It was a room full of people enjoying covered-dish camaraderie last Thursday night at the Fowl River Community Center. Half of those chowing down on some amazing-smelling food wore Wilcox stickers, and roughly the other half wore Carl stickers. But even though the race has been a mudslinger, everyone was able to stay calm and collegial while waiting for the debate to begin.

(Doing the journalism thing, I didn’t think it was a great idea to load up a plate. I only got one really good cookie after things were over. The sacrifices I make for this job.)

Here in the last week before the primaries, folks are antsy. Campaigns are in high gear, and many politicians are at the breaking point. Seemingly every campaign has polls showing them winning or almost winning, and last-minute endorsements or surprise commercials designed to destroy someone are hot political gossip.

Modern Alabama politics being what they are, the Republican primary serves as the de facto election since in most cases there isn’t even a Democrat waiting in the general. So in races like Mobile County’s District 3 County Commission contest where two Republicans are squaring off, “Super Tuesday” will be the end for someone.

But things weren’t nearly as tense at the Fowl River Community Center as I’d expected. Having been pretty rough in pointing out what I consider to be fatal flaws in Margie Wilcox as a county commissioner, I feared going to watch a debate in her backyard might result in some unpleasant conversations. It’s certainly happened before in my career, but that wasn’t the case last Thursday.

Most people seemed intent on listening to the Wilcox and Carl debate and not on arguing with one another or even wise-guy columnists. I’m not trying to say it was a love-fest. Supporters of one or the other pretty much clumped together in the little room. The most tension was probably generated by Revenue Commissioner Kim Hastie and County Commissioner Connie Hudson sitting in the audience — both active Wilcox supporters vocal in their desire to see Carl defeated.

Hastie sat in the middle of the room, but Hudson was perched like a vulture at the end of the front table about 10 feet from where the candidates sat. She managed to limit herself to only one verbal interjection, but during Carl’s responses produced a number of animated eye rolls that would have made any 13-year-old girl proud. One fellow observer joked later he thought Connie was going to pull a muscle.

It’s still something I’ve never seen in politics to have a sitting county commissioner working so hard and so openly to unseat another one — particularly one from the same party — even to the point of campaigning door-to-door for his opponent. I’d say there’s still a far better chance Connie will be serving another four years with Jerry, versus living her dream of having Margie as the young padawan helping her build the ConnieWorld Soccer/Swimming and Water Complex. If Carl does win, I can’t imagine Hudson’s active role in Wilcox’s campaign is going to help smooth things over between the two. But maybe that bridge is too scorched to ever be rebuilt.

Once the debate started I found it highly amusing to listen to Wilcox blast Carl for votes and positions also taken by Hudson. Someone forgot it takes two votes to pass anything on the commission. It had to hurt Connie’s feelings a little to listen to things she had supported being ripped apart by the woman she’s burned so much shoe leather trying to get elected. What’s that they say about politics and strange bedfellows? I suppose all will be forgiven as long as Margie votes for the soccer complex.

The questions posed by the moderator were fine, although not particularly tough. It would have been nice to listen to the candidates discuss their thoughts on that $40 million soccer/swimming complex. Actually, Carl made it clear he does not support it, but Wilcox has still kept her lips zipped as to whether she’s willing to spend the taxpayers’ money on the proposed complex.

Personally I also would have welcomed a question about the candidates’ plans for overseeing the Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority. But despite those items, the moderator was able to cover a lot of ground during the debate.

The crowd was cordial, even occasionally clapping for the candidate whose sticker they weren’t wearing. And the candidates really didn’t go after one another too much. Wilcox slung a little of the mud from her advertising campaign, but mostly focused on herself. And Carl took his final comments as a chance to point out the “Good ol’ Girls Club” trying to boot him and dismissing much of the Wilcox mud as being untruthful. But overall, he too spent most of his time talking about his own record and plans.

Maybe the most surprising part of the evening for me was talking with Kim Hastie’s husband, John. He came over to speak and did make it clear he wasn’t too happy with some of the things Lagniappe has written about his wife’s legal troubles, but he was also polite and thoughtful. Politics is a tough game, but it was good to be able to have a civil discussion with someone who has a very different point of view.

At the end of the day it was nice to see the political process at the root level handled so thoughtfully, even in a race that’s become as heated as the County Commission’s has. It does offer some hope — as we’ve had to sit through this remarkably silly presidential race and endure and endure Richard Shelby’s abysmally bad television ads — that everything hasn’t become irreversibly cynical.  

While I’m sure some people in that room were there supporting personal agendas, it still felt like most were interested in just participating in the democratic process. There was no yelling and screaming or threatening. And the air in my tires was still there when I headed for home.

Heck, next time I may even wander over and get myself a plate of food.