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Opinion | The Montgomery mayoral race: A race about race — again

In the race for Montgomery’s mayor’s office, some are seizing on racial issues to push a whole other agenda.

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed speaking to the crowd at the beginning of his re-election bid. JOHN H. GLENN/APR

Living in Montgomery is hard for Barrett Gilbreath. 

And scary. 

He says so in one of his campaign ads. A campaign for mayor of the city so scary that it sent him and his family scurrying off to Florida a couple of years ago. 

Now he’s back to “fight” for Montgomery. And to “save” his city. And do the “hard thing” of raising his kids in the town. 

His ads never actually say who’s attacking Montgomery or who he’s fighting … but, well, you know. Right? 

If ever there were an election that highlights the long, pathetic struggle over racism in Alabama, it is this one for Montgomery’s mayor. Between incumbent Steven Reed and Gilbreath. (There are two other candidates in the race, but statistically, there are only two.)

Reed is the city’s first Black mayor. And by all tangible accounts, he has been a very successful mayor, bringing in billions of dollars of new business, addressing long-standing education funding issues and turning Montgomery into a haven for minority-owned businesses (a vital accomplishment in a city with a growing minority population). 

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The knocks on Reed are the same knocks that followed the last mayor – crime and education. Both issues – and you can tie them together – are several generations in the making, and they are forever linked to the city’s long and tortured battle with racism and segregation. 

For example: in the years after Brown v. Board of Education, Montgomery’s school system quickly segregated by neighborhoods and by private schools. For a period, the city had the country’s highest concentration of private schools – known as segregation academies – and that segregation has continued. Today’s Montgomery public schools are 95-percent-plus minority students, with incredibly high concentrations of free and reduced lunch students and special needs students. Montgomery’s private schools, where the majority of the children of means attend, are 90-percent-plus white students. 

Oddly, whenever the average Montgomery resident discusses the crime rates or gang activity or education issues, rarely mentioned as the culprit is the generational damage that has been done to the tens of thousands of children perpetually shoved into underfunded, poverty-stricken classrooms and neighborhoods for the entirety of their youth. But I suppose you learn to overlook such hard truths when spending the first 18 years of life sequestered from all other races, tucked safely away in segregated private schools. 

So, instead, we end up with this ridiculous, perpetual cycle of pretending that the societal issues that have led to crime and other problems started last week sometime, and that the solution to them all is for the current mayor, or that school board member or that city councilman to just stop being so damned Black.  

It’s an approach that works quite well if you’re one of the families of means. It allows you to assign blame and bemoan the problems while not actually doing – or even proposing – anything to solve them. 

Sort of like what Gilbreath is doing. 

His campaign, from the overdone TV ads with drone video and smiling white kids to his website which promises to “fight for Montgomery,” is filled with the sort of Trump-like generalizations that can’t survive a single follow-up question. (What would he do to cut crime in Montgomery? Why, hire more police!) 

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But in truth, Gilbreath isn’t in the race to offer solutions. Oh, sure, it would be great if he had some, but his primary attributes are white and relatable to a certain Montgomery voter. That’s why he was recruited. 

And make no mistake about it, Gilbreath was recruited. A look through campaign finance records filed for this race tells you everything you need to know about who’s behind him and what the goal is. 

First, there’s ALFA with a $25,000 donation. (And just to be clear, five-figure donations are not common in mayoral races.) You remember ALFA and its meddling in Montgomery’s efforts to finally increase property taxes and provide more funding to the worst funded public school system in the entire state? Yeah, they fought it tooth and nail, because why should the private school parents and large land owners pay more to educate those “inner city kids”? 

And then there’s the Alabama Builders PAC, which has plopped a staggering $195,000 into Gilbreath’s campaign. 

Who is Alabama Builders? Well, funny story. You’ll be surprised to learn that most of the donations flowing from Alabama Builders PAC to Gilbreath didn’t originate from actual builders. 

Each month, that PAC gets its usual small donations from builders all over the state. But in June, it started getting large influxes of cash from non-builders. People like former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, who dumped in $10,000. Owners of a couple of insurance agencies ponied up $30,000. Two car dealers gave $20k. That’s in addition to a number of five-figure donations put up by actual Montgomery-area builders and property management companies. 

A who’s who collection of white businessmen in Montgomery. Guys who are used to getting their way. Guys who have historically enjoyed easy access to the mayor’s office and any advantages that such a relationship might bring.

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But maybe, over the last four years, their access to the mayor hasn’t been quite so open. Maybe the rules haven’t bent so easily. Maybe the response to their complaints hasn’t come quite so promptly or been to their liking. 

All of a sudden, they see a Montgomery where the good ol’ boy network isn’t quite as responsive. A Montgomery where a Black business owner, a new-in-town business owner and a young upstart are playing by the same rules as them. 

They don’t like it. They want a change at the top.And to get one, they’re apparently perfectly willing to turn the mayor’s race into a race about race. A race where Montgomery must be saved from the Black mayor and his Black friends and the Black criminals who are making life miserable for whites by not keeping the crime in their Black neighborhoods.  

The reality is there are no problems in Montgomery today that didn’t exist when Reed took office, and there are a good many problems that have been solved over the past few years. But that reality doesn’t matter. 

Because some rich white guys are having to play by the actual rules and that must be stopped.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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