In his childhood church filled with supporters, former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones made his case for why he should again be elected to the city’s top office last Saturday, ending months of speculation about whether he would run.
In an announcement that was interrupted by standing ovations and chants of “all in,” Jones relied on his experience, record and identity politics to paint Mobile as a city traveling down the wrong path and himself as the only man who can move it in the right direction.
With the announcement at Greater Nazaree Baptist Church in downtown Mobile, Jones becomes the main competition for incumbent Mayor Sandy Stimpson in a rematch of the contest four years ago, with the two men’s roles reversed.
Jones and his supporters at the announcement hammered home to those in attendance the importance of strong voter turnout among the city’s black majority.
“We are 52 percent and don’t you forget that,” self-described activist Angela Agnew said from the podium. “We’ve got to show them what we are capable of … We will show up. We will show out and we will win.”
Jones also made similar points during his own speech. He asked for “motivated voters” who would encourage family, friends and neighbors to go to the polls Aug. 22.
“When you’re able to participate at that level, you’re a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “We can only be successful if we go all in.”
The Rev. Melvin Clark, a Mobile Housing Board commissioner, encouraged those in attendance to register to vote, then gave a closing prayer.
The former mayor also alluded to campaign events thrown by Stimpson during the last election.
“Now, I’m not going to tell you not to eat no hot dog,” Jones said. “I’m not going to tell you not to listen to no news, but what I’m going to tell you is don’t let it break your spirit … Everybody sees you eating a hot dog, but don’t nobody see you when you vote.”
Stimpson won the 2013 election with 30,939 votes to Jones’ 26,699, according to certified election results, giving him nearly 54 percent of the vote. In total, 57,638 votes were cast in the election — about 4,000 more votes than were cast in the 2005 mayoral runoff election when Jones defeated John Peavy. But the current mayor looks to be a heavy favorite this go-round as he sports an enormous fundraising advantage and an approval rating of 73 percent, according to a survey conducted in May for WALA-TV by Strategy Inc.
And though Jones’ early campaign rhetoric is heavily focused on motivating the city’s African-American majority to vote for him, the Strategy survey also reported that Stimpson has a 60 percent favorability rating among black voters and an 89 percent approval among white voters. Asked about a potential matchup between Stimpson and Jones, the surveyed 2,900 registered voters picked Stimpson 58 percent to 42 percent. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.
Jones and supporters told the crowd during the announcement that they hadn’t seen much progress toward Stimpson’s “One Mobile” slogan in the nearly four years he’s been in office. Greg Harris said Jones would be the mayor to truly unite the city.
“Sam Jones will, for once and for all, set a course to truly unite this city because it’s one thing to talk about ‘One Mobile;’ I mean, it sounds good,” he said. “It rolls off the tongue. It makes for a good slogan and a good catch phrase, but it’s a whole other thing to set a course and see it through.”
Jones called the slogan a “cliche” and said he’d heard about it, but hadn’t seen much happen.
“Anything real you should see,” he said. “You ought to be able to see it if it’s real.”
In response to Jones’ announcement, Stimpson released a statement reaffirming his commitment to every community in the city. The mayor is attending the Paris Air Show this week with a statewide delegation of economic development officials.
“Each day, my administration is committed to making sure every community has an opportunity to share in the momentum,” he wrote. “We’ve proven that the greatest level of success is achieved when everyone has a seat at the table. I’m looking forward to a discussion with Mobilians about all the progress we’ve made in my first term and everything we have in store for the future as we seek to become the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020.”
The Trump factor
Jones and his supporters wasted no time attempting to connect Stimpson to national politics and Republican President Donald J. Trump, who visited Mobile twice before taking office in January.
Jessica Norwood, who introduced Jones at the event, described national politics and Trump’s administration as a “darkness.”
“There’s a darkness moving around this country and it has settled in Mobile,” she said. “That is a fact that the connection between Washington D.C. comes all the way to Mobile … There’s a connection between the two. So, that darkness that you’re feeling, it got invited into Mobile and I’m here to say all we have to do is get it out.”
Norwood told the crowd that Jones would “hold the line” against what’s happening in Washington.
“I don’t know about you, but there’s only a few people I would trust, seasoned enough, a veteran — a real veteran — to stand on that front line and that’s Sam Jones,” Norwood said. “You’ve got to hold the line and push it back. That’s the job we have to do.”
Jones himself took the current administration to task for its welcoming of Trump to the Port City. During the announcement, Jones referenced the city’s rentla of buses to help move visitors to Trump’s rally in and out of Ladd-Peebles Stadium in August 2015. He also mentioned the Christmas tree decoration used during Trump’s return trip last December.
The city spent just over $16,000 for Trump’s campaign rally in August 2015. Roughly half of the total, or $8,125, was spent on the 14 buses.
Taxpayers spent nearly $60,000 for the president-elect’s stop in Mobile in December for his “thank you” tour. The majority of the expenses came from overtime for Mobile police officers in the amount of $49,691.90. Mobile Fire-Rescue Department personnel overtime also accounted for $8,726.58. The public safety total of $58,418.48 was paid for by the city. Jones did not say how his administration would save on such safety expenses should the U.S. President visit Mobile again with him in the mayor’s seat.
Jones also criticised members of Stimpson’s administration for having a tree cut down from a “city street” to decorate the stadium for Trump’s visit eight days before Christmas last year. The tree was cut down from a city park and former Chief of Staff Colby Cooper took the blame for the mistake. Cooper resigned shortly after the incident.
Despite attempting to make connections between Stimpson and Trump, Jones, in a move reminiscent of something the current president might approve of, blamed local media for negative coverage of him since he left office in 2013.
“At one time — for about a year or two — every time I picked up the paper, or watched television ‘well, Sam Jones did that’ — whatever was bad,” he said. “‘Sam Jones is responsible for that.’ I thought I might catch something good Sam Jones did on one newscast and I didn’t, so I stopped watching the six o’clock news.”
During the announcement, Jones hit the highlights of his two terms in office, claiming responsibility for luring ThyssenKrupp to north Mobile County and signing two agreements to bring the Airbus final assembly line to the Brookley Aeroplex. He added that he signed the agreement for the McGowin Park retail development as well.
The state and a consortium of local governments offered tax abatements to help entice ThyssenKrupp to build a $5 billion facility in Calvert. However, according to a study published by the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University, those incentives — worth about $800 million — cost the state and county much more than TK was able to generate, as of 2015. The plant has also changed hands.
In addition, Jones said his administration built the last two new fire stations and he signed the agreement to expand Austal USA’s footprint. He also touted the city’s annexation of Mobile Terrace and Theodore as helping to expand the tax base. Jones said the tax base is currently shrinking under Stimpson because so many of Mobile’s workers live elsewhere.
“People got those checks and drove back across the bayway,” he said. “If you wanted to determine why the revenue base is shrinking it’s because the workforce here is a third of the economy. It doesn’t take any rocket scientist to know that.”
Jones said an eroding tax base has made the “penny,” a 20 percent increase in Mobile’s sales tax first passed in Jones’ second term, worth less than it was when he was in office.
While he was initially against keeping the tax increase on the books, even vetoing its addition to the budget, Stimpson’s administration has helped facilitate a capital improvement plan using the proceeds. Councilman Joel Daves and other councilors have applauded Stimpson on the program and the fiscal restraint it has taken to maintain its funding.
Jones also believes the city should’ve supported BayFest to prevent it from going away due to a lack of funding. The former mayor said the loss of BayFest makes the city less competitive when it comes to tourism.
“It was a mistake to let our music festival die,” he said. “Mobile was known throughout the country for it.”
BayFest canceled its 2015 event due to lackluster ticket sales. The financial woes for the festival were a recurring problem. Total revenue for the festival in 2013, according to IRS disclosures, was $5.8 million with $3.5 million in expenses, but that year was buoyed by nearly $3.4 million in BP oil spill grants dumped into the festival’s coffers. Without the infusion, BayFest would have lost roughly $1.1 million in 2013, putting the festival’s cash reserves severely in the red.
The city did support the festival, allocating $98,000 in both 2014 and 2015. In a previous story, Cooper told Lagniappe the city also provided “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to the festival in in-kind services.
While BayFest no longer exists, this will be the third year for the free TenSixtyFive fest, which sprung up through the support of private money when BayFest organizers abruptly announced the festival wouldn’t happen. TenSixtyFive has taken over the early October weekend that was traditionally held by BayFest. The entertainment corridor also hosts SouthSounds annually, and that festival has grown rapidly over the past few years.
While he distanced himself from the conception of the GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, Jones ran the city while construction of the building was underway. He said nobody could argue that the building itself was great.
“On GulfQuest, we never got a chance to get into the operations of it,” he said.
He blamed “overly optimistic” management for a large part of the museum’s failure a little more than a year after it opened. Jones said he never believed the museum would attract some 300,000 visitors per year.
In November, former GulfQuest Executive Director Tony Zodrow blamed the Jones administration for some of the museum’s financial woes. He said Jones and then-city attorney Larry Wettermark approached the museum board with a deal that would have GulfQuest assume nearly $2 million in building expenses in exchange for the city covering the nonprofit’s expenses at a later date. Zodrow said the board entered into the agreement, but was never reimbursed.
Both Jones and Wettermark denied there was a loan agreement in place. Wettermark told Lagniappe in November that the agreement was to give the board any remaining money from a bond issue, but there was no money remaining.
On GulfQuest, Jones said he would’ve stepped in to help more quickly than Stimpson did.
“We can’t afford to give up on it,” he said.
While the city and state have been working for years toward obtaining funding for the Interstate 10 bridge project over the Mobile River, Jones didn’t seem supportive. He said the project could potentially pull visitors out of downtown.
During a short press conference following the announcement, Jones accused the Stimpson administration of making too many financial cuts. As an example, he told a gaggle of reporters the city should have done more to prevent 15 Place, a local homeless shelter, from closing.
Many of 15 Place’s ancillary services were cut in February, Housing First Executive Director Eric Jefferson said at the time. He said 15 Place would remain open for intake and counseling. The organization asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for additional funding this year, but was denied, Jefferson said. The services were estimated to cost around $186,000.
At one time, the city did provide funding for 15 Place through a performance contract with Housing First, but that contract was canceled in 2015. In February, Councilman Levon Manzie asked Stimpson and council colleagues to provide 15 Place with a $162,000 performance contract, but nothing has been done yet.