As the rest of the country fights ever more loudly over statues, race, history, presidential deportment, and just about anything else, the city of Mobile, Ala. on Tuesday re-elected a smiling, upbeat, unifying mayor after four years of significant accomplishments.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson is an example of politics and civic leadership done right. Other politicians should emulate him.
Stimpson, 65, is part of a wealthy lumber-business family prominent in southern Alabama for several generations. But he wears his wealth humbly. For years, he has served in volunteer civic leadership posts, with particularly notable stints as the head of the Business Council of Alabama and as board chairman of the Alabama Policy Institute, the venerable conservative think tank founded by now-U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, a Republican.
And, famously, Stimpson co-founded a private Christian school, usually all-black, in the impoverished Mobile suburb of Prichard, with the goal of preparing children for the finest middle schools and high schools in the region – and with remarkable results. (Disclosure: I now serve on the school’s board, which Stimpson led until he became mayor.)
Most pundits gave Stimpson little chance of winning his first political race in 2013 against two-term incumbent Sam Jones, a black Democrat in a city where voter registration had recently tipped into majority black – but which had first elected Jones, seen as a moderate, when black registration was only 43 percent. But Stimpson campaigned tirelessly throughout the city, with a well-integrated (racially and otherwise) campaign staff, pushing themes of unity and progress. He won the upset victory back then with 53 percent of the vote.
Stimpson inherited somewhat of a financial mess in city government. The city’s bonded indebtedness pushed the limit of sustainability, Mobile did not maintain the supposedly-required reserve/rainy day fund, and it had a backlog of “infrastructure” needs with no money directly dedicated to roads, parks, and the like.
Stimpson worked to unify a somewhat fractious City Council, and together, they achieved admirable results. Four years later, the debt load has been reduced by $72 million (about a third), the reserve fund stands at $20 million (for an annual budget of about $250 million), $21 million is dedicated annually to infrastructure improvements throughout the city, police and fire departments have received several raises and a large supply of new vehicles, and both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have upgraded Mobile’s once-dodgy credit ratings while publicly praising the mayor’s “improved management practices.”
During Jones’ second term, the city had lost its one cruise-ship tenant, but Carnival Lines returned at Stimpson’s urging, and recently re-upped its contract for yet another year. Mobile is now a magnet for new business, with a growing Airbus plant and related suppliers along with the thriving Austal Shipyards (both of which Stimpson inherited) now joined by huge new distribution centers for Wal-Mart and Amazon, a new business corridor downtown, and a suddenly-vibrant downtown scene for restaurants, music, and the arts.
A concerted effort against urban blight is seeing notable successes, a new scenic bicycle park is underway, and this week saw groundbreaking on a project to revitalize Mobile’s riverfront to make it truly accessible to the general public for the first time in many decades. Roads have been repaved throughout the city, parks have been sometimes breathtakingly refurbished, and overall violent crime is significantly lower than four years ago.
All of this has been achieved with the same tax rates as the ones Stimpson inherited, through more careful budgeting, wiser management, and better use of technology.
Most remarkably, Stimpson has done this with an almost perpetual smile on his face, with a staff made up of people of varying races and ideologies (core managerial competence being the byword), and with only a few early, transitional public hiccups.
In this year’s re-election race, Jones attempted a comeback – but Stimpson increased his victory margin from 53-47 to 57-43.
The co-publishers of the local “alternative” weekly, Lagniappe – politically about as centrist as imaginable – waxed eloquent about Stimpson’s first term in its final, pre-election issue. One of them, Rob Holbert, described Stimpson’s “excited, joyful, honest, and positive approach,” and wrote that “while there have been some minor stumbles along the way, Stimpson has put this city on a rocket trajectory.”
What Stimpson is doing is prototypical, Jack Kempian, inclusive conservatism in action (but without the Kempian ego). He doesn’t divide and conquer; he brings people together and builds.
It works. Maybe Washington should try it sometime.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner.
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