Will mayoral miscues in Huntsville and Mobile affect statewide aspirations?

Two big-city Alabama mayors, viewed as popular candidates for statewide office someday, found themselves embroiled in local controversies this week.

But political observers in Alabama doubt that either Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle or Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson will face much backlash from their separate issues.

And as one observer noted, the incidences that have been viewed as missteps could turn out to be helpful in pumping up name recognition statewide.

"These two little blips are probably more beneficial than not," said Steve Flowers, a political columnist and commentator based out of Troy. "It gets their name out there. I don't think the average person cares if Tommy Battle got mad at a school board member. It looks like (to them) that he's doing his job."

Neither Battle nor Stimpson have announced an intention to run for statewide office. But the two, along with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, are often named in media articles as potential gubernatorial candidates.

Battle is more likely than Stimpson to run. For one, the Mobile mayor is currently raising money and aggressively pursuing a re-election as mayor and faces re-election on Aug. 20. Battle, who easily won re-election for a third term last year, does not.

The gubernatorial race is expected to be taking off by summer, at a time when Stimpson will be pursuing his re-election.

But the governor's race is wide open, and political observers have hinted that at least nine candidates could make a run for the state's top political office. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, after serving two consecutive terms in office, cannot seek re-election.

Stimpson, with his personal wealth and strong backing from the business community, has been viewed a possible candidate for statewide office.

For Battle, an early poll among conservative voters has listed him high on a list of gubernatorial hopefuls. The Alabama Forestry Association, in a poll in August on the 2018 gubernatorial election had Battle trailing only behind former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and current U.S. Senator Luther Strange.

Strange is seeking election to the Senate in 2018, and won't be running for governor. Moore hasn't committed to a run for governor.

"A municipality might be the most difficult executive job in America," said Brent Buchanan, a Republican political consultant based out Montgomery. "They say, 'all politics is local,' and that's as local as you can get. It's a rough-and-tumble job that should prepare them for any run for higher office."

Said Buchanan: "Individual local altercations could come back to haunt them, but any current elected official faces the same potential fate."

Tommy Battle

For Battle, questions have swirled this week on why he opted to send a scathing letter to two of the five elected Huntsville school board members, chastising them for their behavior at a recent board meeting.

Battle said he sent the letters to board members Michelle Watkins and Pam Hill after he'd received calls from "concerned citizens and concerned industry members" worried about the board.

Watkins has since responded that she was "dumbfounded" that Battle would send a letter rather than calling her to express concerns.

Hill told AL.com that neither she nor Watkins were elected to be "bobble heads" for the mayor.

Michelle Watkins (left), Pam Hill (right)

Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University, said it would have been more politically prudent had Battle sent an official letter to the entire School Board instead of singling out individual members.

"Two board members felt targeted and zeroed in," said Brown. "Just make an appeal to the entire board. It would have been better politics had he made an appeal to the board in total than just to individual members."

T.C. Johnson, a pastor at St. Luke Christian Church in Huntsville and a community activist, agreed. "I think it would have been more effective if a letter making that request had been sent to all the board members of the Huntsville City school board," he said during Thursday's Huntsville City Council meeting. "We do need them to work together for the good of the whole."

Brown also said the letters were directed to two critics of former Superintendent Casey Wardynski. He said that Wardynski isn't a popular person among the Huntsville City Schools' faculty and staff.

"Mayor Battle does not need to be seen defending one faction of the board over the other," said Brown. "The letter did not explicitly do that, but since the letter was sent to a subset of the board, that easily led to the spin or interpretation that he was siding with one faction over another."

Added Brown: "If the mayor is getting himself in a position where it's viewed he's defending the former superintendent, on balance, that's bad politics for the mayor."

But Brown, along with Flowers, is doubtful the letter and the reaction to it will have a long-lasting impact.

"He's obviously very visible in the Huntsville media market, mayor for three terms now," said Brown. "If you have a crowded field, someone like that might take their regional base in the Huntsville metro area and do well enough there to acquire enough votes to make runoff."

Said Flowers: "If someone would read on AL.com that Battle had an argument with a school board member, my perception is that he's wanting to do a good job as mayor. It looks like he's doing a good job ... that he's interested in doing a good job as mayor."

Sandy Stimpson

Flowers also says that the hubbub over Stimpson's affiliation with a controversial Mardi Gras krewe is unlikely to resonate outside of the Mobile area.

"Sandy Stimpson is indeed popular in Mobile and this recent local issue would not adversely affect any race he might make for governor," said Flowers, noting that he does not believe Stimpson has an interest in higher office beyond Mobile mayor.

 

Stimpson has raised more than $500,000 for his re-election bid. He currently does not have an opponent, though the former mayor - and past adversary - Sam Jones is hinting at running again.

Jones said on Thursday that he believes Stimpson's past affiliation with the Comic Cowboys Mardi Gras organization will be a detriment politically.

The Comic Cowboys are facing criticism for their 2017 Mardi Gras parade which included a host of floats that carried derogatory statements about African Americans.

The Comic Cowboys, which have long paraded with a motto of "Without Malice," have traditionally operated floats with placards displaying cartoons mocking everything from local personalities and football loyalties to national and international politics.

The group's criticism of the city of Prichard, a predominately black community struggling with poverty, has garnered much of the recent backlash.

Stimpson recently resigned from the group out of disgust toward this year's parade. He had been a member for four years.

Also resigning last week was Mobile City Councilman Joel Daves, who had been a member of the Comic Cowboys for 20 years.

Sam Fisher, a political science professor at the University of South Alabama, doesn't believe that Stimpson's affiliation with the group will haunt him in future campaigns.

"In the case that if he was running for a statewide office outside of Mobile, for most people, it's not going to be something they are aware of unless it's brought up," Fisher said, noting that most of Alabama outside of Mobile is unaware of the local traditions with the city's annual Mardi Gras festivities.

"I think most people wouldn't be aware of what goes on in the different parades, especially the local ones that, in this case, could have the potential of creating controversy," Fisher said.

He also doesn't see the mayor's past with the Comic Cowboys becoming a headache during this year's election.

"If he stayed in the organization and didn't make any statements, it might become an issue," said Fisher. "But right now, I don't see it becoming a major issue."

Jones said Stimpson's four-year membership with the Mardi Gras krewe will become a campaign issue.

"It is an issue," said Jones. "It will be a campaign discussion and the thing that concerns me about it is you don't know who the members of that organization are. They have their secret membership and then you find out the leadership of the city are active members of people who are basically belittling the city. I don't quite understand it. I think it's something that is detrimental to Mobile."

'Stepping stone'

Flowers said that these recent missteps, though, are dwarfed in the overall popularity of the two candidates if either decides to make a leap at statewide office.

There is no recent memory of a mayor making a run for the governor's mansion in Alabama.

"Being the popular mayor of a large city like Huntsville, Mobile or Montgomery is a good stepping stone for running for governor," said Flowers. "More than being a state senator."

Flowers said it's the "friends and neighbors" philosophy in Alabama statewide politics. He said it's a main reason why Bentley won the 2010 gubernatorial election over GOP candidates like Bradley Byrne and Tim James.

"Having a hometown base like the Tennessee Valley or Mobile is a heck of a head start," said Flowers. "That's why Bentley won the 2010 governor's race because of the old friends and neighbors politics. Alabama will vote for someone in their neck of the woods in a crowded race. Bentley ran extremely well in Tuscaloosa (his hometown) and there are a lot of votes in Tuscaloosa. In 2018, the same thing can apply."

William Stewart, professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of  Alabama, said he doesn't see neither Battle nor Stimpson making a gubernatorial run in 2018.

If any mayor runs, Stewart said, it will be Maddox as a Democrat. Maddox won re-election in a landslide on Tuesday. "(Maddox) has all the attributes one could ask in a gubernatorial candidate except for one glaring exception - he is a Democrat. I don't expect another 'D' to be elected governor in my remaining limited lifetime."

If any mayor opts to seek statewide office, they will have some uphill fundraising battles, according to Brown.

"If you are in municipal politics, the greatest barrier is you don't have an opportunity to interact with and don't know the landscape of state politics and don't know the issues of someone who is involved," he said. "If you're a mayor of a city, you deal with the Realtors and other niches of business. But the spectrum of issues and interest groups you have to deal with in Montgomery is a far wider swath."

Reporter Paul Gattis contributed to this report. 

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