Del Marsh is president of the Alabama Senate. He is an Anniston guy, proudly. “Obviously, I care about Anniston,” he told me Friday. “I raised my family there.” And, yes, he could kill the Forward 4 All deannexation plan that last week heated public opinions to a boil. He could kill it with minimal effort. He wields the hammer.
He’s just not using it.
Which sounds awful if you’re one of those who think Anniston will bleed should Ward 4 and a few other neighborhoods participate in a legislative deannexation scheme that would turn nearly 10,000 Annistonians into new Oxford residents.
I’m one of those, by the way.
But I called Marsh on Friday because he needs to explain why he isn’t killing this godawful draft bill before it creeps closer to the State House. Regardless of your stance on this issue, its survival is teed-up for Marsh because he’s from Anniston — he and his wife bought and renovated The Victoria, now the Hotel Finial — and he sits atop the Legislature. He knows the city’s twisted political lines. He didn’t start this mess, but he certainly could end it.
Here’s what he told me:
“The way I see this is as an opportunity to open a conversation about problems that exist in Anniston and finally how do we resolve these problems.”
Here’s what he wouldn’t say:
He wouldn’t say if he would support a well-written deannexation bill.
He wouldn’t say if he would kill the deannexation bill in the coming months.
He wouldn’t say if he’s inherently pro-annexation or anti-annexation. In fact, he made good cases for each side. He is a politician, after all.
But Marsh didn’t shy away from discussing one of Anniston’s malignancies — a political atmosphere wilted from personal agendas and unfounded racial overtones. That’s why so much of Anniston’s politics are seen through color-coded eyes. The name-calling and accusations are prevalent on Gurnee Avenue.
“I believe that the African American population (in Anniston) has lacked good leadership,” Marsh said. “And I think that lack of good leadership has basically brought us to this point with people who are frustrated with the way the city operates.”
That word — frustration — envelopes everything. Ward 4 homeowners are frustrated that their Anniston addresses stunt their property values and resale options. They’re frustrated that Anniston’s public schools don’t perform better. They’re frustrated that Anniston’s rate of violent crime hurts the city’s image. They’re frustrated that several generations of City Hall have struggled to reach even the low-hanging fruit because of racial divisions. They’re frustrated that the city’s two black councilmen, Ben Little and David Reddick, are hell-bent on winning political votes at the expense of the city’s progress.
Likewise, Little and Reddick are frustrated by a majority-black city that they believe is controlled by white council members who see Wards 2 and 3 as afterthoughts. Here’s what Glen Ray, president of the Calhoun County chapter of the NAACP and a Forward 4 All board member, wrote in a letter to the editor: “For people of color, the City has been shut down for years. We have never been able to build up the west side of town or the south side of town where it’s predominantly black. Whatever it is that we have been doing all these years is not working for anybody. There are problems in the schools and problems at City Hall.”
Marsh, meanwhile, is frustrated from afar, watching Anniston’s ailments go unrepaired and hearing last week from retired policemen and firemen worried that deannexation would wither their city-funded pensions. That concern, by the way, is astonishingly real.
Anniston is a city of frustrations, both real and imagined.
Don’t feel for Marsh, though; this hometown struggle may increase the heat, but with great power comes greater responsibility. And legislative leadership isn’t basing support for a bill on the temperature of a ward at public meetings. Marsh’s best course is to kill the bill and convene a 2019 version of COUL — the Committee of Unified Leadership, which saved Anniston in the early 1970s — that could discuss this mountain of frustrations and seek resolutions that are neither condescending nor ineffective.
Killing the bill removes the emotion that erupted last week and allows for the rational discussions Marsh wants the city to have. Killing the bill protects Anniston from the public stigma of having many of its middle-class, white residents leave a city that is already majority black — a stigma that would drip with racial undercurrents. Killing the bill and instigating COUL-like repairs are not only the best course, but also the only course.
Marsh won’t go that far, and that’s disappointing. But he admits that Anniston “can’t continue to go down the path we’re going,” and that “anything that brings out conversation is good in my book. It allows people to talk openly about the problems and hopefully find the solutions.”
Running away from those problems and leaving the cleanup to those whom Forward 4 All’s escape plan didn’t include reeks of selfishness and a callous attitude toward a city that’s still worthy of protection.
On that, Marsh was eloquent.
“I don’t want to see Anniston blown up,” he said.