UPDATE with reaction: Thomas beats Wells in school board runoff

Two months ago, John Wells’ 28 years of service on the Muscogee County School Board was on the ropes, but he bounced back from what looked like a technical knockout and squeezed into the District 2 runoff by a split decision.

Tuesday night, however, a political newcomer floored the polarizing veteran in the first round.

John F. Thomas, a 60-year-old IRS agent with relatively few connections in Columbus, trounced Wells, the 74-year-old native with deep community roots and a successful businessman with interests mostly in property management and construction.

The voting never was close all night. As soon as the initial batch of ballots was reported, Thomas took a commanding lead -- which only widened.

With all five District 2 precincts posting unofficial results, and the in-person early votes added, Thomas has 80.28 percent (1,881 votes) to 19.72 percent (462 votes) for Wells. Results from the 166 mailed-in absentee votes are the only ballots yet to be counted. That tally wasn’t going to be available until after deadline because of a technical glitch, said Muscogee County elections director Nancy Boren.

Regardless, the choice from voters is clear.

“I feel like the results indicated what I felt all along,” Thomas said. “My message was something the voters picked up on. Look at the margin of victory. People rallied behind this idea of getting a better look at the school district’s finances, getting rid of no-bid contracts and putting more of that money into the classrooms, where it belongs.”

Here is the unofficial voting breakdown by precinct:

Britt David: Thomas 84, Wells 15.

Cornerstone: Thomas 288, Wells 59.

St. Mark: Thomas 564, Wells 154.

St. Peter: Thomas 169, Wells 32.

Wynnbrook: Thomas 306, Wells 112.

In-person early voting: Thomas 470, Wells 90.

After a heated runoff campaign, Wells called Thomas to concede and offer congratulations at 8:40 p.m.

“I thought it was a nice, taking-the-high-road kind of concession,” Thomas said. “I thanked him very much.”

Wells said, “He ran a good campaign. What can you say?”

This election will mark the end of an era when Wells yields his seat to Thomas in January. Wells, who began his tenure on the school board when its members were appointed by the grand jury, is the last representative left from the nine-person panel that became an elected governing body in 1993.

Wells recalled when he served on Columbus Council before the school board that then-city manager Frank Lambert told him, “Every time you vote on something, you make half the people glad and half the people mad. The people you make glad don’t remember, and the people you make mad never forget.”

Wells chuckled at the memory and concluded, “Those votes build up. It’s time to go.”

Perhaps the most memorable vote was two years ago, when Wells led a bloc of board members who voted -- without explanation that night -- against retiring superintendent Susan Andrews’ nine recommended personnel moves.

Thomas, whose wife teaches in the district, has mentioned that vote as part of his motivation to challenge Wells.

Thomas received 35.27 percent (1,449 votes) May 20. Wells got in the runoff by squeaking past John “Bart” Steed, owner of Kar-Tunes Car Stereo, by less than 1 percent of the vote -- 27.56 percent (1,132 votes) to 26.61 percent (1,093 votes). Victor Morales, training and development coordinator for Pratt & Whitney, garnered 10.44 percent (429 votes).

So about 72 percent of the voters were against Wells two months ago and 80 percent opposed him Tuesday.

Asked for his reaction, Wells chose to focus on the positive.

“I had a good run,” Wells said. “I enjoyed it. I met a lot of people, and I was able to help a lot of people.”

The runoff result also continued the trend established May 20, when the only other board member facing opposition this election cycle was ousted: Attorney and political consultant Frank Myers decisively defeated first-term representative and former educator Beth Harris in District 8. Myers received 64.13 percent (1,507 votes) and Harris 35.32 percent (830 votes).

The board’s lone county-wide seat also will have a new representative.

NeighborWorks Columbus president Cathy Williams didn’t run for a third term. Kia Chambers, a real estate company owner and former teacher, won a three-way race May 20 with 52.55 percent (12,306 votes). Owen Ditchfield, a retired educator and former District 7 representative, finished second with 30.7 percent (7,189 votes) and former NAACP Columbus chapter president and retired soldier Nate Sanderson finished third with 16.57 percent (3,880 votes).