“The people need to hold these councilmen accountable,” Browning said as he emerged from the polling place at Anniston Country Club. Browning, a 78-year-old retired air conditioning company owner, said he voted for Ann Welch for mayor. He said he liked all the candidates personally, but it was time for a change.
“It’s become embarrassing,” he said of the conflicts on the council.
Multiply Browning by several hundred and you get a good picture of what happened in Anniston on Tuesday. Voters in Anniston’s municipal elections handed a pink slip to every remaining candidate elected in 2008.
Mayor Gene Robinson collected 145 votes — less than 3 percent of the electorate — while Vaughn Stewart, an Anniston lawyer and former municipal court judge, walked to a stunning, no-runoff win with 55 percent of the vote. Ward 3 Councilman Ben Little, arguably the most talked-about politician in the Model City, lost his seat to 28-year-old newcomer Seyram Selase. Even Ward 2 Councilman Herbert Palmore, seen by many as an inoffensive bystander in the old council’s epic personality conflicts, came in third in a three-man race.
At first glance, it would seem to be a classic case of fed-up voters.
The sitting council was controversial literally from Day One.
Mayor Gene Robinson told a reporter the day after the 2008 election that he owed his victory to “black corruption” — and the acrimony seemed only to grow as the council slogged through lawsuits and counter-suits and an internal inquiry that seemed to lead nowhere.
A backstage tussle led to then-Councilman John Spain resigning in a deal to drop an assault charge; Ward 3’s Little was later arrested on allegations of code violations, but charges were dropped after the property owned by his church was brought up to code; and former Councilman David Dawson was arrested shortly after his resignation from the council on a charge that he stole from a former employer. Dawson’s arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 6.
The council’s dysfunction didn’t go unnoticed by voters. A 2011 poll, funded by the organization GETT Moving East Alabama, found that two-thirds of voters believed the city was “dying” and only 5 percent said Anniston was moving in the right direction.
At the polling places Tuesday, voters echoed that sentiment. Several of the voters who talked to The Star Tuesday said they didn’t want to give their names because they knew the candidates personally. Many of those voters said they were embarrassed by the council elected in 2008.
Others said it was simply time for new leadership.
“This is very, very important,” said Mae Sendaba, a Ward 3 voter. “We really want to see change in Anniston.”
More than anger
But it took more than raw voter anger to make a change on the council, some local activists believe.
“I wonder if I should be patting myself on the back,” said Cynthia Hines, one of the organizers of the group Women Empowered. Hines sometimes refers to the organization as “the WE group.”
Hines and a group of other local women started showing up at council and ward meetings almost two years ago, taking councilmen to task on the tone of City Council meetings and what Hines said was their lack of a long-term plan for Anniston. Hines said the group has no clear formal leadership and has never charged dues or handled any money.
“It’s just a mailing list, really,” Hines said. “Right now, there are about 96 people on it.”
Among the names on that list, Hines said, were Ann Welch and Millie Harris. Welch was one of the first people to enter the mayor’s race, and was the second-place finisher. Harris will face Ward 4’s Marcus Dunn in a runoff Oct. 9.
Hines’ group teamed up with the Chamber of Commerce, REAL Men of Anniston, and another new group — GETT Moving — to organize a series of public forums on the 2012 elections.
“I think we created a movement,” said Julia Segars, spokeswoman for GETT Moving. “We changed the conversation.”
Like Women Empowered, GETT Moving was formed by a group of local residents to find out more about what other residents want from Anniston and to encourage more people to step up and run for public office. The group paid for a poll of local residents — rare in a city Anniston’s size — and put up a website with reminders and instructions on how to qualify to run.
Their call for involvement seemed to take hold. When the qualifying period ended, 11 people had signed up for the mayor’s race. Among GETT Moving’s organizers was Dunn, an Anniston minister who later sought and received an appointment to replace David Dawson on the Ward 4 seat on the council.
“I’m pleased that so many people answered the call to run,” Segars said. She said the jointly run forums gave the city a level of public involvement that it hasn’t seen in some time.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talking about the fact that the polling and the forums have never been done here,” she said.
Others in the city told The Star they didn’t recall forums in earlier election cycles. Newspaper accounts from 2008 show at least two forums that year, attended by around 100 people.
This year, forum organizers held events in every ward and drew crowds of between 100 and 500 people.
‘Beginning of a movement’
Tuesday’s biggest winner seems to have taken a cue from the get-involved spirit of GETT Moving, Women Empowered and the Chamber of Commerce.
“When I would speak to my volunteers, I would say, ‘This is not about getting me elected, this is the beginning of a movement,’” said Stewart.
Stewart stunned even his supporters by winning the mayoral race outright with 55 percent of the vote. With 11 candidates, and many reform advocates backing Welch, a runoff seemed likely.
Stewart said he set aside a part of every day to work on the campaign, going door to door to ask voters what they wanted from city government.
“Their message was, we do not want division,” Stewart said. “We want everybody on the same page. They said they wanted a change and thought Anniston had not shown its best face.”
Stewart said he drew on that message, trying to build a campaign that was inclusive rather than trying to shoot down the other challengers or Mayor Gene Robinson.
“I think it’s just human nature that we all want to feel a part of something,” he said. Even before the elections there were signs that the approach was working. Stewart’s supporters wrote letters regularly to The Star’s “Speak Out” page, outnumbering the endorsements for other candidates.
Alabama peace signs
Robinson, on the other hand, stuck to the tactics that won him the mayor’s office in 2008. The mayor said he went door to door but didn’t do any knocking. Instead, he left campaign literature.
“My thinking is, you don’t want to bother people when they’re at home,” he said.
Robinson also tried what has become his signature method of reaching out to voters: standing beside well-trafficked roads with campaign signs, waving at drivers.
“I got a few Alabama peace signs,” he said, referring to a rude one-finger gesture. “But most people honked and waved and shouted out.”
Robinson said he was shocked that he got only 145 votes. He said more than 145 people told him they’d vote for him. He said his loss was due to low turnout.
“For whatever reason, people were fed up, they were apathetic,” he said. “They just didn’t come out to vote.”
According to the Calhoun County Board of Registrars, 35.5 percent of Anniston voters showed up on Tuesday. But according to The Star’s records, the 2012 total — 4,959 voters— is about 1,000 more than showed up in 2008.
Like Stewart, political newcomer Seyram Selase said he focused on meeting individual voters. Selase said he also tried to maintain a good social media presence. Both approaches, he said, brought him a clear message from voters.
“People were just tired of the bickering, tired of the infighting,” he said.
Selase got more than 60 percent of the vote in the race against Little, a central figure in the council’s debates over Police Department policies and the development of McClellan. Little has spoken often of his ability to get city work orders filled in Ward 3, and after 12 years representing the ward, he seemed secure in his seat.
The ward changed this year. Post-census redistricting led to new ward lines that brought some of Ward 1’s and Ward 4’s voters into Little’s territory.
Selase said he didn’t think the ward shift played a big role in his victory — though he said he campaigned in all of the ward’s neighborhoods, new and old.
Little wouldn’t comment on the events leading up to the Tuesday vote.
“I’m not saying anything to The Star,” he said, following up with “Stay tuned.”
Little didn’t play ball with forum organizers, either. He sat out the Ward 3 forum, leaving Selase as the only council candidate on the stage.
Getting a plan
Cynthia Hines of Women Empowered voted for Ann Welch on Tuesday. But she may get at least some of what she wanted from Stewart.
“This city doesn’t have a strategic plan,” she said. “We don’t know where we’re going.”
The call for a five- or 10-year plan has been a central theme for Women Empowered since the organization began speaking out in council meetings. Welch listed it as a key issue on her campaign website.
In a Thursday telephone interview, the mayor-elect said coming up with a strategic plan would be one of his first goals as mayor. Stewart said he has been talking to the other mayoral candidates and to voters about what they’d like to see in the plan.
But the planning process won’t work, he said, if people don’t keep coming to meetings and keep speaking up. People should stay involved, he said, and they shouldn’t hesitate to take the new council to task.
“All this happened because people were ready to roll up their sleeves and rescue their town,” Stewart said. “You need to attend council meetings, and hold your leaders accountable.”
After a moment’s pause, Stewart added another thought.
“No, don’t just attend,” he said. “That’s too passive. People need to be actively involved.”
Star staff writer Laura Camper contributed reporting.
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.