Robert Reichert likens his political career to shoveling coal into a steam locomotive.
It took hard work to fire up the massive train engines he remembers as a boy growing up in Macon, just as affecting major change in a community can require years or even decades of effort.
“It’s incredible to think about a steam locomotive with all this horsepower,” Reichert told the Center for Collaborative Journalism, as he recently reflected on his more than 30 years in government. “It’s sitting there, just not moving at all. When it starts, all this effort goes into – the steam builds up, the steam builds up, the steam builds up – and it finally gets to a point where it can overcome and the piston drives. Pshhh… pshhh… pshhh… and slowly at first it begins to move.”
Reaching his term limit, the community’s longest-serving mayor found himself running out of track to complete his checklist by the end December. The typically optimistic Reichert admitted he confided in his wife that he was feeling a bit like he was “quitting” by leaving office without finishing everything he began.
Local leaders see that the economic engine Reichert stoked is now chugging toward a brighter future with more folks on board, headed in the same direction, than before consolidation.
Reichert, 72, also sees momentum building on his vision and goals he first set when successfully running for Macon City Council in 1987 – bring orderly growth by luring businesses suited to the city’s strengths, partner with Robins Air Force Base to go after high-paying jobs, offer tax incentives to revitalize downtown, expand the airport and improve the storm water system.
In recent years Reichert focused on developing, what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “beloved community,” in a livable, walkable, bike-friendly city that is environmentally green and sustainable.
As a young boy growing up in Ingleside, Reichert often trekked through the woods near the end of Buford Place.
As mayor, securing green space for all neighborhoods is a concept he embraced and prioritized. Expanding the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, developing Amerson River Park and securing national park status for the former Ocmulgee National Monument were part of that plan.
“Not many mayors can brag that they have a 3,000-acre greenspace in their downtown and that’s exactly what we have. It is going to be a huge amenity,” Reichert said of the park.
Just last November, Reichert and commissioners took possession of about 28 acres between Jackson Springs Road and Boulevard near the North Highlands and Shirley Hills neighborhoods. The land was donated by the trustees of the Augustus Octavius Bacon estate in 1940 but never formally accepted.
In a similar acquisition, his boyhood greenspace was donated to the county by Dorothy A. Gilbert’s heirs. Last spring, the county arranged for goats to clear briars and poison ivy on the property, which will be known as the Randall Heights passive park.
Others now will be able to explore nature just as Reichert had done as a student at the old Clisby Elementary School.
Born and raised in Macon
In the spring of 1958 in Miss Gibson’s fourth grade, his return after a bout with the measles was printed in the Macon Telegraph. It was one of the first of nearly 5,000 times Robert Reichert ‘s name appeared to date in his hometown newspaper.
In addition to published tidbits from his Boy Scout days, 1970-era readers were invited to send Christmas cards to him and others serving in Vietnam. The blurb included Reichert’s Army Post Office address in San Francisco while he flew helicopters with the 229th Aviation Regiment.
Following his stint in the U.S. Army, Reichert returned to Macon and sold cars at Dunlap Chevrolet.
After his military service, he also continued at the University of Georgia where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and biology in the hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
If it weren’t for a speech professor, Reichert might have devoted his life’s work to caring for animals. But following Reichert’s lively presentation on why it’s important to brush your teeth, the professor called him aside to inquire about his career plans.
“What a damn shame!” the professor said about veterinary school. “What a damn shame!”
Reichert, an enthusiastic and emotional orator, later enrolled at Mercer University Law School. After a stint interning with U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, he became a partner in the law firm of Anderson, Walker and Reichert.
“Run, Robert, Run”
In 1987, mysterious green and white billboards popped up in the city declaring “Run, Robert, Run.” It wasn’t a nod to the movie Forrest Gump which didn’t debut until 1994, but a cryptic campaign announcement building momentum for the 39-year-old’s first foray into politics.
The Telegraph endorsed the “young attorney” who wanted to “listen, learn and lead.”
In the words of editorial writers, “the city can benefit from his fresh approach.”
After serving on council, Reichert set his sights on the 1991 Georgia Senate special election and ran for the unexpired term of Tommy Olmstead, who had resigned to run for mayor.
Although Reichert lost out to Robert Brown, the newspaper again encouraged him: “We hope to see Reichert back on the scene at some future date.”
The next year, a letter to the editor endorsed Reichert for Georgia House District 126, calling him an “ideal all-American boy/youth/man.”
He would beat persistent Republican opponent Bob Rushton three times in the 10 years he held the seat before reapportionment diluted the Democrat majority in the district. Even before the lines were redrawn, Rushton came within 33 votes of Reichert in the 1994 election which featured the GOP’s Contract with America.
In that matchup, Rushton launched negative campaign ads depicting tap dancing feet while the announcer accused Reichert of missing too many roll call votes and always siding with Speaker Tom Murphy.
In spite of Reichert’s denials and explanations, the commercials were effective in the election that surprisingly ousted long-time Democrat legislator Denmark Groover, who was beaten by newcomer Republican Sharon Falls.
Reichert credits the late Groover with showing him the ropes of state government.
In the final months of Reichert’s mayoral administration, Groover’s son, Duke, served as interim county attorney.
In a farewell video that premiered during the Macon-Bibb County Commission’s final meeting of 2020, the younger Groover praised his friend who “gave up the prime of his legal career at great personal cost” to serve the citizens as mayor.
As Reichert launched his first mayoral campaign in 2007, he partnered with Nu-way Weiners to give out free hot dogs with coupons that stated: “Let’s work together for a change. Let’s do things a Nu-way.” The slogan’s words “for a change” served as a double meaning since the city and county governments were often at odds back then, he said.
“We had no idea how popular the coupons were going to be,” Reichert reminisced with a laugh. “People would come up to me on the street and say, ‘You got any more of those coupons?’”
The campaign propelled him to become the city’s top dog where he continued to push some of the same issues he was involved in at the state level.
During the Roy Barnes gubernatorial administration, Reichert and Middle Georgia lawmakers unsuccessfully advocated for an Atlanta to Macon passenger rail line. Now Reichert has cause for optimism with the Biden administration.
“I think you are on the verge of seeing significant changes,” he said. “We understand president-elect Joe Biden is a big rail enthusiast and wants to see rail extended and come into new places.”
Reichert believes Biden will push for 10 new rail corridors in the country. The four-term mayor thinks linking Macon to Atlanta and Savannah should be contemplated and advocated.
Population density has pushed north from Atlanta and is bumping up against Rome, Dalton and Gainesville, Reichert said, which leaves the southern suburbs prime for development.
“If we implement smart growth in the corridor between Atlanta and Macon, then transit and commuter rail is a big part of it” Reichert said. “I think you’re going to see passenger rail developments in the next decade that a lot of people are going to find unbelievable.”
For decades, he pushed to expand the Middle Georgia Regional Airport.
Passenger service returned in his administration and the FAA has recently approved lengthening the runway to more than 7,000 feet.
After an environmental assessment late last year, construction is expected to begin soon.
Reichert feels good about the progress made in his administration and new economic development that now surrounds the airport with Embraer, Robins North, Stevens Aerospace and Dean Baldwin Painting, which is under construction.
He expects even more growth in airport-related industry and passenger service in coming years.
“As it continues to grow, larger planes are going to want to come in and need to come in,” he said. “That justifies an additional extension to the runway which is contemplated and could be done in the future.”
One of the key tenets in Reichert’s political philosophy is regionalism.
He diligently worked with midstate leaders on projects such as the sprawling solar field on the south side of the county, north of Robins Air Force Base. The project coordinated by the Middle Georgia Regional Commission will soon be coming online. Eventually it will benefit Macon-Bibb taxpayers once Houston and Peach counties are repaid for their investment in the project.
Before leaving office, Reichert made great strides in improving the deteriorating stormwater system by transferring responsibility for the long-neglected aging pipes to the Macon Water Authority.
In his second mayoral campaign, Reichert again touted the benefits of working with others. His Nu-way slogan evolved to “Together we can,” as he forged to unite the Macon and Bibb County governments.
Judge Verda Colvin recognizes Reichert as a force for unity with a “heart for service.” She shared her thoughts in the farewell video.
“He can bring two people on opposite ends of the political spectrum to see each other’s views. And while they may never come to the middle, he at least makes the effort to make everyone see the other side of the coin,” Colvin said. “I think that’s vitally important.”
She believes Reichert’s legacy will outlive him.
“He brought us into an era where we became one, the city and county merging together, and that can never be underestimated because that was a huge undertaking,” Colvin said.
Rep. Miriam Paris also cited his oversight, vision and praised his steady hand at the wheel during the merger process. Reichert’s understanding of his community and dueling governments was instrumental in the success of consolidation, Paris said.
“His legacy will be of oversight and vision. I think that he really saw what future mayors of Macon will need to build upon, and that was a great thing. He truly was a visionary,” Paris said. “I think he did it pretty seamlessly.”
Reichert took the oath of office for his first mayoral term after capturing 63 percent of the vote. He took every precinct over four Black candidates in the primary and trounced his Republican opponent David Cousino with 96 percent of the vote that November.
In his inaugural address, which followed a campaign season that included an instance of “Kill the white mayor” graffiti, Reichert repented of his inaction during the Civil Rights Movement. He expressed remorse for slavery, which he called the “stain on our nation’s fabric.”
Reconciliation was an overall theme of the speech.
After his first year in office, newspaper columnist Kenny Burgamy penned that Reichert was “pure bliss for those searching for relief from turmoil within city government.” The former radio host called his approach “classy and of good cheer.”
Reichert served two terms as mayor of Macon and two as head of the consolidated government.
In the first election after the merger, Reichert was the top vote getter with nearly 50 percent of the vote in the primary. In the runoff, he defeated former mayor C. Jack Ellis by more than 10,000 votes, which The Telegraph referred to as a “landslide.”
Reichert’s penchant for working together manifested in the consolidated government’s seal slogan, “forward together.”
Building a “Beloved Community”
Reichert worked diligently last year trying to address racial concerns and promote diversity. He sees the beginning of a “beloved community” taking shape where understanding and “enlightened self-interest” join forces.
Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said Reichert is “almost evangelical in his zeal for our community and the things he has advocated for.”
Reichert encourages people to be inclusive and not just tolerant of different ethnicities and races because he believes that by working together, differences can fade.
“The more they understand about it, the more they overcome their fears and apprehensions about dealing with people who are different from I am, the stronger we become,” Reichert said.
As national tolerance for Confederate statues was waning, he crafted a compromise to keep Macon’s monuments intact but move them from downtown to Rose Hill Cemetery.
Most commissioners signed off on the plan, which remains in the midst of a court challenge.
Reichert sees the measure as making the urban core a welcoming place for all people.
His political impact might best be remembered as changing the face of downtown.
He envisioned and built the Second Street Corridor as a new gateway to Macon from the Mercer University exit on Interstate 75.
Although Reichert took a little political heat for partnering with the university on the pedestrian bridge, other local leaders praise his efforts.
Mercer president William Underwood credits Reichert for helping grow the student body by 50 percent and lauded the mayor’s “dogged determination despite the naysayers.”
“Mayor Reichert has been a model of what great leadership really is,” Underwood said in the video tribute. “He’s had a clear goal and vision for this community and he’s been absolutely relentless in pursuing that vision.”
Underwood said Reichert has inspired others to join his efforts.
NewTown Macon president Josh Rogers said storefront occupancy in downtown is at a record 78 percent, up from less than 50 percent when Reichert was first elected mayor.
“I think for the rest of his life the mayor is going to be able to look across a downtown that is continuing to surge to life, that is exploding in value and prosperity and he’ll bear a lot of the responsibility for every benefit we will have in the future,” Rogers said.
“Not about one person”
Reichert laments running out of time before securing new blocks of development in the heart of the city, such as the stalled Central City Commons project between Poplar, Second and Plum streets and the Mid City Square that could bring new residential and retail buildings closer to Medical Center, Navicent Health.
“Obviously, I’ve got some things that I would love to have more time to accomplish, but I’ve come to the realization that you’re never going to get it all done, but that’s life,” Reichert said.
He believes Mid City Square is “in progress and gaining momentum.”
Reichert plans to return to practicing law and continue working as a private citizen to spur economic and community development.
“It takes teamwork and that’s really what I’ve learned,” Reichert said. “It’s not about one person. It’s about building a team that will work toward a common goal.”
As the community prepares for its bicentennial in 2023, he sees Macon coming full-circle back to forefather Simri Rose’s vision of a City in a Park.
Reichert even hopes the closing of the Walker Road landfill in the next couple of years will provide opportunity for more greenspace and protected wilderness.
“Why don’t you make it an area where you can go and see wildlife and alligators and critters coming out of the swamp? It’s a huge attraction,” Reichert said.
He planted the seed at a county commission meeting by showing a video on Staten Island’s Fresh Kills park that conceals 50 years of New York City’s garbage.
Reichert’s daring leadership and infectious enthusiasm have been a huge asset for luring new industry and developers, former Bibb County Commission chairman Sam Hart said.
“His legacy is laughter with a purpose and leads to some kind of positive development,” Hart said in the video. “He’s a good mayor but better than that he’s a fine person.”
Reichert thinks his vision for creating an attractive community where people want to live and work is catching on.
“More and more developers are coming to Macon and saying, ‘OMG, Oh my goodness. … I see what they’ve been talking about. I can see it now.’ And I think just like this steam locomotive is going to gain traction, is going to gain momentum. And before long, it’s going to be propelling down the rails and moving forward and into the future.”
Information from The Telegraph archives contributed to this report. Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at [email protected] or phone 478-301-2976.