By Billy Corriher
There are 114,802 people eligible to vote in Clayton County, and this year's political candidates will be competing for the allegiance of every last one as the 2004 election season gets under way.
Many incumbents have begun raising funds to defend their seats, and several newcomers have thrown their hats into the ring.
All the elected officials in Clayton County are Democrats and in races in which they don't pick up Republican or Libertarian opposition, the race is pretty much decided in the summer primary.
The race for Clayton County Sheriff has been in full swing for months, with state Rep. Victor Hill, Clayton County police officer Joe Mack Eckler and Clifford Hall challenging Sheriff Stanley Tuggle. All are Democrats and no Republican has announced.
Eckler said he has been talking to county residents about their concerns for law enforcement, and many citizens are concerned a lack of community resources to help young people.
"A lot of times more law enforcement is not the best answer to our social ills," he said. "It's not effective to put all your money and resources into jailing people."
Hall is the only one in that race with no law enforcement experience. This is expected to be one of the most spirited races in the county.
Since the House seats are for only two years, Hill's district will be up for grabs with no incumbent. One candidate who has already announced is school principal George Jeburk, who ran against him two years ago.
Though Hill is the only black candidate for sheriff, several black candidates have emerged to run for office in the now predominantly black county. In 1990, nearly three-fourths of Clayton County residents was white, and today more than half the county is black, according to Census data. Of the county's registered voters, just over half are black.
Two black candidates, Wade Starr, administrative assistant for the county commissioners, and former Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell, are running against former County Commissioner Richard Reagan and libertarian Mark Mosley for chairman of the county board of commissioners.
Bell has picked up much more in campaign donations than Starr or Reagan, who were waiting for long-time Chairman Crandle Bray to announce that he will not seek reelection before raising funds.
In addition to Mosley, the local Libertarian Party plans on running other candidates for state and federal office. Even though the county's state House and Senate districts could be changed before the legislature's redistricting battles are settled, the party plans to run several candidates for state legislature, said Ken Parmalee, a libertarian candidate for Gail Buckner's seat in Jonesboro.
Libertarian Philip Bradley will run against U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, for his seat.
Scott's district was new two years ago and this is the first time the long-time lawmaker will have to defend it. Two years ago he also had Republican opposition, but no Democrat or Republican has announced so far to challenge him.
All the county's incumbent state representatives have been busy raising money for their reelection efforts. Hill has been raising money for the sheriff's race as have all the candidates in that race.
Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, will face competition from libertarian candidate Todd King.
Parmalee said the party is gathering petitions to have all the libertarian candidates on the ballot.
"We wanted to give people as much choice as they could have," he said. "If they don't like? the Republican or Democratic candidates, they're getting a libertarian to choose from."
Soon, county residents will start hearing more from candidates for local office as they court voters. Jonesboro resident Reggie Crumb said he votes every election year, and he's eager to learn about the candidates.
"I want to hear what they have to say," he said. "There's a lot of things in this county that people are talking about."
Crumb said some of his concerns are crime and getting more recreational programs for youth in the county.
One candidate for county commissioner, Danny Hayes, echoes Crumbs' concern about getting more recreational facilities. Hayes is challenging Commissioner Virginia Gray for her seat.
Hayes said he has been talking to residents about their concerns and raising funds for the upcoming campaign.
"We're working on our first official fundraiser," Hayes said.
Gray and Commissioner Gerald Matthews are up for reelection, but Matthews has not decided if he will run.
If Matthews does run, he'll be competing against Wole Ralph.
Ralph said he has never held office before but has been involved with many local non-profit agencies.
"I decided to run because I'm really concerned about the quality of life in the county," he said, mentioning the increase in dense, low-quality housing developments.
Five members of the local school board, Nedra Ware, Linda Crummy, Barbara Wells, Bob Livingston, and Carol Kellam, are up for reelection this year. None of the candidates have said they will not run.
Kellam was moved into the district only days before she was appointed to the board to fill a vacancy and is expected to pick up opposition.
During the height of the school controversy there was talk of recalling Ware, but it never materialized. So far no one has announced for that seat.
Wells said she will defend her seat even though the controversy surrounding the school board in the last year will be on voters' minds when they cast their ballots.
"I think that, as a board, we still have to prove, with the new superintendent, that we're moving forward in the right direction," she said.
One candidate who said he is definitely running in that district is Norreese Haynes. Four years ago, he ran and the race ended up being decided in the courts over residency issues.
Any other candidates who want to run must file at the end of April to have their names on the ballot for the July 20 party primary. After the primary, the county will hold its primary runoff on August 10 to finalize candidates for the Nov. 2 general election.
The last day to register to vote in the November election is October 4, and the deadline to register for the July 20 general primary is June 21.
Riverdale resident Lisa Cambert, 19, said the election in November will be her first time voting, and she hopes to learn more about the candidates so she can make an informed decision.
"I think people should be involved," she said. "People shouldn't take voting for granted."