What should be a no-brainer has now turned into a head-scratcher as the Mobile City Council decided Tuesday to lay over their decision for two weeks on whether or not they will disenfranchise the communities to the west asking to join our fair city.
I say it’s a no-brainer because allowing annexation votes is something our City Council has done five times in the past 27 years, regardless of how the votes might affect Mobile’s demographics. Past councils at least understood the basic concept that growing the city is necessary for future success, and political ambitions took a back seat to that idea.
The idea that 13,000 people want to join Mobile, which would put us back over 200,000 population for the first time in 20 years, bring millions in tax revenue annually and also allow the opportunity for tens of millions in federal public safety grants, should be embraced by the council as a whole. Nobody would vote against a business coming to Mobile that would do this much for our economy.
But obviously this isn’t a business. We’re talking people here, and, more importantly, voters. The fear the city will become slightly “whiter” if all three of the proposed referendums were successful has our three African American councilmen deciding between the good of the city and what they clearly fear will be bad for the prospects of Mobile once again having a black mayor.
This issue has been particularly difficult for Council President Levon Manzie, whose finger-in-the-wind approach to governance has had him flapping back and forth like a flag in a hurricane over the past week. Manzie understands what the right thing to do is, but he’s never been much for taking political heat, and right now he’s turning like a roasted chicken on a spit.
District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson made it clear from the outset he was against allowing a vote, and the always-quiet District 3 Councilman, C.J. Small, sent word behind the scenes that he would vote with Richardson, too. With the four white councilors all on the record as voting for the referendums, this has left Manzie as the dreaded “swing vote.” I don’t think it’s anything he’s wanted to be.
Over the past week it seems like whoever I spoke with who had talked to Manzie thought he was voting for their position, whether for or against. Tuesday morning I was hearing he was voting against allowing the referendums and didn’t want to delay the decision any longer. Two hours later he was ready to hold the vote over two weeks.
Maybe some of that is just attributable to the frenzy surrounding this decision, but I’m not sure it’s totally out of character for the councilor fond of taking to Facebook to solicit opinions as to how he should vote on controversial matters. I’m not faulting him for wanting to take the pulse of his district, but it’s impossible to get anything but an arrhythmic heartbeat from the web. And sometimes people elected to lead have to do just that.
As someone who clearly believes in grassroots government, I’m sure it grates against Manzie’s own moral fiber to disenfranchise people who want to vote. He seems to conduct personal straw polls on just about any major issue, so the idea of telling people they can’t vote seems diametrically opposed to the way he governs District 2.
I really have no idea what Manzie will decide. I’d imagine he’ll be tossing and turning for the next two weeks, a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Hopefully in the end he will make the decision that’s best for the city as a whole.
Someone commented the other day that Mobile’s districts seem more Balkanized than in the past — that some councilors put district above city. Certainly in the past a supermajority of City Councilors were able to put aside political fears and hopes to at least ALLOW annexation votes.
The majority white council allowed the referendums that swung the city six percentage points and changed it from predominantly white to predominantly black. I’m sure allowing that vote took courage from some councilors who caught flak from constituents.
Forbidding the referendums from happening, when this is clearly financially beneficial to Mobile, is akin to throwing up a wall and saying, “we don’t want you in our club.” And if it’s being done to keep people of any ethic background out of the city, that’s just plain racist.
Richardson paints annexation as an effort to just bring a bunch of white people into the city. The subtext is that it’s being done so he can’t be mayor. Fred Richardson will never be mayor. He couldn’t even get the votes to be council president, and his divisiveness is something Manzie and Small should avoid like a pit bull with a machine gun. Fred has posted on Facebook that he’ll be running for some office in 2021, so his promised retirement appears to have been put on hold.
Looking at U.S. Census statistics from 2010 may not explain why all councilors are voting a certain way, but it does offer some context. The most racially lopsided districts in 2010 were District 6 (75/18 white-black), District 1 (74/24 black-white), District 3 (73/24 black-white), District 2 (69/29 black-white) and District 4 (60/30 white-black). The other two districts — District 7 (51/44 white-black) and District 5 (49/43 white-black) — were much more equally divided.
But between 2000 and 2010 Manzie’s District 2 lost more than 6,500 black citizens and gained about 100 whites. If that trend has continued, the district could be moving closer to 50-50, especially as new residential properties downtown fill up. Maybe that’s why Manzie was so dead set against residential being included in the Civic Center project. Hmmm?
Of course the councilors themselves redrew the district lines after the last annexations, so therein lies part of the reason five of the seven districts are racially lopsided.
But all of that really shouldn’t be what we’re talking about here. Rejecting millions, allowing the city to be boxed in so it can’t expand and treating Mobile like an exclusive club that doesn’t want “certain kinds” of people is shortsighted and a mistake that could haunt us forever.
The way it looks now is it’s going to be a long two weeks waiting to see if one man will do the right thing.
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