition also said she was dependent upon that residence for shelter and asked the court to order Baker to vacate it. A judge’s order said Baker’s children could remain there while attending Northgate High School.
Appended to that petition, however, was a document stating a sheriff’s deputy served notice of the petition to Baker at 1091 Bolton Court, in Columbus.
A divorce complaint filed April 17, 2018, titled Sharon Cosby Baker v. Zephaniah Dwayne Baker, said Zeph Baker “is a resident of Coweta County, Georgia, or has been within the past six months” and that Baker may be served notice of the complaint at 40 Lantana Way.
Harris on Facebook posted an image of what she says is a Jan. 1, 2017, affidavit bearing Baker’s signature above his printed name and address. The address listed is 40 Lantana Way.
Baker called a news conference Monday to respond, and accused his critics of attacking his family.
“It’s shameful that my opponents would use this tactic as a campaign strategy,” he told those gathered at 1124 13th St. “I must admit that after learning the downright vicious attacks on my beloved wife, I had to pray before I responded. I am grossly disappointed that in Columbus, Georgia, some of my opponents would stoop to a level where the families of candidates are now in their crosshairs.”
Harris and others had chosen to “exploit the health challenges of my wife,” he said, adding that he “will not betray the privacy and confidence of my beloved wife, but I will say that her coping mechanisms are unconventional. I love my wife, and I will not betray my vow of commitment to her.... I am sure Beth Harris and company are aware that my wife’s emotional and mental state have no bearing on my ability to serve the citizens of Columbus.”
Asked why his wife wasn’t at the news conference, Baker said:
“My wife understands, and we have made an agreement, that she is not the candidate. She came to the campaign kickoff, and that was a big step for her. She lives a private life. She has lived a private life all of her life. I have been in the public.”
In reference to her petition for a restraining order, he said: “I never been charged with any act of violence, especially family violence.” The judge reviewing the petition ordered only that he and his wife spend 10 days apart, and they reconciled before those 10 days were up, he said: “We made an effort to save our marriage.”
Among the accusations in the petition were claims that Baker had followed his wife and accosted her and a friend on the street in Atlanta, that he had grabbed and restrained her at home in front of two teen children – refusing to let her leave the room or call for help – and that he ripped a telephone off the wall when she tried to call the police.
She also alleged Baker once tried to burn her with a hot iron.
Baker said he has never abused his wife: “I am not deterred by people’s comments, their bringing up any mistakes I may have made in the past,” he said. “I think it shows I’m human, but I have not ever been in violation of family disputes.”
Harris said her only issue is Baker’s residency, not his marriage: “I don’t know anything about her health,” she said of Baker’s wife.
She believes the elections board did not meet its responsibilities when it refused to disqualify Baker: “I don’t believe he lives here, and I’m not satisfied with the elections board,” she said.
Among the evidence the board considered April 5 were Harris’ documents showing Baker and his wife have a homestead exemption on the house in Newnan, and Baker’s copies of correspondence showing he still gets bills and checks at the Bolton Avenue address in Columbus.
Georgia Supreme Court precedent prohibits the board’s giving a candidate’s homestead exemption more weight than other factors it must consider in determining residency.
The other factors include “where the person receives significant mail such as personal bills,” and “financial independence, business pursuits, employment, income sources, residence for income tax purposes, age, marital status, residence of parents, spouse, and children, … leaseholds, sites of personal and real property owned by the applicant, motor vehicle and other personal property registration.”
The law says the judge hearing the appeal must rely on the record of the elections board meeting: “The review shall be conducted by a court without a jury and shall be confined to the record.”
The judge is not to “substitute his judgment” for the board’s “as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact,” the law says.
The judge may uphold the board’s decision, or send the complaint back “for further proceedings.” He may reverse or modify it only if he finds the board’s ruling was illegal, clearly in error or so arbitrary as to be an abuse of discretion.
Were Judge McCorvey to send Harris’ complaint back to the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registrations, Harris might have a chance to submit additional evidence.
But with absentee voting underway, the time for reconsideration is running short.
“I reside in Columbus,” Baker declared Monday. “I have lived here my entire life. This is not about my residence. This is about ‘How do we stop the Zeph Baker campaign?’ … I have satisfied the board of elections, but Beth and company, operating with their attitudes of entitlement, refused to accept anything that does not serve their purpose.”
As he accused Harris of diverting voters’ attention from the issues, Harris accused him of the same.
“I don’t do smear tactics,” she said Wednesday. “It was my right to appeal, because I knew he did not live here…. I just think he has tainted this whole election, because we’re off the issues.”
Election Day will be May 22. The other mayoral candidates are Danny Arencibia, Charles Roberts, Winfred Shipman, and Berry “Skip” Henderson.