Ciara Smith is Anniston’s vice-mayor, which illuminates this cogent point: Not since David Dethrage’s election as mayor nearly three decades ago has someone so young ranked so high in a City Hall so historically dominated by age.
Smith, the Ward 3 councilwoman, is 21. Dethrage was 33 when he became mayor. After his first council meeting, The Star wrote this: “The greenhorn sat between the graybeards.”
Here’s the quixotic trivia question I can’t answer: Has there been a vice-mayor in Anniston’s past who was younger than Smith?
While sincere, this political fixation on Smith’s age obscures the deeper meaning of her newfound role: that Councilwoman Millie Harris believed nominating Smith for that position was more of an investment in Anniston’s future than a risk to its present.
“I know she is very, very young,” Harris said, “but I feel that she is extremely mature for her age … I believe serving in a leadership role — even in the small capacity that it is — will help her as she goes along on her path, and I want to do all I can do to help her.”
I know what you’re thinking.
This can’t be Anniston’s council.
Investing in future leaders? Nurturing young adults? Mentoring inexperienced politicians? Refusing to bicker like petulant middle-schoolers over who gets the mostly ceremonial vice-mayor job?
This godawful year isn’t universally putrid, I suppose.
“We need to encourage our young people,” Harris said. “We want to retain them, we want to help them, we want to show them that there is a future here, and I believe she can be a mentor to other young people to give them encouragement.”
There’s so much to unpack there, the least of which is that Smith is a 21-year-old Black woman who is now vice-mayor of a majority-Black city that has never elected a Black mayor and only once has employed a woman in its highest elected office.
Smith’s reaction is one of heartfelt appreciation and, truth be told, one big shrug. If she’s worried, she’s adept at masking it. “I don’t necessarily see it as that big of a deal,” she said, and she’s right as long as Mayor Jack Draper’s attendance is perfect. Only mayoral absence would kick in Smith’s backup quarterback duties. “It’s more of a title than anything.”
Nevertheless, in Ward 3’s new councilor Harris sees opportunity — not because of Smith’s age, and not because of her race, and not because she was valedictorian at Anniston High School, but largely because of her gender. It’s a professional appreciation that makes almost too-perfect sense.
Harris is a retired teacher, by profession an advocate for the young. Only four women have ever served on Anniston’s council; Harris, a council veteran, has vice-mayor on her resume. She’s also wary of Anniston’s brain drain, this tendency of young adults to chase their dreams in brighter, shinier, grandiose places whose opportunities Anniston — and Calhoun County, for that matter — can’t easily overcome.
Put another way, Harris’ championing of Smith’s potential carries weight far above that of the council’s other incumbents, Draper and Councilman Jay Jenkins. The reasons are obvious.
“I think decisions are better if you have a woman at the table,” Harris said, “so I want to do all I can to help other women … I want more women to step out and be counted and take the lead. (Smith) is showing right now that she will, and I want to do all I can to encourage that.”
Longtime subscribers to Anniston politics surely feel as I do about this. It’s weird, almost unsettling in its early term peace. Where’s the brimstone? Where’s the tension? Isn’t that normal?
It was, for years. But Smith dispatched longtime Ward 3 lord Ben Little. David Reddick didn’t seek council re-election and lost his mayoral bid. That City Hall cheerfulness has returned since the October runoff is no small wonder, a welcomed electoral byproduct. And politics, not politeness, will determine if these good tidings dissipate too soon.
Harris’ protege will have a say in that, obviously. Smith’s ward is among the city’s poorest, most underdeveloped and most in need of assistance. Her voice can’t, and shouldn’t, go unheard.
And the ceremonial vice-mayor role? For now, it’s as Smith said, not that big of a deal.
“My focus is going to be as councilwoman of the third ward,” she said. “But if there were to be a case where I would have to step up to the plate, then I’ll step up to the plate.”