They traveled to the city square from housing projects, antebellum mansions and old plantations on the outskirts of town. By nightfall, more than 100 people had gathered at the courthouse to find out who would be their next mayor.
Democrats, most of whom were black, stood in one part of the square. Republicans, most of them white, stood in another part and also waited inside. Three state troopers patrolled between the two groups, on the lookout for another fight to avenge one that had occurred a few hours before.
“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.
A man walked out of the courthouse in a jacket and tie. He held up a piece of paper. The crowd moved toward him.
“Good news,” he said. “They finished tallying up the votes.”
Willie Burns had become mayor of Washington in 2003, winning the office twice by campaigning almost exclusively on the black side of town. A few days before this latest election, he looked over the familiar numbers at his kitchen table with his wife, Barbara. There were a total of 2,317 eligible voters — 1,338 black, 977 white and two Asian.
“We got enough votes just on our side,” he said. “Why waste time chasing people who would never vote for me?”
“Just get out the base,” Barbara agreed.
Burns left home a few minutes later. He drove to a house in a black neighborhood on the west side of the railroad tracks, where the Unity Club was hosting a campaign barbecue. The group had formed around the time of Burns’s first election in 2003 as an attempt at interracial bridge building. Its logo showed a white hand shaking a black hand, but only a handful of white people had ever attended. The Unity Club had transformed instead into the equivalent of a local NAACP chapter, protesting their treatment by police and a dearth of black teachers at the high school. It also held fundraisers for Burns and black candidates running for city council.
“You can say what you want about white people, but they stick together, and we have to do the same,” said Kim Rainey, a councilwoman who spoke first at the rally. “Why should the majority be ruled by the minority?”
Said Burns: “If you don’t elect me back, you shut our folks down. This side of town gets even more neglected. I hate to say it, but that’s the way this city works.”
Burns had grown up 10 miles outside town in the 1960s, in a wood-framed house with no heat, no phone and no running water. His father, an Army Green Beret, was often away, and his grandfather was the caretaker for a white landowner who raised cows. His mother and grandfather rarely allowed him to travel into Washington, because that was where some people called his grandfather “boy,” and because black drivers in the city were not permitted to go faster than white people who walked alongside the road, Burns said.
He had thrived in a divided place by learning to rely only on himself. He joined the military, then became a state trooper. He worked personal protection for two Georgia governors and was trained to regard everyone as a threat. A year after retiring, he decided to run for mayor, implored Washington’s black voters to help him make history, and won.
But with his stature came blow-back. He ordered the construction of the first public pool in a black neighborhood and was ridiculed in the local paper for spending $450,000 to do it. He took his wife out of town for one night on city business in his second term, and a tea-party-aligned conservative group filed an open-records request to scrutinize the items on his hotel bill. He watched the six-person city council — three whites and three blacks — debate for hours only to end with the same gridlock, their monthly votes becoming an exercise in futility.
Three to three.
Three to three.
Three to three.
“It makes you tired of working to death to move things an inch in the right direction,” Burns said, “tired of dealing with the politics and prejudice.”
He had thought about retiring after his second term as mayor, moving to Atlanta and living near the grandkids. But he still felt called to serve. “The stakes are too high to walk away now,” he said. So instead, on Election Day, he set his alarm for 6 a.m., drove an hour to Athens to rent a van so he could transport voters to the polls en masse, helped people search their apartments for their state IDs, and walked door-to-door in the housing project for more than three hours.
“You got me, right?” he asked a succession of voters. “Be praying for me now.”
An hour before the polls closed, he knocked at a two-bedroom apartment, and an elderly woman came to the door. The apartment was dark, and a $382 electric bill sat on the kitchen table. The woman explained that she had yet to vote, because she was taking care of her grandkids. A 4-year-old girl was watching cartoons on the couch, and a baby was sleeping in the bedroom.
“I’ll babysit while you go vote,” Burns said. “You can trust me. I’m the mayor.”
The woman grabbed her license and left for the polls, and Burns stood at the entrance to the apartment with the 4-year-old. He cherished being the mayor, he often said, “because I want to make sure these kids don’t go through what I did.” The sun was setting, and Burns checked the e-mail on his phone. “These numbers aren’t looking good,” he said. Traffic had slowed at the polling location in the black section of town. He was desperate for votes now. He looked down at the 4-year-old, who was tugging on his khaki pants.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Willie,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Do you know what it means to vote, Tanavia?”
The girl shook her head.
“It’s why you and me are babysitting,” he said. “Your grandma is helping decide who’s in charge of Washington.”
Across town, Ames Barnett and his wife, Ashley, had begun welcoming guests to their election party. They had hired a caterer and invited all 25 members of their campaign committee — graphic designers, Web specialists, amateur strategists, lawyers and fundraisers. The couple stood under a chandelier at the entrance to greet them.
“Tonight’s the night!” Ashley said.
“Tonight’s the night,” Ames repeated.
They had built their home in 2008 for moments such as this, designing a replica of the mansion in Mississippi where Jefferson Davis had lived the last decade of his life. Ames had supervised construction while Ashley worked with a designer to refine the interior, shopping at markets in Atlanta for Victorian furniture, chandeliers and restored glass from the 1800s.
“The Barnett Beauvoir,” they called the house, and they had imbedded the name on the hardwood floors and tiled it into the kitchen countertop. They bought the property across the street, planted 13 magnolia trees and turned it into a private parking lot. They built a white picket fence around the house and placed rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. A guest book always sits on the entry table. The walls were adorned with portraits of their son, Porter, now 5, dressed in a monogrammed outfit.
Ames had returned to his home town after graduating from college in another part of the state because he wanted his son’s childhood to mirror his own. “Everybody treating you like family, being free to roam anywhere in town,” he said. His grandmother had served as a Washington councilwoman for 20 years, and his father had run a 200-person textile company that made clothing for London Fog.
Ames had married Ashley, a former model seven years his junior who handled the town’s tourism and publicity. Their wedding was attended by 600 people, most of whom lived east of the railroad tracks. He had started his construction business three months out of college, waking at 5 a.m. to start his workday. He had a reputation for keeping his promises and operating with integrity. The business had done well until the economy crashed in 2008, and since then he’d been cutting back, trimming his workforce from 50 to 30.
Lately, it seemed to Ames that everything in Washington was on a decline. Georgia was in last place among states in job creation; the Washington region was near last place in Georgia. The town’s population had started to dip slightly, and almost a quarter of its people lived below the poverty line. Real estate prices had plummeted by as much as 50 percent since 2006. The town, 20 miles from the interstate on a winding, two-lane road, had trouble luring visitors and small businesses. Who better to represent the community during tough times, Ames decided, than the couple that people in Washington sometimes referred to as “Ken and Barbie,” a handsome businessman and a beautiful tourism director?
He announced his candidacy in April and hosted a fundraiser with 450 people. The donations had continued to come in, paying for a flurry of newspaper ads, custom-made pens, Ames Barnett lip balm, campaign photos, yard signs and a Web site. Ames campaigned on both sides of the railroad tracks, but he, too, relied on a base. As the house began to fill with dozens of people early on election night, all but two guests were white.
Ames and Ashley called everyone into the kitchen to say a group prayer. Then, after the polls closed at 7, the campaign committee walked to the square to await the results.
The first numbers came back from the precinct on the west side of the tracks: 272 for Burns, and 38 for Barnett.
“Maybe the base is coming through for us,” Burns said.
Then the vote-counting machine malfunctioned, and an election official came outside to apologize for the delay. The crowd in front of the courthouse waited in near silence. Finally, after 10 more minutes, a man walked out of the courthouse and made the announcement.
“The final tally is 837 votes for Barnett, 747 for Burns,” he said. “There’s a new mayor.”
He continued to speak, but the crowd drowned out his voice. On one side of the square, a group of blacks vented to the television news cameras. “This isn’t no place to raise your kids,” said one woman. Another leaned toward the lens: “Bye, Ames. I’m moving out of this town.”
On the opposite side of the square, the whites clapped and hugged. “Now we just need this to happen in the other Washington!” one person yelled. The crowd walked a block to the Barnett Beauvoir, where people gathered near the entrance to hear the new mayor speak.
“Praise God. Praise God,” Ames said.
“What a great country we live in,” Ashley added, fighting back tears.
“Now let’s remember we are one Washington,” Ames said.
Meanwhile, a half-mile away, Burns sat in his living room with his wife. He had yet to call Barnett to congratulate him, and Barnett had yet to call him. A few city councilmen had left messages on his cellphone, but Burns had turned off the ringer. “I’m tired of all this,” he said. “I’m ready to be done.”
A dozen supporters gathered around him in the living room, rehashing the day. One woman said she had been turned away at the precinct for no good reason. Another wondered if somehow the election had been bought.
“Call the ACLU,” one supporter said.
“File a lawsuit,” said another.
“You can’t back away after all this,” his wife said.
Burns closed his eyes. He had no chance of winning back the mayor’s office. He was sure of that. But part of him still wondered if he had a responsibility to fight back regardless. Even though the voting had ended, was he required to keep picking sides?
Washington was still liberal or conservative, rich or poor, black or white. There were still two versions of the past and two visions for the future. A new mayor would be in charge, but there was no end in sight to the anger and divisiveness that Washington politics had become.
“Okay,” he said, clapping his hands, standing up from the couch. “It won’t change anything, but let’s send a message. Let’s protest these results.”
This is the first in an occasional series.