Early on, Democrats bandied about several names, with Ricky Whaley, a political activist for years, quickly seizing the fast track. Whaley has a combination of his involvement in other campaigns, his elected position on the State Teachers Retirement Board, strong support from the Alabama Education Association (including financial assistance), legions of parents and students who worked with him in the Jacksonville City Schools and, of course, the longstanding thought that he would one day run for office.
Whaley, sometimes in the past referred to as “little Ricky Whaley,” has now grown up. Candidates in their mid-40s can usually demonstrate desirable experiences and the fact that, if elected, they should have many years to serve and build a power base for their constituencies. Whaley can make all these claims.
The Republicans fielded more candidates, but the respected local funeral director, K.L. Brown, quickly staked his claim. He fought through his opposition to an impressive lead in the party’s primary, leading by such a substantial margin that the second-place finisher conceded the race.
A successful business person, Brown’s kind and thoughtful treatment of many bereaved families over the years, his participation in Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce affairs, and his various leadership roles in his church are the kinds of things that can be weaved together to develop a solid campaign background. A photogenic family helps, too, but each family is blessed in that regard.
It’s Whaley versus Brown, who reside only a few blocks apart in Jacksonville and who count as friends many of the same people. Carol Hagan, an independent candidate, has also doggedly remained in the field. Her greatest potential impact would likely be to take a few precious votes away from the leaders in what could be a close race.
The candidates pledged a positive campaign, but negatives emerged immediately, with much negativism heaped on the opponent — sometimes without a mention of the candidate whose campaigns put out the ad, save for the required statements as to sources.
Republicans quickly hit the streets with mailers about Whaley’s membership in an alleged ultra-liberal interest group — the Alabama Education Association — and his “tax and spend” tendencies. Before long, highly uncomplimentary material about Brown, depicting him as inexperienced in public sector activities, were also circulating.
Political party advisors often recommend negative campaigns on the grounds that they work; certainly, they have in many cases. But when you have two “local boys” from a small community who are practically neighbors, it does little but fracture friendships.
The strain is greatest in Jacksonville, where many voters are friends of both candidates and voters tend to hunker down and be unusually quiet lest they create hostilities that seem unnecessary. I confess to being uncomfortable because Brown and Whaley both supported me during my elections to the city council and as mayor in Jacksonville, sometimes taking a little heat for doing so. I understand the quandary many voters face.
The key outside Jacksonville is probably turnout, where candidates are less well-known and interest may not be as high. The election may well be decided there, possibly in Piedmont, where Fite was strong and turnout is usually pretty solid. Population growth in White Plains and Alexandria suggest a potentially strong impact, as well. Ohatchee could also be a spoiler in the race. And Jacksonville has not dominated previous elections with turnout or successful candidates. Gerald Willis of Piedmont maintained a near stranglehold for several years. I remember it well since losing a close race to him some 20 years ago and, as they say, close is only good in horseshoes.
Fate has presented District 40 voters with a very interesting situation this year, but also with bright promise. One of these fine candidates will emerge victorious on Tuesday, and voters should exult in the quality from which our selection will be made. Two good community leaders, tested and true, have squared off in an unexpectedly early election and offered their time, their will to work, appreciable portions of their money and their determination. With the backgrounds they possess, we can believe they mean what they say. How many other districts can claim better?
Jerry L. Smith is a former mayor of the city of Jacksonville.