I was lucky enough to get out of town last week to enjoy the boiling heat of the Florida Keys and take a week away from the swirl of political runoffs and football stadium discussions. But all good things come to an end and I’m back into the frying pan.
And man, it is hot! As the July 17 primary runoffs bear down on us, the races have gotten nastier and nastier. Meanwhile, the issue of the city and county helping fund a new University of South Alabama football stadium is also front and center. I’m going to have to chew a few of these up into smaller bites.
While I’ve long thought it’s ridiculous incumbent judges in Mobile County almost never face re-election challenges, the nastiness in the two judges’ races still undecided might make me rethink my position, lest someone get stabbed. It’s not so much that the advertisements are particularly salty, but the backroom “dark campaign” has been more devious than usual.
There have been lots of unverifiable allegations slung by political mud peddlers, followed by lots of whining when those flimsy stories didn’t turn into news stories.
If people are this fired up to be judges, it makes me wonder even more why the incumbents constantly skate back in without so much as a token challenge. Must be a great job.
One race where the mudslinging is firmly out in the open is in Baldwin County’s State Senate District 32, where Baldwin Commissioner Chris Elliott is in a runoff with dentist David Northcutt.
Elliott has run ads accusing Northcutt of dispensing narcotics without a license and getting into trouble for fraudulent advertising. Pretty rough stuff. Northcutt has fired back, accusing Elliott of supporting tax increases and lying about trying to weasel out of his punishment in a 2016 DUI arrest.
Northcutt says he simply had his license expire and didn’t realize it when he wrote narcotics prescriptions, and that it was a simple oversight. He also says the “fraudulent advertising” consisted of replacing the words “results may vary” with “state of the art” in an ad. I will admit the dispensing narcotics issue is a bit troubling, although the fines involved weren’t particularly heavy.
On the flip side, Elliott has continued trying to brush off allegations he used his position to get out of his DUI punishment. His political handler Jon Gray told Lagniappe a few weeks ago, “If he wanted to get out of it, no one would know about it. We did all our polling months ago. I’m very comfortable with it. Chris has atoned for it.”
The wisdom of publicly suggesting that Elliott knows secret and untraceable ways of getting out of DUIs could be debated I suppose, but it’s hardly arguable that he didn’t use his position to get a lesser punishment. As for atonement, the problem has never been the DUI as much as the dishonest way Elliott handled it.
After Elliott declared he would suffer the “consequences” of running a red light and refusing a Breathalyzer, effectively getting the media off his back, his attorney quietly filed suit to keep Chris from losing his license for 90 days. He wrote that Elliott would suffer “irreparable harm and damage by the suspension of his driving privileges. He will be unable to work and serve in his elected capacity as a Baldwin County commissioner.” In other words, “I’m an elected official and my job is important.”
Here are the cold, hard facts: Elliott was handed a 45-day suspension when the law for Breathalyzer refusal is 90 days, and no one has ever explained why. ALEA also started the clock running on his suspension at the same time his attorney filed an emergency stay, which meant Elliott was still driving even as ALEA was ticking off the days of his suspension. By the time the legal dust settled, Elliott only had to surrender his license for 29 days — a third of what everyone else would get.
Elliott continues to be dogged by his efforts to get special treatment, and that makes him a pretty sketchy choice, in my book.
This continues to be the David v. Goliath of local races, with Satsuma Police Chief Shane Stringer trying to stick a fork in Citronelle Call News publisher Willie Gray. Stringer was just shy of winning the Republican nomination outright in the primary, and third-place finisher Belinda Shoub has thrown her support to Stringer, making the math tough for Willie.
The outcome in the primary was a big shocker due to Gray’s far larger campaign war chest and shameless use of his newspaper to promote himself for public office. Given those two advantages, Gray’s second place finish was nothing short of embarrassing. Perhaps polling in the district has shown that voters are turned off by a newspaper publisher trying to cross the line into public office, because Gray has dropped all reference to his ownership of the paper in advertisements and even in editorial coverage in the Call News.
Stringer has run a tight campaign, heavy on shoe leather and meeting people, and recently picked up Sheriff Sam Cochran’s endorsement. Unless there’s a large shift in voter sympathies over the next week, it seems likely Goliath will wake up with a large lump on his head July 18.
The stadium conundrum
The concept of the city and county dumping 20 million taxpayer dollars into the construction of the University of South Alabama’s new football stadium appears to be a tougher and tougher sell.
That’s not necessarily because members of the City Council and County Commission don’t want to help the university, but an undercurrent of nostalgia for the 70-year-old Ladd-Peebles stadium may make take away the carrot that would make the deal palatable to taxpayers. Mayor Sandy Stimpson has pitched donating $500,000 a year to USA over the next 20 years as a way to get out of millions in deferred maintenance costs at Ladd and to avoid tens of millions in future repairs. And it would also get the city out of the big stadium business.
But … and there’s always a but … Ladd board members and some councilors and commissioners are expressing concerns that leveling the old stadium and replacing it with a smaller, low-maintenance 5,000-seat stadium would destroy a lot of traditions and rob a minority midtown neighborhood of some of its identity.
But … and there’s another but … if getting rid of Ladd isn’t part of the deal, then the tax savings vanish and it simply becomes a matter of donating money to the university. That seems unlikely to be popular with the rank-and-file Mobilian.
Further complicating matters is the fact the USA Foundation is refusing to kick in any of its nearly $400 million, which also isn’t winning hearts and minds across the Azalea City.
USA has said it needs public money to build its stadium, and that’s likely to carry a lot of weight with city/county officials. Promising millions to USA and keeping Ladd doesn’t make a lot of sense, though. While I get how the loss of big events like the Senior Bowl and other bowl games will affect the community surrounding Ladd, the stadium isn’t getting any younger and eventually it’s going to cost more than it’s worth — if it doesn’t already.
The ideal situation would be for the USA Foundation to step up and let the taxpayers off the hook.