Racial Politics Primes Mobile for Municipal Suicide: Split Council Paralyzes Government

Originally posted May 15th in the New American Journal. Mobile has lapsed into a coma. Whether it stays stupefied or recovers will indicate whether it wishes to continue existence as constant reruns of historic hallucinations or to create a liveable future.

The seizure struck during the May 13 city council meeting. An early tremor came in the form of a resolution of mourning by councilman Fred Richardson couched in phrases echoing history, the civil rights movement and the Bible, speaking of justice, principles and disenfranchisement, and delivered with oratorical stylings — although it concerned an appointment to the local water board.

Photo: Mobile City Council. By Glynn Wilson.

More precisely, an attempted appointment that had failed. By law each of the seven council members gets to fill a seat on the water board. By tradition the council routinely ratifies whoever each member selects for the board.

But the previous week the council squished that tradition like a roach underfoot. Richardson nominated Sam Jones, the city’s only black mayor, who had lost a prickly re-election campaign last year to new mayor Sandy Stimpson. The council rudely repulsed Jones, with the three blacks voting for him and the four whites against.

Their stated reasons for opposing him were few and skimpy: Complaints that his administration had not been as transparent and cooperative as some council members preferred, but what executive body ever is? Doubts about budget maneuvers that may jeopardize the city’s credit rating, but what city did not indulge in some number juggling during and after the ’08-’09 economic swoon?

Against these demerits Jones’ defenders cited Mobile’s financial survival of that Great Recession, while also landing some star development catches, notably the Airbus jet assembly plant. They might have burnished Jones’ legacy by noting that through decades service in varied offices he had never been indicted, which several of his colleagues during that time could not claim.

But none of these defenses should have even been necessary. Previously a pulse was the only real requirement for appointment to one of the numerous slots on boards and agencies. Inquiry into qualifications has been casual, even careless or non-existent. When the black ex-mayor is nominated to the water board, however, the white majority on the council suddenly become sticklers.

Many One Mobiles

This is no surprise, except to those who take election slogans seriously. Stimpson campaigned to become the mayor of One Mobile. By personal history and institutional affiliations he was the candidate of inherited wealth, chamber of commerce economics, conservative Republican ideology, and fervent Christianity. But his One Mobile slogan seemed to promise a place for all under the guidance of his business friendly family values, as he repeatedly said.

At a campaign debate packed with hundreds in a vaulted church sanctuary now part of a high school campus Stimpson clarified which ones would be favored and which ones would not in One Mobile. He said that under his leadership the city would not suffer as it had under Jones from the sorts of administrative and financial failings seen in Detroit, Birmingham and Prichard (an inner-city-ish municipality adjoining Mobile). These three widely separated places have one thing in common: black majority populations and officials. When candidate Stimpson cited them as examples of what Mobile must not become, his supporters at the debate erupted into cheers and applause.

For other examples to avoid Stimpson could have cited Jefferson county, Alabama, which surrounds and includes Birmingham. A couple years earlier this county had endured the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history and many officials, along with their scheming private partners, had been convicted or pled guilty to connected financial crimes. Most of these crooks were white and Stimpson didn’t mention them.

A few months earlier the mayor of Bayou La Batre, a coastal fishing town near Mobile, had lost his office upon conviction for corruption involving Hurricane Katrina recovery money. That mayor was white and Stimpson didn’t mention him.

Both of these cases would have been familiar to the audience. So Stimpson could have used them to illustrate what he would not do as mayor. Instead he specified Detroit, Birmingham and Prichard.

This was barely even a coded racial appeal. It all but explicitly said: Vote for me because my opponent is black. And Stimpson’s supporters responded accordingly.

Political Physics: Action-Reaction

Last week the true skewed One Mobile sprang fully into view with the city council’s white majority smackdown of ex-mayor Jones’ nomination to the water board. This week brought the reaction.

Although legal, enforced segregation is history, its living vestiges abound. Like the Mardi Gras societies and much else, the city’s two ministerial associations are divided. Neither identifies itself by race, but one is for white preachers and the other for black and everybody knows this. In numbers similar to the Lord’s disciples and in funereal attire reflecting councilman Richardson’s resolution of mourning, a delegation from the black ministerial group approached the podium.

Their speaker, an imposing woman in long black robe and clerical collar, addressed the council with carefully modulated words about the injury done to One Mobile by the refusal to seat the former mayor on the water board. She said the ministers had deliberately come as few, but they represented many who could come if this injustice is not rectified.

It wasn’t quite a declaration of war. It surely was a warning shot across the bow.

The black political bloc followed the religious bloc. Mobile’s current government structure replaces one designed to exclude blacks from office and influence, as courts found from abundant historical evidence. The imposed remedy gave the blacks on the city council a veto over the whites. Seven council districts roughly follow racial residential lines, yielding four districts with white majorities and three with black.

The expectation—fulfilled by three decades of experience—was that the elected council members would match the demographics of these districts. And the reconstituted system requires five votes for the council to pass most measures. This means the four white members cannot rule alone. They must recruit at least one black colleague to support their proposals. But if the blacks are unified in opposition, the council is stymied. Veto.

Veto Karma

This provision was intended to enforce cooperation and it has generally done that. Despite the city population shifting to a slight majority black, the council still has a 4-3 white majority. But council decisions divided by race are uncommon, and the veto has been rare.
Until this week’s meeting. The black bloc showed that denial of a water board seat to the former mayor would produce reciprocal denials. A local boy who starred as quarterback at the University of Alabama, then in the NFL, had come home and was being honored with a seat on the board of the history museum. His confirmation required a vote by the council. Previously this would have been a unanimous ceremony. No longer. The four whites voted for him. They needed one more vote. By simply abstaining the black bloc sacked the quarterback.
Another board nomination. Abstain. Motion fails. Approval for a suburban street project. Abstain. Motion fails.

Mayor Stimpson and his staff rose from their customary seats in the front rows and stalked from the council chamber. Outside he accused the abstainers of indulging in petty politics. Inside councilman Richardson vigorously reaffirmed his dedication to seating the ex-mayor on the water board.

While neither side remains willing to back down the city government remains comatose. The items vetoed this week are symbolic. The ones that might follow if the stalemate continues could do deep and lasting damage.

Imagine the split city council being unable to pass items related to streets and drainage around the Airbus plant under construction—and then Airbus announcing the suspension of work at the site because it cannot rely on Mobile providing normal services essential to build airplanes there. At that instant not only Airbus would be gone but also many years cultivating an image of the city as a place where such enterprises are welcomed and rewarded.

Greed To The Rescue

Instead of that outcome the people might hope to be saved by greed. The prospect of money missed community-wide—not just jobs but supply contracts, design services, financing fees, legal billings, etc—from lost mega projects could be sobering enough to switch a vote or two on the council. More covertly, individual council members might hear their family business will prosper, or their district will get a new shopping center, or whatever if a vote switches.

The slide of one black bloc member to the white side would give them a working majority. So would two whites defecting to the black side. Either greed-lubricated way would break the standoff. So would the ex-mayor announcing he’s not interested in a seat on the water board—and simultaneously receiving a seat on the board of a bank, for instance.

Some such resolution is more likely than municipal suicide, though that can’t be ruled out. From school student council tussles to dynastic contests for control of empires, it’s not unusual for a newly victorious faction to degrade and humiliate its vanquished predecessor. Denying the defeated mayor a position on the water board enacted this nasty ritual, which stirs anger and retaliation. Add to that the racial flavor of the contending factions, and the mixture can become poisonous.

The spirit of combat and an urge to ruin the adversary blot out other purposes. For the past year the city has been facing a plan to run a crude oil pipeline through the watershed of its reservoir. Citizen groups sprang up to resist this and government bodies, including the Mobile city council, adopted resolutions against it. The water board went to court trying to keep this oil out of its watershed, but the board lost and the pipeline was recently completed. Yet none of this has entered into the public debate about whether the former mayor should get a seat on the water board.
None. The water board failed spectacularly in its most basic duty of protecting the people’s drinking water. It might have done many things differently to avoid this outcome. Perhaps a board with members like the ex mayor could have done better. Or perhaps the board needs somebody with engineering credentials. Or somebody with a fanatic edge who simply would not tolerate an oil company running a crude pipe across the watershed, no matter what.

Tinted Sham Battles

Such questions needed to be prominent in the debates about filling an empty seat on the water board. But they have not been included. Not at all.
The newly empowered white crew has striven only to keep the old mayor off the water board. And the black crew has striven only to insert their fallen leader on the board.

If the new mayor and his council majority had announced their intention to stop the pipeline and then set out to do that with every means at their disposal, there would now be no crude oil pumping through their water source. If the black ministerial association had threatened to bring their congregations to the pipe construction site, instead of to the council about a water board appointment, no oil would be flowing through their water source.

While they were fussing with each other, a deed detrimental to them all was done. Similar traps await as other pipelines, and oil tanker trains, and tanker ships, and tank farms, and coal terminals converge on the city. The global fuel oligarchy has evidently chosen Mobile as an emerging major hub for these substances. The local risks in this are large and the rewards few, as BP’s erupting oil well reminded.

These developments need a resolute and unified local response. Otherwise the area will become a giant warehouse and transfer station for hazardous products controlled by others elsewhere for benefits elsewhere. So far the response has been anything but resolute and unified. Instead it has been mostly what those distant interests (plus their local agents) would want.

The rancorous splits over the water board seat while ignoring the pipeline through the watershed is the plainest example yet of a descent into an exploited and plundered future resembling the past. People have been behaving like passengers on Flight 370 squabbling over the peanuts and soft drinks on the snack cart in the aisle—while the hijackers are seizing the cockpit, or the electrical circuits are fizzling, or whatever happened to that vanished plane.

No matter how exciting and invigorating these contests of political faction and racial posturing may seem, the only sure winners are the aloof schemers afar. It’s a very old story that readily repeats itself.

Unless deliberate, concerted action is taken to turn events toward a different future Mobile is poised to verify again the enduring truth of Faulkner’s lamenting quip: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

© 2014, David Underhill. All rights reserved.