Tuesday is Election Day, and Columbus voters will decide which of these two men will serve as its mayor.
One is incumbent Skip Henderson, a former Columbus Councilor who left the body after two decades to run in 2018. He hopes to buck historic trends and secure a second term.
The challenger is John Anker, a Columbus businessman who hopes frustration with the current administration, record-breaking homicide numbers in 2021 and a police officer shortage will push voters toward change.
Before the election, the Ledger-Enquirer is laying out the race’s key issues and what each candidate said about them. These statements are pulled from our stories about the election over the past few months.
Crime and police shortages
The biggest issue the city has struggled with is crime, Henderson told the Ledger-Enquirer about his first term.
Columbus reported a record 70 homicides in 2021 while struggling to hire officers to replace those who left. Last year, 74 police officers resigned — the most in a 12-year period dating back to 2009. The department hired 37 officers in 2021, the fewest in that same period. The police department has roughly 130 vacancies, according to city data.
Anker has seized on those issues and made them a key part of his campaign. He’s accused the city of “playing with the numbers” regarding the officer shortage.
Anker previously said the department is 177 short based on the 488 officer goal outlined in the 2009 Other Local Option Sales Tax. He alleges 95 officers — not 74 as claimed by the city— resigned in 2021 based on a list of names that he had previously seen. Anker also alleged that city officials lowered the number of budgeted officer positions from 488 to 444.
Henderson disputed Anker’s statements regarding the vacancies. Henderson said there were 444 budgeted Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council certified positions within the Columbus Police Department. However, those officer numbers don’t include 20 recently reclassified cadet positions.
Both men have touted economic development programs to help address poverty and crime rates. Henderson highlighted his summer jobs program. Anker runs a program at his business, Ankerpak, for “high-risk, high school students.”
Retaining police officers
Anker said he’d work to address retention problems by continuing to speak with officers about their concerns.
Anker has previously touted a public-private partnership that would see a third-party firm conduct a study of the city’s police department. Private donors who Anker has not identified would fund the effort, and it wouldn’t cost the city anything.
Henderson told the Ledger-Enquirer that he regularly meets with “a group of civic-minded individuals from the private sector” since August 2021 about how to improve the city. One of the suggestions is hiring a company to assist the chief of police with recruiting, retention and other measures. That process is in the vetting stage.
In addition to the outside company, Henderson highlighted a pay study that will result in a new city pay scale. The pay change will hopefully keep officers in Columbus. During his first term, Henderson oversaw a 10.5% increase in officer salaries and more than $20 million spent on new equipment and resources.
Chief Freddie Blackmon and endorsements
The leadership of chief Freddie Blackmon and his future with the Columbus Police Department have also been a key topic.
The local Fraternal Order of Police chapter and its president Ralph Dowe appeared before the Columbus Council in February to discuss the organization’s issues with Blackmon. The chapter received survey responses from 219 officers, which represents 70% of the city’s police force and 95% of CPD members in the chapter.
Only 5% of the respondents said they had confidence that Blackmon could manage the department properly. Dowe did not outright say that he wanted Blackmon removed from his post, but he did say the department lacked good leadership.
Dowe and another officer filed a federal lawsuit in March alleging that Blackmon, Henderson, the city and others alleging that the police chief made an effort to avoid promoting white men and worked to achieve a predetermined racial and gender balance within the department.
Henderson previously told the Ledger-Enquirer that he will not ask police chief Freddie Blackmon to step down. Anker has not said if he would push to remove Blackmon from his post. Instead, Anker wants to meet with Blackmon.
Even the two organizations representing Muscogee County law enforcement officers are split over the two men. The West Georgia Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association endorsed Henderson. The local Fraternal Order of Police chapter endorsed Anker after initially indicating that it would not endorse a candidate. Membership in both organizations overlap.
Anker said the PBA made its endorsement behind closed doors without talking to its members. Henderson accused Anker of “stirring the pot” and unnecessarily trying to divide the organizations.
The economy, development and a lawsuit
The economy has been a hot topic as well.
Henderson points to several big projects that have started or finished in his first term. He’s touted the construction of multiple hotels downtown, a new mixed office and residential development along the river and the Mercer School of Medicine campus as big achievements.
Henderson and the Columbus Council also completed a $50 million deal to purchase and renovate former Synovus properties downtown. The buildings will house city administration. Thanks to the recently approved SPLOST, the Government Center will be torn down and replaced with a judicial complex and parking.
Henderson has also praised the city’s ability to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anker’s larger economic proposals seek to undo moves made by Henderson.
Anker has objected to how the city handled the $50 million deal to buy and renovate the former Synovus properties. The properties are prime real estate and should be privately held, he said.
Instead of being torn down, the Government Center should be sold to a developer and turned into apartments. A new judicial complex should be built near the jail.
The “Liberty, Lance and Loomis” District, as Anker calls it, would also see a city administration center built in the area as well. The goal is to spur economic development around the Liberty Theatre.
Anker has also advocated for the creation of a land port in Columbus and better connectivity to the Port of Savannah.
The two have also fought back and forth over records requests.
The challenger has accused Henderson of not being transparent. Anker filed a lawsuit in late April against the Columbus Consolidated Government, saying he was wrongfully denied the findings of an internal audit of the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office and the county jail.
The audit was released days after Anker took legal action, and no hearing has been held in Muscogee County Superior Court regarding the case.