Richard Hyatt

Richard Hyatt: Wells' loss is a reminder that the public is watching

John Wells has been hanging around local ballots for close to 40 years, so it was shocking when he lost what is probably his final political race by close to 60 percentage points.

Newcomer John Thomas upended the veteran school board operative last week after Wells barely made it into the runoff despite being an incumbent in a race against a bunch of unknowns.

Wells served two four-year terms on Columbus Council, ran a spirited campaign for mayor in 1990 and spent more than 29 years on the Muscogee County School Board. He was on the appointed panel and has been there since it became an elected board in 1993. Only veteran Councilor Red McDaniel has been around the political scene longer.

So for an IRS agent who isn’t from these parts to get nearly 80 percent of the vote in a race against a Bibb City boy bears explaining.

In retrospect, Wells shouldn’t have even been there. The District 2 runoff should have been between Thomas and Bart Steed, a rookie campaigner who Wells nudged out in the May election.

When regular ballots were counted, Steed was second and Wells was on the sideline. But after midnight, when early votes were tabulated, the incumbent prevailed by 39 votes, setting up a race with Thomas who led the four-man field.

Wells ran on his record and Thomas also ran on Wells’ record, reminding voters of shenanigans of the past. It worked, and Wells leaves the stage with egg on his face.

Even then, the margin was surprising. Wells was controversial but he had never been indicted, investigated or arrested. For him to get two out of every 10 votes is amazing.

Thomas ran a consistent race with an unchanging voice. But his victory goes beyond the July 22 runoff. It began two years ago with a digital campaign known as “Boot the Board.” The anonymous brainchild of attorney Frank Myers, it inspired an examination of board behavior and board actions.

That movement caught a rushing wave of change. Newcomers Mark Cantrell and Beth Harris were elected in 2010 and two years later Athavia Senior and Shannon Smallman joined them.

Restructuring continued this year. At-large member Cathy Williams did not run for re-election and was replaced by former classroom teacher Kia Chambers, who turned back a challenge from Owen Ditchfield, a former member of that board. Myers became a candidate instead of an adviser and trounced Harris.

Then came Wells.

In January, this panel of new faces will be in control along with Superintendent David Lewis, who has been on the job only a year.

As they look around the room and realize who isn’t there anymore, it should deliver a stern reminder that the public is watching — and voting.