Well, it’s a regular soap opera in Mobile’s City Council these days as our seven protagonists work behind the scenes to determine whether to toss Councilwoman Gina Gregory out of her spot as the group’s president and move her back into the elected official gen-pop.
Gregory was voted council president by her peers in 2013, following the retirement of Reggie Copeland. Copeland wielded the gavel with authority, grace and force of personality for 12 years, and Gregory has often suffered in comparison for her “less vocal” leadership style.
Still, talk of replacing her came like lightning out of the blue a couple of weeks ago. As the mayor and council are installed for their new terms, it’s time for the election of council officers — president and vice president. Given the unbelievably smooth sailing all seven councilors had retaining their seats, coupled with the mayor’s impressive victory and a general feeling the city is moving in the right direction, the thought that anyone would try to throw some different spices into the municipal gumbo at this juncture seemed unlikely.
But it sounds like somebody’s all about getting spicy.
Not only has the talk been about replacing Gregory, but WHO would replace her is raising more eyebrows than a trainload of Hollywood plastic surgeons. As I write this, the odds-on favorite to replace Gregory would be District 3 Councilman Fred Richardson. (Cue appropriate horror movie music.)
To the uninitiated observer, this change wouldn’t appear to be a tremendously big deal. Fred has served on the council for 20 years and as vice president for several terms. Richardson says this will be his last four years on the council, and he’s expressed some disappointment that he was passed over four years ago when Gregory leapfrogged into the president’s spot.
So what’s the issue with handing Fred the gavel if Gina loses the vote? I guess it’s just because sometimes Fred is just … Fred. While he’s the council’s longest-serving member, he’s its most well-traveled member as well — a guy who seldom misses a trip on the public dime. He’s also prone to getting very vocal when it comes to racial (or ethnic, as he would prefer) issues, both perceived and real, and many white voters across Mobile consider him a generator of unnecessary racial strife. I can’t say I don’t agree with that assessment at times.
But Richardson is also an affable guy, has a good sense of humor and obviously takes great pride in seeing the city progress. To the chagrin of many, he championed the New Year’s Eve MoonPie Drop that has become a roaring success for downtown businesses. And as council vice president he’s presided over plenty of meetings, so he has positives as well.
As with most things in Mobile politics, the issue of dumping Gregory as president opens a can of racial worms. The city is 52 percent black and certainly, from a sense of fairness, it would make sense that there is an African-American council president to work closely with the white mayor. Of course, that in and of itself makes race a qualifying measure, which is something we should all frown upon. The best man or woman should hold the gavel, right?
Few councilors have given much indication publicly of how they intend to vote when the selection is made Nov. 6, but there have been enough behind-the-scenes conversations and noncommittal statements to kind of line up where things are going. Right now it appears Richardson, C.J. Small and Levon Manzie are likely to vote for Fred as president. John Williams and Joel Daves are not. I would assume Gregory would vote for herself, which leaves Bess Rich holding the cards. Perhaps surprisingly, the folks in City Hall believe Rich will not only vote for Richardson, but will then take the vice president’s spot for herself.
Of course there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, as the Brits used to say instead of saying “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Just judging from the panicked calls I’ve received, the ascension of Richardson to the president’s seat is likely to bring some serious political backlash to the doorstep of any Caucasian councilor responsible for putting him there.
Richardson has already talked about suing the mayor’s office for information if he’s elected president and he’s certainly the favorite to “go rogue” once the gavel is within his grasp. His behavior in the position will reflect on those who put him there.
Fred Richardson being elected City Council president won’t go over well with a large group of Mobilians. And as president, he would be involved more intimately with the mayor’s office and be responsible for bringing information back and sharing it with his colleagues on the council. The question of whether the somewhat freewheeling Richardson would fit Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s style or cramp it is another matter.
The council would probably be best served by depoliticizing the issue and adopting a revolving presidency that changes each year, giving every district a chance to have a presidency over an eight-year period. But some councilors don’t want the job, so that’s unlikely.
Now that the discussion of replacing Gregory has bubbled to the surface, it presents a couple of difficulties. First, there’s likely to be some bad blood no matter which way this thing rolls. I can’t imagine Gregory not feeling slighted if she’s unseated. By the same token, if the pressures that come to bear on Rich are too great and she buckles and supports Gina again, Fred is going to be bitter about being thrown “to the wind” again, as he describes being passed over four years ago.
Second, the racial Rubicon has been crossed and there’s no way to uncross it. If, as believed, the councilors are mostly lined up along racial lines, then the discussion is sure to follow the question of why an African-American shouldn’t lead the group. At the same time, Richardson is a polarizing fellow and one or two white council members have already said voting for him would be political suicide.
So what happens next? Does Bess Rich’s telephone explode from angry voters calling? Does something completely unexpected happen, like Levon Manzie being elected president as a way to placate both sides? Does John Williams offer to teach the winner every single line of Robert’s Rules of Order? Will anyone remember the council president takes over as mayor if something happens to hizzoner?
Tune in two weeks from now for “As the Council Turns” and find out.
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