It’s one of the most intriguing, impactful elections we’ve ever seen, in one of the most dynamic counties in America.
And while homebuilder Mark Herbert has fought the good fight in his first foray into politics, Tuesday’s race for the powerful chair of the Columbia County Commission clearly comes down to Doug Duncan and Pam Tucker.
It’s a happily agonizing choice.
Tucker is the populist, former longtime Emergency Management Agency director for both Columbia and Richmond Counties, whose very public resignation last year in a bitter dispute with the county administrator sparked an investigation of the work environment there and launched her year-long campaign insurgency to return as the county’s top dog.
Duncan is a solid, hard-working, likable employment agency executive and first-term commissioner who is leaving his District 1 seat in hopes of being elected chairman countywide.
We’re also delighted to report that they get along famously and have run an honorable, issues-oriented campaign – Duncan telling us that, “Had I had my druthers, she’d still be here” in the county’s employ, and Tucker saying she wishes Duncan had kept his District 1 seat so they might have served together on the five-member board.
In an interview with the Augusta Chronicle Editorial Staff, Tucker displayed both her common touch and her command of the county – reeling off statistics such as the county’s 700 to 1,000 new students each year, its 56,000 housing units, its 151,579 population as of last July (no doubt far exceeded by now) and the 1,280 building permits issued in 2016 (no doubt exceeded last year).
She can tell you which thoroughfares and intersections are most vexing to residents, as they still turn to her as their chief contact point for county government. Asked the issues in this election, she breaks them down by commission district – erosion from construction in Districts 1 and 2, pop-up housing developments in District 4, traffic countywide.
Moreover, Tucker’s EMA credentials are unassailable, having even acted as EMA consultant to other Georgia counties. And when a devastating ice storm hit the region in February 2014, Richmond County officials were caught flat-footed – lacking disaster assessment teams and holding a debris removal plan that was described as an “incomplete draft.” In contrast, Tucker had previously contracted for debris removal back in 2008, helping Columbia County “receive maximum reimbursement from the state and federal government and a 2½ percent reduction in its local match for public assistance programs,” according to one report.
But Duncan has shown an ability and agility unfamiliar to most first-term officials, and has helped the state in a different sort of disaster relief: The governor’s office called upon him to help reform and restore the state’s unemployment trust fund to sound financial footing after the Great Recession. From a billion-dollar hole in 2012, it has rebounded to nearly $2 billion to the positive.
We’ve also seen Duncan in his own populist pursuits, running interference for constituents and even inspiring the state Department of Transportation to respond to their traffic concerns with accelerated new lanes and turnouts.
Duncan’s approach is no less common-man's than Tucker’s.
“My focus with folks,” he says, “when they call me, regardless of their issue, is, I tell them I’m not going to pass you off on staff; I’m going to stay with you through this and get you an answer. I see it all the way through to the end with them.”
Asked about the issues in the county, Duncan gives a concise Top 10: “If you just go 1 to 10, traffic is the 10.”
Having taken office in 2015, Duncan can hardly be blamed for the gridlock, and is just as frustrated as any other motorist. But he also has the experience and perspective now of a rolled-up-sleeves representative.
“It’s the greatest economic blessing of our lifetimes, for our children and our grandchildren – the U.S. Army Cyber coming here,” he said. “Just the influx of people has been astounding, to say the least.”
The trick is to manage the growth – while keeping a county that is on a historic winning streak headed in the right direction.
For that most paramount reason, we believe Doug Duncan is the best choice for commission chair of Columbia County.
He has proven himself a more-than-able manager in his role as vice president of Augusta-based MAU Workforce Solutions, and as county commissioner. He’s solid, dependable, knowledgeable, reliable and forward-looking.
And while he’s committed upcoming road projects to memory, and can be found on the phone to the governor’s office about them, he also knows the realities of road-building – the red tape one must navigate while building over bodies of water, the snail’s pace of utility moving, the vagaries of actual construction. It’s a perfect marriage of populist angst and cultivated patience.
Although Tucker rejects the label “protest candidate,” it’s inarguable there’s an air of retribution in her candidacy: She feels aggrieved by what she claimed was hostile treatment while working under County Administrator Scott Johnson – and if she wins and convinces two other commissioners of the rightness of her cause, it’s an open secret that Johnson and perhaps others will be shown the door.
We don’t know who’s right in this unfortunate imbroglio: An investigation by the sheriff’s department found no significant wrongdoing.
But despite a little well-warranted road rage – the Washington Road widening has been maddeningly slow, for instance – most residents would likely say the county is a great place to live and that it’s not necessarily the time to upset apple carts.
Doug Duncan’s steady hand is just the ticket. He deserves Columbia Countians’ support in early voting ending Friday and on Election Day on Tuesday.
Augusta Chronicle Editorial Staff