Life in politics has come full circle for Levon Manzie. The Mobile City Council president took questions from Lagniappe while seated in his District 2 campaign headquarters on Government Street, which is the same building where he got his first taste of politics a little more than two decades ago.
“This very building is where I got my start politically,” he said. “I was appointed to be a member of the Mobile City/County Youth Council and we used to have our monthly meetings in this particular building.”
Manzie’s enthusiasm for the job has not waned since he began dreaming of holding an elected city office as a freshman at Murphy High School. The pastor of St. Joseph Baptist Church in Whistler still feels like the job of a city councilman is an extension of his ministry.
“I love the job,” he said. “You get up every day and there’s always a unique and varied problem that a constituent needs me to help solve, to advocate for.”
Manzie was on the council when the body approved a sales tax increase and divvied up some of the revenue evenly among the seven city districts. Recently, Manzie has implemented a program to help homeowners in District 2 make improvements to their structures using grants from a portion of the district’s $3 million in capital improvement program (CIP) funding. While Manzie has been criticized by opponents for the move, he defended it.
Specifically, Manzie defended the housing program against claims from candidate Reggie Hill, who has argued the original intent of the CIP was only for drainage improvements.
“I think the defense of the program can be seen as we ride along in our various communities,” he said. “We were the ones who fashioned the program and I can totally tell you that its usage was not restricted to drainage. Now, we’ve done a lot of drainage work, but from the very beginning it was understood that road resurfacing, sidewalks, drainage, improvements to our community centers and to our parks were going to be first and foremost.”
Manzie called the CIP as a whole “transformative” and mentioned he gets calls about the program from folks in cities all over the country. Members of the Mobile City Council have even presented the program to the National League of Cities and the National Conference of Black Legislative Officials.
“It’s special not only that every community has seen uplift; it’s unique in that we’ve been able to harmoniously agree on a set of priorities and then put them into implementation,” he said.
Manzie found himself in the middle of a political firestorm in 2019 when Mayor Sandy Stimpson proposed annexing about 13,000 residents from an unincorporated area of West Mobile. With four councilors in favor of allowing an annexation referendum and two against, Manzie, who would vote last on that particular day, ended up being the deciding vote that killed the initiative.
Manzie said he is “pro-growth for the city of Mobile.” However, he said it would take multiple efforts to achieve growth. Citing previous annexations, Manzie said U.S. Census data still shows a steady decline in the city’s population. He promoted infill housing in areas east of Interstate 65 as a way to encourage residents not to move west into Mobile County or east into Baldwin County.
“I am not anti-annexation, but this last iteration that was proposed was, in my opinion, there was not the level of inclusivity,” he said. “The citizens did not fully understand the parameters of that decision and they let me know loud and clear that they did not understand it.”
The Mobile City Council has supported the return of passenger rail to the Port City to the tune of a promised $3 million over three years to help defray the cost of operation of an Amtrak train from Mobile to New Orleans. At issue, though, is that the funding is currently dependent upon Amtrak’s willingness to continue a study on the impacts of passenger trains on port operations and so far, Amtrak has been unwilling to continue the study.
While Manzie said he would like to see the study, he understands if federal funding is going to be involved in this, the project needs to move forward.
“We’ve waited a mighty long time for a study,” Manzie said. “Would I like to see the end product of the study? Yes. I think that would be of great comfort to those who have concerns about the port’s concerns. If we’re going to get federal resources to make this happen, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
District 2 has a larger number of concrete streets than any other district. While concrete streets last longer than their asphalt counterparts, Manzie said, when they begin to deteriorate, they get bad quickly. A goal for Manzie over the next four years would be to replace the concrete streets in the district.
“I would like to focus with a laser over the next four years on eradicating concrete streets,” he said.
Manzie, who has battled kidney disease since he was 14 years old, accused his opponents of running a campaign about his health.
“When you have nothing else to run on, that’s what you jump to,” he said. “Those people who spend their time peddling that need to be careful.”
In his lifetime, Manzie has had two kidney transplants and he argued the disease and those medical issues have not stopped him. Even with those health issues, he has served on the Mobile County Board of Education, has served as president of the council and pastor of a church.
“If anyone wants to say that someone with a disability all of a sudden doesn’t have the merit to be in leadership, then tell that to FDR,” he said. “Tell that to the governor of Texas, right now. We may disagree politically and philosophically, but that gentleman is getting the work done.”
As for criticism of his work ethic over the last year, Manzie said his doctors told him to stay home as much as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that he’s fully vaccinated, Manzie expects to be able to meet with constituents more regularly.
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