Now that Sam Jones will be the newest board member of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service, providing the utility his expertise in setting budgets and handling water issues, it’s time for a look at what this Cat 5 fracas meant.
Of course the number one thing in any political showdown like this is figuring out who won and who lost.
Certainly among a large segment of our citizenry, City Council Vice President Fred Richardson came strutting out of this showdown like the Cock of the Walk. After being passed over as council president — a job he felt he deserved — Richardson clearly couldn’t handle the thought of a second ego-crushing defeat. So in “Godfather” terms, he “went to the mattresses.”
In non-mafia terms, Richardson was willing to go to war over getting his political buddy that water board spot. Whether it was just a matter of pride, or if — as some breathless last-minute political robo calls just before the vote would have us believe — there’s a larger reason only time will tell. But by stoking the always-smoldering flames of racial discord, Fred was able to get his way when quelling the racial unhappiness he fomented became a bigger issue than Sam getting on the water board.
Richardson had the help of his acolytes, C.J. Small and Levon Manzie, so they get some of the political victory as well, although both come off looking a bit like they’ll do whatever Fred tells them to do. Manzie especially disappointed a large number of his voters when he immediately engaged in the race baiting that’s become Richardson’s nervous tic.
Mayor Stimpson also pulled a win out of this thing after starting off on the wrong foot when he walked out of the council meeting a couple of weeks ago. Urging the rest of the council to put aside what are legitimate concerns in placing Jones on the water board for the sake of harmony was the smart thing to do and showed leadership. To his credit Richardson publicly said just that. Maybe they found some common ground in the sandwiches they shared recently.
As far as the rest of the council, they did what they had to do. Whether it would have made a difference if they had explained the reasons for their first rejection of Jones instead of voting with no comment is probably impossible to guess. But it did offer Richardson the opportunity to interpret their motives and play the race card when they didn’t explain themselves.
But the most obvious loser in all this is the city itself.
To create this type of strife in the name of getting a defeated politician some gravy on a water board is a sad statement of where things are in Mobile. While Fred may claim this break with “tradition” was worth spilled blood, let’s all be honest, the only reason the tradition exists that no one votes against anyone’s else’s nominee is so political patronage isn’t questioned. Why even vote?
Despite Richardson’s attempts to compare himself to Rosa Parks because Jones’ nomination was rejected, Fred’s actions took only the courage needed to (yawn) once again accuse his colleagues of bigotry. Certainly not the type of courage it would have taken for Rosa Parks to sit in that seat braving arrest or potential violence. Nominating his old political crony to a paid position on a water board probably isn’t going to land Fred’s smiling face on a coin anytime soon.
Bringing up imagery from the Civil Rights Era and even the Civil War was as overblown as Farrah Fawcett’s hair in “Charlie’s Angels.” (Or Chachi in “Happy Days” if your parents wouldn’t let you watch the Angels.) The appointments of Jones and Barbara Drummond to the water board started as nothing more than raw political payback aimed at getting rid of two African-American board members who supported Stimpson in the mayoral race. This isn’t Mother Theresa feeding the poor.
At the end of the day, it’s simply political cronyism. That Richardson, Small and Manzie were willing to create a nuclear war over some backroom deal was probably a big surprise to both the mayor and the rest of the council.
After all, people win and lose all the time in politics. While it’s true paybacks are hell, generally it’s handled with much more finesse. I supported the council voting Jones’ nomination down simply because he has a well-documented record of withholding vital information from the public and the media, and appears to have difficulty working out an actual balanced budget. But I hardly thought it would create this level of anger and passion.
It raises the question of why Jones wanted this position so badly. Certainly all of this fire and brimstone wasn’t expended with him sitting on the sidelines saying, “Hey Fred, I don’t really care one way on the other if I’m on the water board.”
Once again, time will tell.
If there’s any real positive that came out of this mess — other than learning Richardson would indeed vote a blind dog onto a board if someone submitted it — it’s that this may have brought on a better dialogue between the mayor’s office and the council. If nothing else Sandy had some face time with council members, and leading the charge to stop Fred’s childish fit showed a willingness to guide the council for the good of the city.
It also is a bit of political jujitsu in that the burden is now on Richardson and his coalition to show they too can swallow their pride at times for the betterment of the city. Will that mean they’ll stop holding up the fire chief’s nomination? Will it mean cooperation in some other way? That should be clear soon.
There are people who say caving in to Richardson is only going to encourage more bizarre behavior, but maybe the win will give him a chance to feel powerful again. Anyone who refers to himself in the third person as much as Fred Richardson may have a bit of an ego issue. Maybe he’ll start focusing on lining up more city-paid junkets overseas.
The mayor and council have a long way to go together over the next three-and-a-half years. This wasn’t a Civil Rights fight. It wasn’t about racism. It was a political slugfest.
The only thing clearly accomplished is that an old politician — a guy who lost because many of the people who traditionally voted for him realized he’d never done anything to make their side of town one bit better — will be getting some grease from the sewer board. I suppose we also got another reminder of just how differently blacks and whites see things in this city sometimes. I shudder to think what might happen if a really important issue comes up.
Let’s hope the next time the council disagrees it can be managed without anyone being accused of racism or bigotry and without demeaning the memories of people who actually made a positive difference.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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