In the last six months, Anniston has evacuated City Hall, decried a strong-armed deannexation attempt that threatens its future, driven off a qualified city manager, moved into a temporary City Hall, hired its first black city manager, found aged PCBs contamination near a former public housing site, watched its school system hire another superintendent, had two councilmen face ethics complaints and fretted over the health of its police and fire department pension fund.
And still, people want to be mayor.
That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m serious. Why? All cities hiccup; all cities falter, even those whose mayors say otherwise. (Wink, wink.) But today’s Anniston is different. It chews up mayors, turning what should be an attractive political gig — piloting a county seat of 21,000 people that is the local hub of all things legal and medical — into a four-year marathon of frustration, much of it self-induced.
Chip Howell couldn’t focus on what residents often want — economic development and quality-of-life improvements, for instance — because Fort McClellan was shuttered, the Army left the post littered with unexploded munitions and fired up its chemical-weapons incinerator, and environmental pollution clogged the city’s reputation. He labored to prevent Anniston from literally blowing up.
Gene Robinson’s four years turned Gurnee Avenue into a clown show — a euphemism for something four-lettered and unprintable.
Vaughn Stewart oozed with native enthusiasm but didn’t seek re-election. Sapped, he was.
Jack Draper surprises me. He says he’s running in 2020, hoping to become Anniston’s first two-term mayor in more than a decade. He’s hinted recently to The Star about the rigors of the job and the time it steals from his family and law practice, but he also is concerned about the Forward 4 All nonprofit’s attempt to deannex nearly 9,000 residents from the city and have the public school system dissolved.
“With everything that’s going on with the attempt at deannexation, I would like to be there to make sure we finish what we started,” Draper said. “... I believe in Anniston.”
Unlike his predecessor, Draper isn’t a political romantic. He isn’t prone to promise the undeliverable. He’s a realist. But he loves the city and he firmly believes Anniston’s biggest victory of late — the looming construction of a new regional federal courthouse — will serve as a transformative event in the city’s history.
Earlier, I ticked off Anniston’s recent potholes, so in fairness, here’s another list: the Freedom Riders National Monument, the Dr. David Satcher Health and Civil Rights Institute, the cycling and horse trails at McClellan, the Anniston Housing Authority’s modern housing options for residents, and an embryonic residential development on Choccolocco Road.
That, I presume, is one reason why people want to be Anniston’s mayor. Some people, that is. They see opportunity with the dysfunction and promise with the disappointment, and they want to be part of the solution, whatever that happens to be. But there may be other reasons.
David Reddick, the Ward 2 councilman, says he will run for mayor next summer. Ben Little, the Ward 3 rep, may follow him. (I don’t think he will, for what it’s worth. Who knows where Little’s political mind will be next summer.) The council’s minority members have long voiced their criticisms of City Hall’s efforts in majority-black neighborhoods, and a mayoral campaign featuring them would surely become a referendum on those stances.
Remember, too, that Little has sought higher office before — and failed miserably. In 2002, he tried to unseat longtime state Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, who won 73 percent of the vote. Little tried again in 2006 and fared no better. Reddick’s run for the Calhoun County Commission last year didn’t survive the Democratic Party primary, where he finished a distant second in District 1 to Fred Wilson.
Anniston’s volatile ward politics are safe zones for Little and Reddick, the secret to their successes. Even with Anniston’s ever-changing racial demographics, mayoral bids for Reddick and Little may prove hopelessly risky. Their history offers proof.
I’ve mentioned all this to Little. He’s undeterred, predictably so. “The general feeling with (black residents) and with whites, too, is that even with the city the way it is right now, Anniston can elect a black mayor and a majority-black council,” he said. “But I think what (critics are) afraid of is Anniston becoming majority black on the council and now the entire city is going to grow. They’re afraid of that. A lot of times stupidity doesn’t come in colors, it comes in individuals.”
Next summer is months away. But this is what we can expect, an Anniston election like no other.