Eli Henderson says that in a state where county commissions have little power, it’s important that commissioners have connections.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” said Henderson, a former county commissioner and circuit clerk.
Scott Martin says commissioners need to focus less on connections in Montgomery and Washington and more on connecting with constituents.
“You have to go out and find out what the voters want,” Martin said.
It’s likely that either Henderson or Martin will be the next Calhoun County commissioner for District 3, which covers much of the western portion of the county. Both men are on the Republican ballot, with no Democrat in the race and no sign of an independent on the horizon. Voters make their choice in the Republican primary Tuesday. There’s no incumbent in the race.
Both men hold prominent places in the community in this rural district. Henderson, a retired Anniston Army Depot employee, held the District 3 seat for years before leaving to run for circuit clerk. His name recognition is so high, campaign signs around the district include only his first name, without “Henderson” or the position he’s running for.
Martin is head football coach at Ohatchee High School, where the Indians went 8-3 in 2017 and 12-2 in 2016. He includes the title “coach” on his billboards to remind people he’s that Scott Martin. However, state officials wouldn’t allow the title on the ballot, he said.
Henderson doesn’t think his opponent’s status as coach is a plus, anyway.
“He’s a full-time coach and a full-time athletic director,” Henderson said. “County commission is a huge job, and it needs someone who has the time to do it. I’m retired. What I do most of the time is fish.”
Martin says the county commission was never intended to be a full-time job. Plenty of other commissioners have had full-time work.
“When you’re organized in your life and organized in your job, you can
In all four of this year’s commission races, commissioners have so far stayed away from negative campaigning – but the District 4 contest may have the sharpest elbows. Henderson has long been known for folksy, blunt storytelling that distills the contradictions of politics into shorthand. In recent debates, he jokingly derided a question as “dumb” and said commissioners could simply ignore the issue of home rule because they’re not likely to get it. Martin thinks that style no longer works.
“Eli jokes about a lot of things, but tell me how he answered any of those questions,” he said.
For Henderson, an old-school political style is just what it takes to get things done.
“You need somebody who’s a little goofy like me, a little crazy, that don’t care,” he said.
Henderson, like many past commissioners, depicts the job as a kind of living Catch-22. Commissioners are responsible for paving roads and paying for many county services, but Alabama’s constitution grants counties little power to raise taxes or pass regulations.
“We make no laws, we tax no property, we have no authority,” he said. “Isn’t that crazy?”
Henderson said the way to make things happen as commissioner is to know how to work with the people who do hold the power. He cites an instance when he called out then-U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions in a TV interview for not helping the county get federal aid money. The interview generated a quick call from Sessions, Henderson said.
“In order to make things happen, you’ve got to make them happen,” he said.
Martin hears a different theme.
“I’ve been told that we can’t do anything,” he said. “We can’t make laws, we don’t raise money. But we do something important, and that’s stay in touch with the people.”
County government, Martin said, is the “first line of contact between people and the government.” Staying in contact with constituents, he said, should be a top goal.
“If the only people we’re talking to are the people who can do things for us, we’re missing the bus,” he said.