“I’m running for you, your future, the city and your children’s futures. This is not for me to get a job. I have a job, but I want to make sure the job for Mobile gets done.”
Sandy Stimpson said those words on Feb. 23, when he kicked off his campaign to be the next mayor of Mobile.On Aug. 27 the people of Mobile decided they would take him up on that offer.
But even though the now mayor-elect drew 1,200 supporters to that February rally, many still wondered, “Could he really win the mayor’s seat?”
When citizens went to the polls, 53 percent of voters answered that question rather emphatically — yes, he could and by a wider margin than most believed possible.
Stimpson sat down with Lagniappe three days after the election and discussed his plan for the transition into his new position and other issues, such as a nationwide search for a new police chief, Airbus, breaking Mobilians’ love of littering and performing a forensic audit on the city’s finances.
The idea of running for mayor was something Stimpson said he actually began considering two years before that night he stood on a stage at Fort Whiting and delivered his victory speech.
Two events proved to be the catalyst for Stimpson to take the plunge into the political life. The first came about after acquaintances asked Stimpson if he would run for governor. His wife Jean joked that he could run as long as it was with his second wife. But despite the joke, the suggestion was enough to get the couple talking about the possibility of public office.
“Finally, (Jean) and I had a serious conversation about running for office and asked was it something I was supposed to do … if I was led to do it. We talked about Washington and that is not something I wanted to do. I really didn’t want to go to Montgomery. Mobile is my home,” Stimpson said. “A mayor is as close to a CEO as anybody in the political world. A mayor can have tremendous influence and leadership in his community.”
The second event served as an outside affirmation he was having the right conversation with his wife.
Following a Bible study meeting one Wednesday morning, Stimpson and a friend went to breakfast where his friend shared with him a vision he had had.
“Davis Pilot and I went to Waffle House. We were sitting there at Dauphin and I-65 and he said, ‘This morning I received a very vivid picture in my mind of a ‘Sandy Stimpson for mayor’ yard sign and he said, ‘I see you being the mayor. When are you going to run?’ That coincided with conversations that Jean and I were having. Some people say that is maybe a validation of things coming at you from a different direction,” Stimpson said.
But it wouldn’t be easy. Many doubted he could win the election over two-term incumbent Sam Jones, especially after the Airbus news and during a time when a majority of citizens felt the city was headed in the right direction.
During the Aug. 27 election victory party, Joe Bullard, Stimpson’s campaign chair, said when Stimpson first announced he was going to run for mayor, there were a few powerful people who didn’t believe he could win.
“Three prominent businessmen came to me and said, ‘He cannot win. You need to talk him out of it,’” he said. “Well, there’s two things that kept me from doing that. First, is that Sandy and I are not the type of people who like to be told we can’t do something. Second, they didn’t know Sandy absolutely felt that he was led to do this.”
Chad Tucker, campaign consultant, made reference to predictions by oddsmaker Danny Sheridan, who said repeatedly he was willing to bet anyone Jones would win. Luckily for the USA Today sports handicapper he didn’t take one public offer he received.
“Where is Danny Sheridan?”
Tucker quipped at Stimpson’s victory party. “When this idea began in a conference room in Scotch and Gulf Lumber, no one thought we had a chance. They didn’t know Sandy Stimpson and they didn’t know (the supporters).”
But even Stimpson says the feeling of eventuality came slowly. Only in the last month of the race did it really hit him that the race really was his to win.
“There were two things that happened. The Lagniappe poll coinciding with the endorsements of the police and fire, which may have actually came earlier,” he said. “Those two things really gave us momentum. One, it really woke up people that our first responders think we need a change and that sends a huge message. For the leadership of the departments to come out like they did sent an even bigger message.
“Then when the Lagniappe/USA poll came out, it was 47-47(percent), I looked at that as good because people who really didn’t know thought, ‘My gosh, Sandy maybe can win this thing,’ There were a lot of doubters still. And then there were those who really thought I could win though and when the poll came out they realized how close it was and realized they couldn’t take it for granted.”
Part of the reason, Stimpson said, people thought he couldn’t win was because they underestimated him.
“Some people underestimated how hard I would work,” he said. “They didn’t think I would go door-to-door and stand out on corners waving with campaign signs.
“I knew what I needed to do and I went to work.”
Stimpson, who is a native Mobilian, graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He returned to Mobile to work for his family’s business — Gulf Lumber Company, which later became Scotch Gulf Lumber.
In his day-to-to life at the company, Stimpson manages a multi-site company that employs 450 people. The mayor-elect’s position as the executive vice president for Scotch Gulf has afforded Stimpson the experience in dealing with fellow business owners and managers and hiring and managing employees, which he believes will come in handy as he seeks to assemble his leadership team.
On Aug. 28, Chief of Staff Al Stokes, Chief of Police Micheal T. Williams and City Finance Director Barbara Malkove announced their retirements, which will take effect when Stimpson comes into office in November. While none of these were terribly surprising, replacing at least Williams and Stokes will have to be an immediate order of business.
Stimpson said he has a person in mind to be his chief of staff who is “not here presently,” but said if the person accepted the offer, then Mobile would know they had a “real chief of staff.”
The mayor-elect placed a heavy emphasis on public safety in his campaign, but doesn’t have anyone in particular in mind for the chief’s job, he said. He plans a nationwide search and think it will best serve the department, but also doesn’t want that search to exclude potential candidates already working within the Mobile Police Department.
“I think it would be shortsighted to not go and see who is out there,” he said.
Stimpson said he isn’t a “clean house” type of person and will work with the existing employees to motivate and encourage them. He says all city employees are there to protect and serve the citizenry and expects them to adopt an attitude of service to their customers. He also hopes to help unshackle them from onerous rules and regulations that sap creativity and enjoyment out of the job.
And as making the city a lean financial machine has also been a Stimpson stump speech, he said Mobilians can expect a forensic accounting of the city’s finances after he takes over.
When asked if he would be in favor of taking a closer look at the city’s coffers, Stimpson said, “Absolutely. I just don’t know when exactly to pull the trigger, but there has to be (a forensic audit).”
Transparency is also an area where Stimpson says there will be changes, as he seeks to restore citizens’ faith in government. One area in which he said he will shine a light involves the many non-profit 501(c)3 corporations the city has set up for organizations like BayFest and the MoonPie Drop. Such designation allows those organizations to operate using public money without having to offer a full public disclosure of spending to media and citizens. Stimpson said even if the nonprofit status stays, he would make sure the financial information is open.
In addition to finding replacements for Stokes, Williams and Malkove, Stimpson said his top priorities upon taking office are, storm water management, auditing the legal structure, wastefulness in any facet of the city and ensuring the bid process is done legally and ethically.
One possible shakeup as a result of the Stimpson administration will be how the city handles its legal department.
From 2009 to 2013, the city paid a total of $3,267,011.46 to 10 law firms in outside legal fees. The reason for the extra expense is the city of Mobile is self-insured, which means it needs to have outside, independent legal counsel when a lawsuit is filed against the city.
Currently, City Attorney Larry Wettermark decides which firms receive the work from the city. Most often, Wettermark has selected his own firm, Galloway, Wettermark, Everest, Rutens and Galliard, LLP, to handle those cases, leading to an impressive stream of money heading into the firm.
From 2009 to present, the city paid Galloway, Wettermark, Everest, Rutens and Galliard, LLP a total of $2,087,115.73, which accounts for 64 percent of the total legal fees paid by the city of Mobile to outside counsel. Whether there is a more cost-effective way to handle such appointments is something he will examine.
“I will be assessing the legal structure of the city and determining what opportunity is best for Mobile,” Stimpson said.
The same goes for the storm water management, which the city of Mobile currently pays Mobile Group $500,000 annually to monitor. Stimpson has been in talks about what would be best for Mobile and is open to taking SWM in house.
In the same vein, he said littering must be stopped or at least controlled in the city.
“I see business parking lots with everything sloping down to one spillway and there is nothing there to capture the litter,” Stimpson said. “(At Scotch Gulf Lumber) we have a spillway like that, but there is a small fence that makes sure the trash doesn’t go through. Litter is a big deal.”
Storm water management is one of the larger single costs for outside work within the city’s budget, which is something else Stimpson now must manage.
By Sept. 30, a month before Stimpson gets into office, the City Council is required by law to pass a balanced budget. Jones has given his proposed 2013-2014 budget to the councilors, which includes a 2.5 percent raise for full-time employees.
Jones says he has offered Stimpson “access to anything.”
Stimpson’s point person for the budget is Paul Wesch, who serves on Mobile Citizens’ Budget and Finance Advisory Board. He said he hopes the current administration will work with him if he would like to change something on the budget before it is adopted.
Another large part of Stimpson’s first term will be dealing with Airbus as it makes its home in the Brookley Aeroplex. Airbus was discussed in every debate during the election and certainly played a part in some voters’ minds as to whom they would select for mayor. Stimpson thought the voters could be of two minds with Airbus during the election process, one good for him and the other not.
“There was a train of thought that you shouldn’t change horses midstream. There was another train of thought though that looking at some past mistakes and failures and because ‘Sandy has business experience running companies and so forth,’ that that was a strong suit and a greater opportunity than maybe just sticking with the same horse,” he said. “The way I look at it is when a president or CEO comes to see me, and having been in business all my life, they’re looking at somebody who knows what it means to make a payroll and knows what it means to do all the things involved in business whether it is the banking or the personnel.
“To me that gives them more comfort than dealing with a politician.”
Although Stimpson identifies himself as a businessman and not as a politician, he was able to rally and drum up supporters and finances like no other mayoral candidate in Mobile’s history.
His campaign raised around $1.6 million from 2,000 donations and had hundreds of people showing up to every rally, wave and event.
The fervor reached an apex on election night when Stimpson was joined by more than 1,000 supporters to celebrate the victory. Before the party officially got started, Stimpson, Jean, their children, family and close friends and staff were sitting nervously behind the stage at Fort Whiting.
“I think my brother told me they called me at 7:59 and Candace Cooksey (campaign spokesperson), who was actually up (at Scotch Gulf Lumber) tallying all the info coming in called and she said, ‘you did it,’” Of course I hollered. It still makes me emotional right now,” Stimpson said, tears welling. “ When I hollered, of course everybody went nuts. Then I told everyone to grab hands and let’s pray.”
After praying, Stimpson walked out onto the stage and was greeted by an exuberant throng of supporters.
He started by saying, “Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.” Then the crowd broke out into chants of “Sandy.”
After the chants broke away, Stimpson started up again.
“There truly is no way to express how much this means to me and how humbling this is,” he said. “Every single person in this room believed in ‘One Mobile’ and that’s what made this happen.”
The victory in part came about, Stimpson said, because of his vision for the city. The larger part is for the city to be “One Mobile” — his oft-repeated campaign mantra — a call for everyone to come together for the betterment of Mobile. The other part of his vision is that by 2020 Mobile will be the safest and most business- and family-friendly city in the nation — certainly no easy task. He admits that even three days after the election he feels the high expectations of the voters on his shoulders.
While Stimpson and Jones both touted slogans that eschewed division and acrimony, there was still plenty to be had during the campaign as Jones’ camp led racially charged attacks against the mayor-elect’s socioeconomic background and alleged Stimpson was trying to buy votes with “blues singers and fish plates.”
Some of the attacks even became very personal. During the first debate on June 4 at Leflore High School, Jones said Stimpson “spent too much time on the hill and need to come down into the valley” and even pointed and told him he’d never had to work for anything.
Stimpson said he was stunned and “stupefied” by the rhetoric that night, but he was determined to not be distracted by the attacks. He admits to having retorts go through his head during the debate, but said it was like a “muzzle” had been put on him, keeping him from getting into a personal, verbal brawl.
While the election is behind him, Stimpson said he is striving for One Mobile and hopes to heal some of the divisiveness that occurred in the election.
“I think the only way (divisiveness can be healed) is by people seeing results,” he said. “I think one way of doing that is being intentional in making sure everyone knows I’m their mayor. I’m not one group’s mayor. When we would do the waves on the street corners, I said I wouldn’t get out there unless it looked like “One Mobile.” I wanted anyone driving by to be able to look and see themselves.”
As Stimpson gets things in order before taking office Nov. 4, he wants one message to be clear to Mobilians.
“Through the results of the election, we really have an opportunity now to move from good to great. That will only be achieved if we all come together in creating “One Mobile,” working toward a common vision and common goals to make Mobile the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020,” he said. “It can be done.”
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