Another candidate may qualify

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Even though candidates have had 13 days to qualify for the Aug. 24 municipal elections, today’s deadline may have more surprises in store for the voters of West Alabama — Demopolis in particular.

So far, five candidates have already qualified to seek the position being vacated by long-time Mayor Austin Caldwell. Mike Grayson, Stephen Gutshall, Ed Key, Ben Sherrod and Cecil Williamson have already filled out the papers before tomorrow’s deadline. However, there is speculation that one more candidate may jump in the race on the final day.

Contacted on Monday, Marengo County Commissioner Freddie Armstead would neither confirm nor deny that he plans to qualify for a second run at the mayor’s seat. In 1996, Armstead ran in a four-man race — including him, Caldwell, Sherrod and Rich Iannelli. Armstead finished second in the general election and forced a run-off with Caldwell.

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Voters elected Caldwell by a 2,024-1,216 margin, but no candidate has come closer to defeating Caldwell in the past 19 years.

“All I can tell you right now is that there’s still one more day,” Armstead said when asked for comment Monday.

Entering Armstead in the mayoral race will add a dimension that once raised questions about the Aug. 24 election.

The black voting bloc of Demopolis is certain to play an important part in the election, and Auburn University-Montgomery professor Dr. D’Linell Finley believes grabbing that portion of the electorate will be extremely important for any candidate in Demopolis.

“One thing about Demopolis is that it has always been very quiet in terms of dominant political activists who are African-American,” Finley said. “However, there is a significant population that is out there, and that population could be key to winning your election.”

Without Armstead, or any other black candidate in the race, Finley said both black and white voters will look for the same traits in a candidate.

“Voters will ask what person is more likely to carry out the policies that help the entire community,” Finley said. “If voters, in particular black voters, feel that a candidate will exclude one group of voters, then that person will not get elected.”

By entering a black candidate, such as Armstead, Finley still isn’t sure the dynamics of the election will change much.

“I don’t think it’s guaranteed that just because a black candidate enters the race, that person will win,” he said. “Voters want a candidate who will go out and continue the economic growth and development of Demopolis.”

According to Finley, who has studied Alabama’s political system for nearly three decades, Demopolis is the most attractive economic center in West Alabama, and all members of the community have something to do with that.

“If the voters don’t think the African-American candidate will do that, then I don’t they’ll vote for that candidate just because of his race,” Finley said.

As evidence, Finley pointed to recent elections in Dallas County, where the black District Judge Nathanial Walker was defeated by a white challenger, Bob Armstrong.

“It’s proven true across this state,” Finley said. “Voters are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.”

In the end, Finley believes all voters — both black and white — have one concern during this election cycle.

“They will vote on a person who is able to bring them economic prosperity,” he said.

At least one other candidate qualified to run for city office on Monday.

Lester Mitchell Sr. has qualified to challenge Melvin Yelverton for the District 3 City Council seat.

That district is the so-called swing district in the city of Demopolis. Districts 1 and 2 are predominantly black districts, while Districts 4 and 5 are predominantly white. Ronnie O’Neal has represented District 3 and announced earlier this year that he would not seek another term.

While Yelverton, a white candidate, and Mitchell, a black candidate, have officially qualified, some believe John Wallace will qualify for that seat today.