Is Walker beatable?

Two of the best-known African-American political figures in Georgia – Billy and Cynthia McKinney – have already been bounced out of office this year by the voters. Could Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker (D-Augusta) be in line for the same fate?

Some politicians and media types are starting to speculate openly about the possibility that Walker and his son, 12th District congressional candidate Champ Walker, could both be facing a long night on Nov. 5.

“Nobody’s saying yet it will happen, but the McKinney Sweep could hit Walkersville,” wrote Jim Wooten, a conservative columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The hometown Augusta Chronicle, in an article reporting the endorsement of Sen. Walker’s opponent by a local black clergyman, said, “There are rumblings that the Rev. Martin’s endorsement, along with support from several other prominent black clergymen, is another sign that a movement might be under way in the black community to unseat Mr. Walker, even if that means backing the most unlikely of candidates.”

“Not only do I think it’s possible, but I’m hoping it happens,” said Sen. Don Cheeks (D-Augusta), a longtime legislative adversary of Walker.

A Walker loss to his Republican challenger, attorney Randy Hall, would rank as one of the biggest upsets in Georgia political history, but Democrats aren’t buying in to that scenario.

“It’s a lot of wishful thinking, really,” said Jon Anderson, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party. “I think Walker’s going to win in a landslide.”

The anti-Walker faction is basing its hopes on a couple of surprising developments in the last week. One is Champ Walker’s closer-than-expected congressional runoff victory over state Rep. Ben Allen (D-Augusta). The younger Walker ran behind Allen in his home base of Augusta and in Athens, but took the Democratic nomination by sweeping the Savannah precincts.

A few days after Champ Walker’s close call, black clergyman K. B. Martin made his well-publicized announcement that he would back Hall in his race against Sen. Walker. One of the local black newspapers also endorsed Hall, and the events have prompted much of the speculation that Walker’s political strength in Richmond County could be diminished.

“It’s the first indicator that there are some problems with Sen. Walker’s base of support in the African-American community,” said Hall. “We see that as another sign that the base is eroding.”

But Walker, one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly and a possible statewide candidate four years from now, offered a few indications of his own that he may not be in quite the dire straits some are saying. A group of about 20 black clergymen held a press conference in Augusta on Wednesday to say that they are backing Walker no matter what the media might say otherwise.

“We are here to dispel that mistaken impression,” the ministers said in a prepared statement. “And frankly, we resent the implication that the opinion of a lone black minister would be amplified by the media to give the impression that Senator Walker’s political base has eroded . . . Let the record show that we stand tall behind Senator Walker and feel confident that the majority of Augustans will prove us correct.”

Walker is one of the state’s best-known political figures because he is also one of the more controversial ones. He has been the object of several investigations by the Journal-Constitution, the state auditor’s office and the State Ethics Commission because of the connections between the businesses he owns (The Walker Group) and government agencies. He voluntarily paid an $8,500 fine to the Ethics Commission earlier this year for not making the required disclosure of some of those relationships.

“He’s just had too many negative things written about him,” Cheeks said. “People are getting a little leery.”

“A lot of the voters’ concerns in Richmond County with Champ flow down from the concerns about his father,” Hall said. The continuing media coverage of Walker’s investigations and the developments of the last two weeks have motivated more people to contribute to his campaign, Hall added.

“We’re ahead of our fundraising goals, but obviously we need to get more to get the message out,” said Hall. He said he’s been able to raise $135,000 so far, which is a considerable sum for a local legislative race.

That total pales in comparison to Walker, however, who has generated more than $800,000 for his campaign and is one of the most potent fundraisers in Georgia politics.

Walker’s critics note that last year’s reapportionment process redrew his Senate district so that its black voting age population was reduced from more than 60 percent to barely more than 50 percent. The higher percentage of white voters gives Hall a fighting chance if he can cut into some of Walker’s black support, they say.

“My opponent will get some black votes, but they assume I won’t get any white votes and that’s a gross exaggeration,” Walker said.

As an indicator of how the race will go, Walker points to the Aug. 20 election where both he and Hall ran without opposition in their respective primaries. “People did not have to vote for either one of us,” he said. “My opponent received 4,250 votes; I received 7,202 votes.”

Walker said it’s also a mistake to read too much into his son’s second-place finish behind Ben Allen in Richmond County in the Democratic runoff. “There was a lot of sneak-over voting from Republicans who voted for the weaker candidate (Allen),” Walker contended. He said that his son’s campaign “knew the race would be close in Augusta, but they also knew they could win Savannah by nine-to-one and they spent the money there.”

One of the big X-factors in the general election is that Augusta is also electing a mayor on Nov. 5. The crowded race includes current Mayor Bob Young, Ed McIntyre (the first black mayor of Augusta) and former legislator Robin Williams. The spirited contest for mayor, in conjunction with the other state races on the ballot, could spur a voter turnout as high as 60 to 70 percent.

McIntyre’s presence in the mayor’s race should also ensure a high turnout in the black community, which would normally be an advantage for Walker. Complicating matters is the fact that Walker endorsed his former legislative colleague Williams over McIntyre.

Hall insisted he can pull a McKinney-style upset on election day. “I’m convinced of it, because of the numbers and the endorsements I now have,” he said.

Walker said he was satisfied with the way the race is progressing.

“I’m happy, things are rolling well,” he said. “People were sleeping and now they are awake. The people are ready to roll.”

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Tags: politics