Wheels up must have been a relieving experience for Mobile City Council President Levon Manzie Tuesday, feeling the g-forces pushing him back in his airplane seat, leaving behind thousands of disappointed and angry constituents.
Levon made the toughest vote of his political career yesterday — serving as the swing vote needed to kill a referendum for annexation — then promptly scurried out of Government Plaza with fellow councilor Fred Richardson to catch a flight to a conference in San Antonio. I doubt a bag of airline pretzels ever tasted so good to the young councilman.
Manzie, Richardson and C.J. Small worked hard to make the agreed-to logic work — that Mobile has too many problems to consider inviting more residents in at this time. There were lots of analogies about not adding on to houses with broken bathrooms and such, as well as efforts to not make the vote look as if it was based on race in any way.
Manzie bore the brunt of this effort the past two weeks, a time full of public hand-wringing about what he might do, and countless conversations with people telling him what he should do. Before he cast the deciding “no” vote, Manzie explained just what a difficult two weeks it has been and how persistently he had heard from people on both sides of the issue. In the end, he said, it just boiled down to the fact that the majority of his constituents in District 2 didn’t want annexation.
And for that, Levon praised democracy and how it worked in this situation, seemingly oblivious to the fact he, Richardson and Small had just disenfranchised 13,000 people seeking the ability to vote on the matter. Perhaps the irony was lost on most.
Besides blocking people from voting, these councilmen also decided to essentially throw away tens of millions of dollars in new city revenue in the short term, and possibly set in motion annexations or incorporations outside Mobile’s western borders that could permanently stunt our city’s growth. Not bad for a day’s work.
And while all three men share the blame for allowing politics to outweigh the public good, Manzie winds up as the poster boy for this public policy blunder because he hung himself out to dry by not quickly stating a position when annexation became an issue. If he would have said right away he wasn’t voting to allow the referendum, he’d have still been doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, but at least the blame could go around to all three.
Levon apparently spent the last two weeks taking more temperatures than a pediatrician in flu season. It’s hard to tell if that was due diligence or just political theater, but I think both, to a degree. It’s in Manzie’s political DNA to move methodically, so that’s not unexpected. But he’s also keenly aware of the racial landmine this vote represented — because it stands to create a situation where many more whites enter the city than blacks. This is unpalatable to the Old Guard of Mobile’s black political leadership, who appear to view annexation as simply a short way of saying “making the city whiter.”
I had sincerely hoped younger leaders like Manzie and Small wouldn’t kowtow to the vestiges of the power structure that has controlled local black politics for decades, but obviously the empire still has some pull. It was impossible not to notice former Mayor Sam Jones lurking around like Darth Vader, spearheading efforts to kill the referendum and putting “The Force” on Manzie to vote “no.”
For his part, Jones was both different and the same. Different in that he’s taken a 180 on annexation, which he supported wholeheartedly when his name was on the door at City Hall. The same in that an op-ed piece he ran on al.com Monday was so full of twisted logic, tortured truth, intentionally omitted facts and unverified claims that it would take days to sort through. If al.com wasn’t going to, at minimum, ask Jones to source some of his claims — hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent by shadow groups on mailers to push annexation!! — an opposing opinion might have been nice on the eve of such an important vote. But I digress.
The potential of annexation did manage to turn some of our biggest local spenders into fiscal hawks. Jones couldn’t find enough money to spend when he was in office and left the city financially destitute, but now eschews annexation because it only offers the POTENTIAL for millions in federal grant money. I guess having no potential for millions in grants is better? And all of a sudden Manzie, Richardson and Small are worked up about the money the city is spending in the police jurisdiction, when they were the ones who just three years ago killed a plan to reduce it by half.
Now they’re all the kinds of fiscal conservatives William F. Buckley would applaud.
I’m not sure where we go from here. This vote has hopes of eventually being mentioned in the same breath as the destruction of much of historic downtown for “urban renewal” when people talk about idiotic moves that hurt the city.
Clearly in the western sectors there is a vacuum. People need to find answers for the loss of fire and EMT protection. They want that answer to be joining Mobile, but if we’re now going to treat the city as a private club, those people will eventually join Semmes or form their own club.
While I do realize there are some elements of the proposed annexation that were probabilities rather than certainties, the sales and ad valorem taxes alone it would have brought meant $2.2 million more a year. And that’s just right now.
Councilman Manzie, in particular, really failed on this vote. It’s particularly troubling because overall he has been a good councilor and leader and someone I hoped would help move us past ethnic, economic or district tribalism. It’s impossible to know hearts and minds, but I find it very difficult to believe protecting the current city racial breakdown didn’t play a major role in this vote.
One day we have to get past that.
Were there white people unhappy about Jones’ annexations that made Mobile a majority black city? Yes, there were, and they cried and whined about never having a white mayor again. Where they right? Obviously not.
The same kind of fear was at the heart of this vote as well. “We’ll never have another black mayor if we let all these white people in.” I don’t buy that one either.
There were thousands of people — white and black — asking to join a majority black city. Black councilors, who usually are so concerned with voters’ rights, withheld the right to vote from 13,000 people. People who have a newfound love of fiscal conservatism turned down millions a year in revenue. Leaders who say they believe in growth stopped it from happening. Everything was topsy-turvy.
It will be so nice one day when these decisions are made upon what’s best for Mobile as a whole, and not what’s best for one particular tribe. I still think that will happen, but after this vote I’m far less sure it can be done with the people currently holding office.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).