NEWS ANALYSIS — Challengers sweep F’ville races; longtime Mayor Steele loses to political newcomer
NEWS ANALYSIS — A continuing wave of voter unrest Tuesday night brought a sea change to previously placid Fayetteville politics as three challengers swept two incumbents out of office and defeated an establishment-anointed first-timer for an open slot on the City Council.
In the process, voters ended the political career of veteran Fayetteville Mayor Kenneth Steele, ousted incumbent Wilson Price and thwarted Mainstreet Fayetteville board member Cathy Cochran’s effort to win an open seat on the council.
And just to mark the historic nature of the city election, a majority of Fayetteville voters elected the first black member of the council, past NAACP President and Flat Rock AME Church pastor Edward Johnson.
Defeating Steele in his first run for elective office was Greg Clifton, son of a former Fayetteville City councilman. The final, unofficial vote tally was Clifton 716, Steele 514.
Johnson beat incumbent Price 743 to 473, and businessman Mickey J. Edwards topped Cochran 650 to 559.
Clifton, Johnson and Edwards will be sworn in for 4-year terms beginning Jan. 1, 2012.
Under Fayetteville’s charter, the council has six members — five council members and a non-voting mayor. The mayor presides over meetings and has veto power but no vote except in case of a tie.
The change in January will bring a new presiding officer to City Hall meetings but will not necessarily shift voting power on the council.
Holdover Steele supporters Larry Dell and Walt White remain, while Councilman Paul Oddo will be the wild card.
New councilmen Edwards and Johnson will have to come up with a third vote from among the three incumbents to swing the power pendulum their way.
Clifton under most circumstances won’t get a vote.
Clifton’s win Tuesday marks the unlikely defeat of the second-longest serving Fayetteville mayor in a half-century.
Ken Steele served as a volunteer member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and was sworn in as a member of council Aug. 1, 1994 after being appointed to serve the unexpired term of Post 1 Councilman Robert Sprayberry, who resigned to run for County Commission.
Steele was elected mayor in 1999 and has served as Fayetteville’s top elected official since Jan. 1, 2000.
Steele’s political obituary will note that he was never seriously challenged until this year, which was punctuated by a growing controversy over Steele’s votes for regional mass transit plans as a member of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Steele until earlier this year was president of the Georgia Municipal Association, the lobbying group for Georgia’s municipalities.
What ultimately may have undone the veteran politician, however, was Steele’s public feud during the past year with Peachtree City Mayor Don Haddix and local Tea Party activists over local representation on the Regional Transportation Roundtable, the group charged with approving a list of $6 billion in metro transportation projects to be funded by a controversial region-wide one-cent sales tax to be voted on in 2012.
After Haddix suggested in a column in The Citizen that Fayette might be better served by leaving the Atlanta Regional Commission, Steele engineered Haddix’s removal from the RTR and thus became closely associated with the unpopular proposed sales tax, despite his protestations that his role was simply to make sure Fayette’s interests were looked after as the massive sales tax pie was being carved up.
In the end, Steele drew the unrelenting ire of West Fayetteville Bypass opponents, especially after a massive proposed development requiring annexation into Fayetteville was revealed last month in The Citizen.
If Steele were seeking an explanation of his fall, he might start with his fervent support of regional planning and an unpopular regional sales tax.
It was just a year ago that agitated voters shocked incumbent County Commission Chairman Jack Smith and Commissioner Eric Maxwell in a grassroots campaign that saw two bypass opponents swept into office on a wave of voter displeasure with incumbents.
Steele might well find that some of those same voters helped end his political career Tuesday. Price and Cochran likely were collateral damage.
Local and regional officeholders looking ahead to 2012 may be encouraged to start discerning the tsunami currents in the tea leaves.