Gutshall: Not too young to be mayor

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 9, 2004

He hasn’t even turned 30 yet — the milestone comes in less than a week. Most young people eye that milestone as the eclipse into adulthood, but Stephen Gutshall has another date on his mind.

On Aug. 24, Gutshall’s named will appear on a ballot during the Demopolis municipal elections. But whereas most people — Gutshall included — expected the shoe store manager would seek a first bid on the Demopolis City Council in District 3, his name will appear under a different bracket.

Gutshall has publicly announced his decision to run for mayor of Demopolis, making him the fourth apparent candidate to enter the race. Mike Grayson and Cecil Williamson have publicly announced their intentions to run. Ben Sherrod, no stranger to a mayoral race, also has placed signs around the city declaring his candidacy.

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Without a doubt, Gutshall will face the “youth” question as he quickly “hits the ground” in his first bid for public office. Then again, the candidate has already readied his answer.

“Who said age has anything to do with it,” Gutshall said, half joking and half serious. “Look at Jim Byard, the mayor of Prattville.”

Byard was elected mayor of the Montgomery suburb city four years ago just barely over the age of 30. Since his election, Prattville has fast become one of the most progressive cities in the state.

“[Byard] has done a great job,” Gutshall said. “He sits on boards across the state, and I just really don’t see that as an issue.”

Entering the field of politics is something Gutshall has pondered for the past year. When Ronnie O’Neal publicly announced he wouldn’t seek another term on the Demopolis City Council, Gutshall had all but decided to seek that seat. Then, more and more people brought up the idea of a bigger position in city government. Chief among those nudging was Gutshall’s wife, Greta.

“It took her pushing me a little,” he admitted. “My wife, I love her dearly, and with her and my circle of close friends, they all pushed me to make a decision.”

There are numerous ways to coin the phrase, but over the past couple of weeks, Gutshall has used the advice his father, Gary Gutshall, always gave him: Either do it, or don’t do it.

For Gutshall, who has lived in Demopolis for seven years as manager of Athlete’s Foot, the decision came easily.

“I really didn’t have to make this decision by myself,” he said. “I had so many people who helped me.”

Now that a decision has been finalized, Gutshall knows the work that lies ahead of him. First, he’s got to invest in hours of “leg work.”

“I’ve got to get my name out there,” he said, shyly. “I’m going door-to-door, and I’m going to talk to people. And there are people out there who are going to help me.”

In Demopolis, name recognition may play the biggest role in either succeeding or failing at this bid for public office. Raised in New Market, Gutshall attended the University of Alabama while helping run Athlete’s Foot in Tuscaloosa. In 1997, he moved to Demopolis and immediately got involved in the community.

“I got here in June, and by the fall, I was helping coach a soccer team with Patrick Ellis,” he said.

No one question’s Gutshall’s community involvement. An avid volunteer since moving to the city, Gutshall also serves on a number of boards — this is the last of his three-year tenure on the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

Anyone who knew Gutshall growing up wouldn’t be surprised at Tuesday’s announcement, either. During high school, he was SGA president.

Running for political office, much less for the city’s CEO position, will involve much more than a little leg work, Gutshall said. To him, there are specific areas where a mayor can be effective.

“Who doesn’t want to get Highway 80 four-laned?” he asked. “But none of us, as individuals, are going to make that happen. We’ve got to have a collaborative effort from everyone, and we have to help the people who make those decisions understand why the project would help the rest of the state.”

Gutshall is quick to point out that Demopolis is moving in the right direction. “You don’t want to get off the track we’re on right now,” he said.

At the same time, the candidate does believe continued work on the projects of the city must be taken seriously.

“We’re in our second 3-year strategic plan,” he said. “In fact, we’ve only got two-and-a-half more years on the second one, and we need to look at it and make sure we have long-term goals.”

Gutshall hesitates to get into specifics, realizing that any candidate can “promise you the moon.” You can, however, “listen to the problems.”

One way Gutshall said he’d do that is by hosting brown-bag luncheons.

“We’ll have people come in, where they don’t have to stand in front of the entire council meeting, and talk about things they’d like to see done,” he said.

Entering the mayoral race wasn’t an easy decision. Gutshall said he is friends with the other candidates, but he also says he offers something a little different.

“I guess all candidates do,” he said. “But as Ronald Reagan said, I’m not here to do the political thing. I’m here to do the right thing.”

As for his ability to juggle a job as store manager at Athlete’s Foot and run the city as a mayor, Gutshall said he already has a plan.

“If I don’t win, I’ll go back to work at the store and sell a couple of pairs of shoes on August 25,” he said. “If I win, we have people lined up who are going to assume management of the store. I’ll belong to the city.”