Bell rings in new era in Clayton

By Justin Boron

Democratic nominee Eldrin Bell blasted past the torrents of bitter criticism from his Republican opposition Tuesday night, when precinct after precinct came in with more than enough votes to topple Michael Onyemenam in the race for the county commission chairman.

Bell had 50,767 votes to 16,946 for Onyemenam.

The Bell camp's insistence that Onyemenam had an insufficient political base to mount a win proved true as voters gave a resounding support to Bell, making him the first African-American county commission chairman in the history of Clayton County.

Mirroring the influx of new black voters in recent year, the election of Bell and Commissioner Wole Ralph and the re-election of Virginia Gray, the commission is now majority black.

"Onyemenam didn't know the issues, he had no vision and the people of Clayton County saw this," Bell said. "The result just shows that the people of Clayton County are tired of negative politics."

Bell took 53 of the 54 precincts in the county, collecting huge pockets of support in the northern lying districts, where he received as much as 76 percent of the vote in certain locations.

In Morrow, Bell collected about 73 percent of the vote.

Jonesboro-6 at M.D. Roberts Middle School was the only precinct to produce an Onyemenam majority, giving the Republican 51 percent of the vote.

The outcome may have been anticipated by many in the community. But it came as a shock to Onyemenam, who repeatedly guaranteed victory even after 36 precincts had reported and showed Bell out in front by more than 50 points.

"I feel like there is still more votes out there," he said.

Despite the overwhelming defeat, Onyemenam did well with Republicans.

Republican John Welsch said the candidate's immigrant background drew his vote.

"Onyemenam is a very good man. He came to this country as an immigrant is living the American dream n he wants to give every American that same opportunity," he said.

While his appeal with Republicans gave him a larger than expected showing, the Nigerian-limousine driver was unable to translate his candidacy to the majority of Democratic voters in the county.

His campaign was hinged upon attacks on Bell's character, work history, and campaign tact.

Filing a lawsuit on Sept. 15, Onyemenam asserted Bell's campaign signs and literature were illegal because they omitted the preposition "for" when stating the office for which he was running.

Bell's signs read Eldrin Bell County Commission Chairman.

The lawsuit was knocked down on Oct. 5 by a visiting Senior Superior Court Judge T. Penn McWhorter of the Piedmont Circuit. He heard the case because all Clayton County Superior Court judges recused themselves from the case.

Following the suit, the race transformed into a single-sided mudslinging campaign as Onyemenam attempted to gain ground on the favored Democrat by scrounging up Atlanta Police Department documents he said amounted to a pattern of poor judgment on Bell's behalf.

While the stream of allegations often cited routine reprimands for incidents like car accidents, G.B. Osborne, Onyemenam's campaign manager, did produce an A.P.D. document that he said tied Bell to a suspect of the department in 1979.

Bell all but ignored the allegations, only acknowledging them to say he had been found guilty of nothing.

Although Bell didn't consider his opponent a threat, he said he campaigned hard regardless.

"I worked just as hard as if I had been running against anyone else," he said.

The traditionally Democratic voting county came out in droves for the presidential election, casting their votes for Bell at the same time.

As Velma Riley-Cromedy waited in the snaking long lines, she said she hopes that Eldrin Bell will do a better job for her and her children as County Commission Chairman.

Jonesboro-7 at Mt. Zion High School was hit the worst with about 90 percent of its registered voters turning out.

Bell received 51 percent of the vote at the precinct.

Emmanuel Prater drove up from Macon to cast his vote at Mt. Zion High School, his registered precinct.

Frustrated after waiting four hours, he said he was unlikely to make it back in time for work.

"I probably won't have a job when I get back," Prater said. "My vote is worth it though."

Driving by the precinct, Charlie Arnold couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the river of voters flowing from the school's main entrance, through the parking lot, and out onto the football field.

"My jaw dropped to the dashboard," he said.

Laura McMillan contributed to this story.