“You people think you own Washington!” a Democrat yelled.
“You’re ruining Washington!” a Republican shouted back.
There are dozens of places across the country named in tribute to the first president of the United States, and the contention so often associated with Washington, D.C., is now spreading to them, too. At the beginning of a crucial election year, many of the other Washingtons have become reflections of the nation’s capital. Even here, in a bucolic town of 4,000 in rural Georgia, where the tourism committee promotes a “sense of grace” and “the best Southern hospitality,” a 2011 campaign for a mostly ceremonial mayor’s job had become a contest rife with racial tension and allegations of voter fraud.
Here was another Washington divided and angry, hoping its problems could be solved on election night.
At stake was a part-time position that paid $600 per month, but Washington’s mayoral campaign had clear parallels to the national moment. On one side was the incumbent, Willie Burns, 57, the only black mayor in the town’s 231-year history, who kept a commemorative President Obama plate in a crystal case at his home. His great-grandparents had “come off these nearby plantations,” he said. He had spent millions in city funds as mayor to revive a destitute neighborhood and expand poverty programs. Now, with the unemployment rate stuck at 12 percent, he wanted to increase spending on assistance programs again.
Opposing him was city council member Ames Barnett, a white, Republican, 35-year-old owner of a $13 million construction business whose great-grandparents had lived in an estate that had become the town’s museum of the Confederacy. His family had lived in Washington for six generations — committed conservatives and Baptists. He wanted to cut property taxes and tighten the budget.
“What we have here are two opposite visions,” he said.
Would government in Washington be big or small? Liberal or conservative? Black or white?
As the time on the courthouse clock neared 8 p.m., more people arrived at the town square, eager to find out. It is a Washington tradition after elections to come to the courthouse, where officials tally the votes upstairs and announce the winner on the steps. Some people waited in their pickup trucks with the windows down and hummed along to revival music. Others smoked vanilla-scented cigars under a statue of a Confederate soldier while watching the clock.
The square has always been where Washington transitions from one era to the next. It was where the Wednesday slave market opened and closed; where Jefferson Davis met with the Confederate government for the final time; where the textile companies boomed and then shuttered. Now, half of the storefronts sat empty. Nearby Victorian houses had been sold at foreclosure auctions to out-of-town investors. A gridlocked city government had done more to prevent progress than to forge it. More than 70 percent of residents had turned out to vote in the mayor’s race, eager to push the town in one direction or the other.