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Mayor Needs Black Vote in Selma

August 13, 2000

SELMA, Ala. (AP) _ Joe Smitherman admits he was opposed to blacks voting en masse when he was first elected mayor 36 years ago. In fact, he was a professed segregationist in the early years, but Selma kept re-electing him.

Now, Smitherman is counting on black voters _ 65 percent of the city’s electorate _ to win his 10th consecutive term in office.

Three black candidates are also on the Aug. 22 ballot, and Smitherman’s staunchest opponents have revved up a kick-him-out campaign with signs planted across the city of 22,600 that read: ``Joe’s Gotta Go.″

``My election is in the hands of the black citizens,″ Smitherman said. ``If they want change, that’s in their hands too.″

For many Selma residents, Smitherman is the only mayor they have ever known.

He was first elected to the office in 1964, six months before sheriff’s deputies and state troopers armed with tear gas, nightsticks and whips stopped hundreds of voting rights marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

At the time, the electorate was mostly white, and Smitherman could get away with segregationist guffaws. He once referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as ``Martin Luther Coon,″ a slur he later claimed was simply a verbal mistake.

But over the past decade or so, Smitherman has worked for racial accommodation.

As blacks gained a majority in Selma, he successfully brought voters into his camp, partly by helping black allies. He also benefited in past elections against both black and white candidates because whites voters were often unified behind him.

But Smitherman’s latest term has been marred by corruption in city government. The former city clerk, police chief and two contractors pleaded guilty to taking part in a phony invoice scheme that stole $700,000 from the city.

``We’ve been down this road long enough,″ said James Perkins, a businessman trying for a third time to unseat Smitherman. In 1996, Perkins lost to Smitherman by 364 votes out of 9,000 cast.

Smitherman, now 70, shakes his head when asked about his opponents’ call for change.

``Why change? I’ve appointed nine blacks to city department heads. Change to what? We’ve got the cheapest water rates in the state. We’ve got back door garbage pickup. Just to change, that would be a mistake,″ Smitherman said.

Most of the major civil rights organizations in Selma are supporting Perkins. Longtime activist _ and a long-time thorn in Smitherman’s side _ Rose Sanders, says 36 years is long enough for anyone to occupy the mayor’s chair.

``Even if he had been a decent mayor, it would be time for him to step aside,″ she said.

Sanders has been organizing volunteers to stand on Selma street corners and distribute flyers while chanting ``Joe’s Gotta Go.″

``It is shocking that after all this time, the people in Selma think it is all right that Joe Smitherman is still mayor,″ said volunteer Susan Starr.

Driving around Selma in his white Cadillac, Smitherman ventured a guess that he would get most of the white vote and need about 1,000 black votes to stay in office.

``My problem is I have to get black votes,″ he said.

The mayor’s other main opponent, City Council President Pro Tem Yusuf Salaam, sees himself as a underdog who could surprise both Smitherman and Perkins.

``I am David caught between two political machines. The success of my campaign depends on reviving the aspirations of the freedom fighters who came to Selma to redefine democracy in the 1960s,″ Salaam said.

A fourth candidate, state Rep. Ed Maull, has conducted a low-key campaign. Contacted at his home last week, he said he’s tired of talking about the election. ``Everything I say gets twisted, so I have nothing to say,″ Maull said.

The key to victory in the election may be which candidate can round up the most absentee votes.

Smitherman, who said absentee votes are a reality in Alabama because many voters don’t have transportation to get to the polls, has several staff members monitoring the absentee votes. ``We do it legally. We make staff members sign a statement that they will offer nothing of value for absentee votes. We know we are being watched,″ he said.

But Perkins said he believes the Smitherman campaign may be using illegal tactics to get those votes.

``We are real concerned,″ he said. ``There’s a difference between working the process hard and working it illegally.″

One downtown businessman, Will Jackson, said it’s still just another election. Beyond liking or hating Smitherman, there isn’t much to bring people out to vote on Aug. 22, he said.

``No one is pushing the issues that would motivate people to go to the polls,″ Jackson said. ``I do get the feeling people want a change, but people want a positive change.″

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On the Net:

Selma Web: http://www.selma-web.com/