Phenix City … The next chapter (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, October 30, 2011)

by Jim Lynn

Published: October 30, 2011

By JIM LYNN — Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Phenix City voters face a tremendous opportunity. The question is what will be done with it.

The opportunity is the chance to clear the political logjam that’s held the town hostage. End the stagnation of the last four years and actually move the city forward. A chance to elect leadership that’s serious about developing the riverfront and about creating a more livable community. New leadership that will explore new ideas, like smart-growth approaches to sidewalks and bike paths and stricter development controls, making the protection of our neighborhoods a higher priority.

It’s an opportunity to make good government the rule, ending cronyism and old-school ways. And rather than being the subject of jokes, to finally play a more vital role in the public life of the Columbus region.

The 2012 election can’t come soon enough for Phenix City. The talk of the town — after high school and college football, of course — is who might run against the incumbents, and who might have the political muscle needed to wrest control of city government from Councilman Jimmy Wetzel, the City Hall bad boy.

In supermarket aisles, at lunchtime gatherings, during halftimes, nearly everywhere and anywhere, it’s just next to impossible to find anyone who has good things to say about Phenix City incumbents. The constant question is “who’s gonna run?” And the answer is always the same: “Anyone but the crew down there now.”

Tax increases, an unpopular proposed $11.5 million municipal complex, questionable land deals, lack of coordinated efforts on riverfront development, vindictive politics and trivial pursuits have offended residents to the point that an unprecedented move is developing to clean house at the ballot box next year.

But as it is with so many opportunities, the questions are simple. Do enough people really care? Is there a critical mass of discontent? Will this moment be used to move the city forward?

Or will the opportunities be left on the table, leaving the town with another four years of old-school leadership that accomplishes little, if anything at all?

Geography and inertia

Jay Coulter, a political strategist, former planning commission member and son of longtime mayor Sonny Coulter, has talked for years about the double edge of the construction of the J.R. Allen Parkway in the late 1980s. While it does move traffic, it has also done more than anything to create a northside that thinks east and west, rather than north and south. Everything northsiders need is either at Publix or east at Bradley Park or Columbus Park Crossing, or at Wal-Mart to the west. It’s more than shopping and dining. It’s a mindset.

The northside communities have tended to become ambivalent about the traditional concerns of city politics. Those who do care have rested easy, knowing that Sonny Coulter or Sammy Howard or the late Jane Gullatt and

others like them were watching out for their interests. And southside residents, represented weakly for more than 20 years by now-indicted Councilman Arthur Sumbry, have likewise been generally uninvolved or apathetic to city politics. All that may be changing. Wetzel’s polarizing coup d’etat and Coulter’s throwing in the towel on another term have created an environment that might give us the most exciting but also the most important election season in years.

None of the above

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a good, old-fashioned, God Bless America, flag-waving political rally. But a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens Committee rallied a crowd late last month behind the

banner of change.

The rally was remarkable for the simple fact that it happened at all, and that so many people packed the hall. Never in modern political memory has a large group gathered to practically beg candidates to run for office, publicly pledging support to any consensus candidates willing to run for mayor, for council at-large and for the three district seats.

The get-the-rascals-out group is the brainchild of former state Rep. and Tax Commissioner Charles Adams, who along with Coulter and Howard is considered a dean of local politics.

Adams, with his characteristic silk-tie, articulate delivery, has made a career of injecting reason and common sense into the often insane world of Phenix City politics. He laid it out for the several hundred at the rally: It’s time for great people who care about this town to step up and lead it, and for the rest of us to stand up and support them, he implored.

Adams and other organizers acknowledge that they’ve got a lot of work to do, particularly with African American and young voters. But the politically historic rally got noticed for what it signals, that a significant segment of voters is for the first time in decades truly fed up with Phenix City’s elected leadership.

Applause greeted calls for “responsible” candidates and criticism of controversial council decisions. The new municipal building is widely seen as perhaps more a product of political relationships than solid public policy. Controversial land deals between the Wetzel-led council and former Wetzel employer Mike Bowden, a new tax on rental property and a sales tax increase are also derided by the group.

Uneasy status quo

The mayor is considered a friend of the Concerned Citizens effort. Coulter has served five terms either as mayor or councilman. But in a term he expected to be one of accomplishment, he’s instead been frozen out of decision making by the Wetzel triumvirate.

Coulter said he could tell just a few weeks into the new term that it was hopeless. He even considered resigning, and months ago acknowledged that he’d essentially given up the fight.

Councilman Wetzel had the backing of Coulter supporters when campaigning for office. But when sworn in, Wetzel let it be known, in remarks that played awkwardly off President Obama’s campaign themes, that he had forged an iron-clad alliance with the two southside council members, Sumbry of District 3 and District 2 Councilwoman Michelle Walker.

The result: Coulter has the title, but Wetzel’s the man in charge.

It was the most stunning turnaround in modern Phenix City political history. Wetzel now thumbs his nose at the “Nob Hill gang” of Coulter, Howard, Adams and other northside politicians he once befriended. You don’t see Jimmy Wetzel at Publix.

Cutting the hair of a political sage recently, Wetzel is said to have asked if his customer thought he could carry north Phenix City in next year’s election, as he did last time.

Not a chance, the customer told him bluntly. But there are no public opinion polls to gauge voter sentiment, so it’s all educated but usually biased guesswork.

It appears likely, as Wetzel recently told reporter Jim Mustian, that he’ll run for re-election to his citywide council post. With Wetzel, though, it doesn’t really matter if he’s mayor or not. He controls everything anyway.

“He does have his supporters,” one observer remarked last week. Wetzel taps into a populist theme among those who distrust traditional, north Phenix politicians they view as elitist. It’s a long-running theme in a mostly working-class town.

Wetzel could also reap political benefit from publicly financed construction. The financing package that includes the new municipal building also includes new facilities for the popular Idle Hour Park to the north and the Boys Club to the south. Those projects could benefit Wetzel with voters not concerned about the fiscal risks, if the projects are sufficiently under way by election time.

Evangelical fervor

The nascent Concerned Citizens group is taking the unheard-of approach of rallying Phenix City congregations in the push for change. The strategy is unusual because politics is typically off limits in predominantly white churches, unlike the active political campaigning from African American pulpits.

To soften the approach, the group is not openly targeting incumbents by name. At the Concerned Citizens rally, officeholders were not mentioned. The group intends to stay above the fray, to the extent possible. The clarion call is for good government and the need for good people to run. Change. Better government. Energy to move the community forward. Progress. An end to stagnation.

Organizer Pat Waldrop says the church networking approach is based on the thinking that the core of active voters is also the core of active church members. Political science literature supports that view, but this is the first time the strategy has been leveraged locally on a large scale.

The challenge is building a movement for change. To be successful, Concerned Citizens has got to be bigger than a single rally. There’s a lot of time between now and the August election, time enough for the effort to fade if momentum isn’t maintained. Key is convincing Phenix City voters that they have something to gain by stepping out to run for public office and to support candidates who can demonstrate a more creative, more innovative style of leadership.

Regardless of populist cynicism and progressive impatience, the call for better government and stronger leadership should resonate with many voters. Once you get beyond traditional, old-school allegiances, most voters should see that their city could prosper with a unified, energetic, forward-thinking City Hall.

The time has passed for traditional campaigning, where southside precincts are won by funeral home-led get-out-the-vote efforts and northside votes are won based on generations-long friendships and yard signs. This election cycle, candidates and the Concerned Citizens movement have to appeal to the passion Phenix City residents feel for their community.

The challenge — or opportunity — Adams and his group face is converting the current mood into a landslide. The quarter-century Coulter-Howard-Gullatt era is over, and the last four years, on any scale, have been disastrous. It’s time for Phenix City residents to be fed up. Campaign. Vote. And take control of the city’s future.

Jim Lynn, a former Knight-Ridder political reporter and Ledger-Enquirer assistant metro editor, manages system information for TSYS and is an independent journalist;