Regular readers of this column may have gathered over the years that at times I can be a bit cynical about humans in general and politicians in particular.
Roughly five years ago my cynicism was at an all-time high when it came to our fair burg. Sam Jones had been re-elected mayor a few years before without facing a challenger, and that seemed to be a signal to him and his cronies that they possessed absolute power.
From a journalist’s standpoint, covering Jones and his administration had never been easy, as they were almost always reluctant to provide full information and frequently were blatantly dishonest about what “facts” they did release. But after his re-election, things got worse.
By the fall of 2012, I was writing stories trying to investigate what I’d heard about for years — that the Police Explorers program had become little more than a way for selected cops, their families and other city employees to go on ski trips paid for with city and federal money. Jones’ police chief and city attorneys fought tooth and nail to keep Lagniappe from getting what were clearly public records that might reveal what was happening. The daily newspaper was simply ignoring it all while they busily went about pushing Jones’ next coronation.
I was frustrated, to say the least. We had dug around enough to know things weren’t right at City Hall, but it looked like Jones was going to easily cruise to another uncontested win in 2013 and the corruption and incompetence would go on and on. The common thought process around town was that Silent Sam was “unbeatable.”
Having watched a few “unbeatable” City Councilmen get the boot over the years, I had no doubt Jones could be pried off the public teat, but it was going to take the right candidate. Around that time I started hearing about some guy named Sandy Stimpson who might run. But the political wise man who first mentioned his name also quickly said, “He’s very wealthy and lives in Spring Hill. He has zero chance.”
At some point Stimpson came to meet with Ashley and me to talk about his plans. He was quite the opposite of what I’d been led to expect. He was energetic and bright and excited about the prospect of leading the city. And while he was confident, Stimpson didn’t seem like a guy who thought he should be mayor just because of his economic status.
One of the things we talked about that day was honesty and transparency in our city government — or mostly the lack of it. Stimpson said if he were elected mayor one of his biggest goals would be to make the city accountable to all of its citizens. He also expressed the importance of seeing Mobile’s poorest neighborhoods improved and their citizens given hope.
Ashley and I both came away from the meeting thinking he had his heart in the right place, even if winning seemed nearly impossible. But as we researched Stimpson’s background and covered his campaign, it started to seem to me not only possible, but probable he would indeed topple Jones.
The momentum, money and excitement started to shift Sandy’s way. Still, even on Election Day most local news organizations were pretty sure Jones was going to squeak out another four years in office. When the results came in there was lots of egg on lots of faces.
Fast-forward four years and now it all seems so clear why Stimpson won — and why I feel certain he’ll win again Aug. 22. Every organization, large or small, takes on the personality of the person running the show, and Mobilians were ready for someone with an excited, joyful, honest and positive approach to guiding the “city of perpetual potential.”
I know the way I feel about Mobile and our direction has done a one-eighty in the past four years. I was certain another four or eight years of Jones’ mismanagement would doom Mobile and produce nearly unfixable problems. What Stimpson’s team found when they walked into Government Plaza that first day were erased computers, destroyed files and an unmitigated financial disaster.
Stimpson set about trying to get us on the right path, and he stepped on a few toes along the way. Organizations used to lots of freebies, as well as those that depended on performance contract money from the city, had their oxen gored. Attrition ruled the day and fewer city positions were filled. The city’s retirement fund was reworked, and many are still bitter about that decision. But the city’s finances today look nothing like they did in 2013.
Today Mobile is practically exploding. Airbus is cranking out jets, Austal is cranking out ships, Wal-Mart and Amazon are cranking up major distribution centers and the Port continues cranking in new business. There’s a lot of cranking going on!
Try to remember downtown Mobile four years ago. It was a different world. There are more new restaurants these days than you can shake a breadstick at, and more on the way. Just about every vacant building in downtown has been snapped up for development and major new residential projects are, well … cranking up. (Enough with the cranking!)
The cruise ship terminal is no longer the most expensive wedding reception hall on the coast, and all over town roads are being paved for the first time in years.
No, Mobile isn’t perfect and Stimpson still faces challenges such as getting the Interstate 10 bridge going, saving the BayBears and figuring out what to do with the Civic Center. We also still have a long way to go in creating more jobs that lift up all parts of our city. In his second term I hope Stimpson can find a way to secure a bayside park for this city so its citizens can touch the water for the first time in decades.
While there have been some minor stumbles along the way, Stimpson has put this city on a rocket trajectory in his nearly four years in office. We’d be the dumbest dummies ever to change that trajectory now. Stimpson has been true to his word and works harder than most Mobilians would probably ever believe. Even a cynic like me is excited to see where he takes us in four more years.