Ben Little, Anniston’s most polarizing politician, the man so often considered by his critics as tinder that ignites City Hall disharmony, may run for mayor next summer.
“I probably will,” he said, a wink in his eye, which is as close to confirmation as he’s willing to go.
But with Ben Little, there’s always more.
“I’m convinced I’d win if I run for mayor, I’m convinced of that 100 percent,” he said. “It won’t be easy, but I’m convinced.”
Is that bluster? Cockiness? Faith? I haven’t a clue, and here’s why:
You don’t interview the Ward 3 councilman for any length of time and leave with uncomplicated answers. He refers to himself in the third person, but you get used to it. He enjoys the attention. He meanders, topic to topic, like an untrained cook pinching random spices into the pot. Keeping up is a linguistic chore.
Thursday afternoon, I found him in his tiny office at Anniston’s bus station, the one he demanded because he refused to move into City Hall’s new location at Consolidated Publishing. We’d agreed to discuss the deannexation notion that’s roiling Ward 4 and his possible 2020 mayoral bid.
Two hours later, he was still meandering.
In no particular order, Little mentioned: President Trump, alleged corruption in Anniston, Jesus, former City Councilman John Spain, racism, the Bible, state Sen. Del Marsh, his church, Martin Luther King Jr., basketball, presidential impeachment (he’s not a fan), his concern for the poor, God, his love for his South Carolina hometown (he’s not moving back), quotations from specific Scriptures, the 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son” (with imitations of a few characters), Fox News and CNN, and a fable from his military days about a mule. (Trust me; you had to be there.)
Given his reputation for divisiveness on the council, I repeatedly asked how he might build a biracial campaign in a city where politics often are couched in racial hues. At one point, he wondered aloud: How could anyone be against improving public education in Anniston, better business development and fair government?
“Why is it that when I am trying to bring my people together, blacks and whites who have elected me to office, where is Ben Little being divisive? You’re mad because he’s tall? Black? A booming voice? You scared of that?”
He paused, briefly, and looked at me.
His face smiled.
His voice deepened, an imitation from above.
“You want to hear from God?”
He laughed. I did, too.
“You afraid of that?” he asked. “I am gentle Ben. That’s right, I am gentle Ben.”
Gentle or not, Little, 62, can’t run from his past. He is who he is. Above all, he touts a sincere desire to help the people in Ward 3, especially those on the fringes and in substandard housing, but his political baggage is unavoidable. The lawsuits. The verbal and email attacks on fellow councilors and city managers. His sermon-like rants that often target police, courts and City Hall itself. Earlier this month, a Jefferson County jury found Little guilty of two misdemeanor ethics charges. It wasn’t the first time authorities have questioned his electoral ethics.
That’s what makes the possibility of a Ben Little mayoral bid so tasty — not because I support it, heavens no, but because it’s so fascinating.
He’s convinced that a select group of Annistonians has “drank from the public trough,” though his argument has no serious traction. He’s highly critical of the recent city manager search process, even though it led to the hiring of Anniston’s first black chief executive, Steven Folks. Instead of reflexively praising city staff, he believes city government needs a better “attitude” to help the public and a sweeping reconstructing. And no one can convince him that there’s not a steep inequity of city assistance between Wards 1 and 4 and Wards 2 and 3, so don’t try.
That makes Little Anniston’s unofficial and unnamed corruption investigator, a description with which he vehemently disagrees. More than anything, that needles his critics and empowers those in his corner.
“If they’re angry with me because of my stance,” he starts, then meanders, “the only thing Ben Little is trying to do is he fights for the things they need, and if I don’t do that, why am I in office?
“I walk this ward, I walk through the city, and I see the need, I hear the need and I try to respond to the need.”
Little’s public persona is in a constant tug-of-war with his self-description as a public servant willing to raise up anyone in need. In a sense, it’s all true. He is divisive and combative, terribly so. He is sincerely concerned for those without. He is quick to allege, often without facts. He is committed to helping a ward that has repeatedly elected him.
That is his 2020 problem. Little and his nearly two decades of political experience in Anniston won’t win a mayoral bid on Ward 3 support alone. Black turnout in Anniston is often low; turnout among white and older voters is usually the opposite. My guess is regardless of who’s on the ballot — Mayor Jack Draper, Councilman David Reddick — a race featuring Anniston’s most polarizing politician will boost turnout, either for him or against him, if not both.
Again I asked him: Do you truly believe you can become mayor in Anniston?
“Do I really believe that? Sure,” he said. “What I base it on is, who else is out there? I don’t care who runs. Who out there in this city can be articulate and has the experience that I have? Not a soul in this city has it.”
Is that bluster? Cockiness? Faith? I haven’t a clue.