It seems like the hottest underground topic in town for the past month has been whether or not Mayor Sandy Stimpson will face a challenger when voters head to the polls next August.

I know, I know … it’s awfully early to be worrying about that, but for weeks now the mayor’s race has been a pretty constant topic of conversation. Most of that has been generated in the wake of the police shooting of 19-year-old Michael Moore last month and the subsequent birth of the League for Truth and Justice, a group consisting of black politicians and clergy.

Sitting around the coffeepot at the local gas station, many people thought the group was serving as little more than a launching pad for a run against Stimpson. The most common guess was that state Sen. Vivian Figures would throw her fashionable hat into the ring and attempt to become Mobile’s first female mayor. Personally I never thought that was very likely, but it was certainly the favorite scenario.

However, it’s the one politico whose name came up least who may have decided to make the first move — former mayor Sam Jones.

I got word on Monday that Jones stood up the previous day at the Greater Nazaree Baptist Church and declared he was going back after the seat he lost three years ago. We talked to a few people who were there who described it as an announcement. Only one soft-pedaled it a bit and said it wasn’t an official announcement, but added that one would likely be coming.

So maybe it’s not etched in stone yet, but it sure sounds like Silent Sam is trying for that oh-so-rare second act in politics.

I have to say I’m not terribly surprised. I’ve thought for some time Jones, if anyone, would be the most likely person to challenge Stimpson. When Jones started poking his head up following Moore’s shooting, a looming candidacy definitely seemed more likely.

It’s hard to give Jones a really strong chance of ousting Stimpson, given the current mayor’s general popularity and the city’s resurgence during his tenure thus far. But this is politics and a year is a long time. A year before Jones was defeated the number of people who thought he was politically vulnerable would have fit in an elevator.

The conventional wisdom in politics changes daily. It’s easy to remember when Thomas Sullivan, Clinton Johnson, Jones and Mike Dean were “unbeatable.” But they all lost. These days people say the same about Fred Richardson, despite a list of negatives even a moderately capable challenger could exploit.

Regardless of how well things are going right now, things can change on a dime.

Jones’ decision to run says a couple of things. The biggest of those is that no one else really wanted to make a run at Stimpson. I can’t imagine Sam was anyone’s first choice. He already lost once, and despite Stimpson’s commandment that his administration not criticize his predecessor, the differences between the two are so glaring they’re impossible to ignore.

From operation IMPACT to budgetary disasters to a truculent attitude about public records and information, Jones’ history is full of landmines. While Stimpson may have detractors who didn’t like the fiscal cuts that had to be made to dig the city out of the financial abyss, it’s not even arguable that his administration has been more open, active and fiscally responsible than Jones’.

One person knowledgeable about Jones’ return says that in the black community there is hope Sam learned a lesson when his constituency left him at the altar on Election Day. Jones is seen as having forgotten his own community while he wore the mayor’s big, shiny hat. He drove through some of the worst parts of town each day on his way to work, but life never improved in those areas. The housing projects overseen by the Mobile Housing Board were a dreadful mess run by one of his biggest political patrons.

And that’s a big reason Jones lost. The hope that a Sam Jones who is four years older will have changed his ways seems like a long shot to me, but you never know. Maybe New Sam will root out the cronyism his appointees have helped foster at the Housing Board. Maybe New Sam wouldn’t bring back policing methods that harassed people in their neighborhoods with stop-and-frisk orders. Maybe New Sam won’t lose his cool whenever someone in the media asks a question he doesn’t like. Maybe.

It still feels like a Hail Mary pass for Jones to make a truly competitive run. In his time out to pasture, many of the components of the machine that put him in place are gone or disappearing. The Housing Board, for example, is unlikely to be a center for voting irregularities.

The Press-Register’s last political hurrah was Jones’ losing run three years ago, when its editor ignored even the most obvious mayoral misdeeds in order to throw the paper’s rapidly diminishing weight behind “their” candidate. Even if the P-R is still publishing in a year’s time, it’s likely to have about as much political clout as the Thrifty Nickel.

Perhaps most important to a political campaign, Jones would be unlikely to find much in the way of financial donations for another run. Before his loss in 2003, most of Jones’ big-money supporters had flocked to Stimpson. If you’ll remember a good bit of the money Sam used came from political funds he’d transferred to city attorney Larry Wettermark’s PAC the year before.

The last mayor’s election was marred by a tremendous amount of racial divisiveness, most of which emanated from the incumbent desperately trying to portray everyone against his re-election as a bigot. Hopefully if indeed Jones is serious about running and demonstrating that he’s learned from past failures, he won’t “go there” again.

If he does run, I know we will certainly be happy to have him sit down with our editorial board and talk about his plans and why the citizens should go back to the future. I would love to see what New Sam is all about.