Last Thursday at the Small Business Expo inside the Mobile Convention Center, it felt like there was a collective exhalation of relief.
The event — put on by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce — was better attended and more diverse than I’ve seen over the past decade, and both exhibitors and those who came in to check out the show seemed to have an extra bounce in their step.
Not to take anything away from the Expo, but it just felt like people had been holding their collective breath until the mayoral election ended two days before. Certainly among most business owners there was zero desire to see significant change in either the mayor or City Council, as the past four years appear have positioned the city well for tremendous economic growth. Those non-business owners stopping off at various booths also expressed a general happiness that the political mess was over and we can start moving forward.
That’s not to say everyone there was a Sandy Stimpson supporter, but I do think most people on both sides of the debate realize we do much better as a city when we’re not arguing about race. And that’s essentially how the challenger, former mayor Sam Jones, tried to position this election — as a referendum on race in Mobile. And he lost big pushing that tired theme one more time.
The Jones campaign never seemed like much of a threat to upend a popular mayor who has the wind at his back right now. Sam didn’t have money, he didn’t even try to get white voters and he really didn’t ever tell us what he would do differently from the last go-round, which ended in him being voted out of office.
I’ve made the comment many times that if Jones won, every political consultant in America should fly to Mobile and sit at his knee as he explained how to beat a popular incumbent using almost no money, defining no real plan, refusing to campaign in half the city and essentially using only social media to communicate. Obviously the hotels won’t be filled up with political consultants anytime soon.
While the numerical outcome of the election — Stimpson winning by roughly 15 percent — seemed the only logical one, there is still much our “divided” racial groups can learn from what happened last Tuesday.
I do hope this latest election has shown once and for all that your African-American brothers and sisters here in town do not vote in the robotic fashion many believe they do. The amount of anxiety expressed by many white Mobilians I spoke with seemed wildly out of sync with what was actually going on, and with what had happened in the past.
Perhaps people give Mr. Jones too much credit — and I’ll admit he does cut a very confident figure during a losing election. But the idea that every registered black voter is going to rush out and vote because Sam told them to is ludicrous. First of all, getting even half of all of Mobile’s voters out to an election would be almost unbelievable. This election saw fewer than 30 percent of all registered voters cast a ballot.
Most importantly, though, please remember thoughtful people process information the same way on both sides of the racial divide. There are probably always going to be people who fall for identity politics and will only vote for someone who “looks like them,” but I do think the past few elections show their numbers are growing smaller.
Nobody is going to win the mayor’s seat with just the support of one particular ethnic group. Jones got about 25 percent of the white vote in his first election. He hasn’t come close to that in the last two races and lost. While Stimpson still didn’t get a large percentage of the black vote, pre-election polling showed him with a higher approval rating this time versus four years ago.
Among African-American voters that seems to have played out much as it did in 2013, with people just not going to the polls to vote for Sam Jones. While the vote for both men was down overall, Jones’ drop was precipitous. He nosedived almost 5,700 votes, down 21 percent from what he received four years ago. Jones lost in overall percentage of the vote in all but three precincts, and only one of those was a stronghold for him.
Conversely, Stimpson gained in his percentage of votes in all but four precincts, and that included some of Jones’ best-performing polling places. So while Stimpson didn’t win those spots, the percentage of people voting for him, even in the most African-American precincts, increased. At the same time, the votes for Jones in those same precincts plummeted. It seems the often-expressed fear that black voters would respond to an “us-against-them” message was hardly realized.
It was shocking to hear, and read on social media, about some of the vitriol expressed toward members of the African-American community who made it known they desired to vote for Stimpson. Many were called names and ostracized by fellow African-Americans for supporting the “white mayor.”
Perhaps that’s one reason why voting numbers were down so much in traditionally black precincts. Those who didn’t want to vote for Jones were browbeaten about possibly supporting Stimpson. Talk about voter suppression.
As the election ended and Jones started making noise about possibly running again in four years, I hope that would be a sign in the black community that it’s time to draft some new leadership. I have zero doubt Mobile will have a black mayor again, but it’s doubtful that person will be someone who simply looks at demographics and attempts to divide the races. That plan certainly hasn’t worked in the last two elections.
It would be a real shame to see Jones or anyone like him chosen as the representative for black Mobilians. In fact, it would be a whole lot better if we weren’t looking for someone to represent the interests of a particular ethnic group, but rather the city as a whole.
Although the election was divisive, one thing Mobilians seem to do well is get back to living with one another without constant racial hangups. Stimpson has talked about One Mobile for four years now, and I’m sure he won’t stop. Yes, the election showed obvious divisions do still exist, but the way Stimpson was re-elected has me thinking we’re making strides toward the mayor’s vision.