Selma’s fantastic four ready for mayoral race

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 11, 2004

Four years ago, it was, “Joe gotta go.”

It was the white-hot spotlight of national attention.

It was a long, hot summer of turmoil and division ending in an historic victory.

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It was a mayoral election in Selma.

So far, this year’s race has come with far less attention, far less division and far less tension. But things are heating up.

After the June 20th District Judge runoff, the candidates ramped up their campaigns.

Signs are appearing all over town.

Candidates are pressing the flesh, hitting the pavement and kissing every baby in sight.

In short, it’s mayoral election time in Selma once again.

As of Friday afternoon, four candidates have announced their intentions to be Selma’s next mayor, though it’s still possible for another candidate to join the race.

Joining the incumbent Mayor, James Perkins Jr. are State Representative Yusef Salaam, and pair of local businessmen, Gene Hisel and the Rev. Glenn King.

Each of the four say they merely would like a chance to serve the people.

King says his motivation comes from a love of the community.

“I love this city of Selma,” King said. “It is the base of freedom for the entire nation. My decision was made when I lost the House of Representatives race in 2002.”

Hisel found his motivation when he found city leaders unresponsive.

“I and others approached the city council in September of 2001 about the increase in crime, they all seemed to agree but nothing happened,” Hisel said. “I started thinking very hard about how I could change things.”

Salaam, who began his political career as a Selma City Councilman in 1993, moved on to the State Legislature.

However, he said he was compelled to come back to Selma.

“I like to ask the question, ‘Where can I better serve?’ as opposed to what’s best for me in terms of personal ambitions,” he said. “I felt I could serve the citizens of Selma better by coming back and running for mayor.

The choice was not even close.”

Perkins said the job is a calling.

“My involvement in public service is a calling.

It was not some personal career goal,” he said. ” Quite frankly, when I was compelled to get into this it was kind of scary. I had no unrealistic expectations.

I had a clear understanding of the complexities of the position and the challenges.”

Like any city, Selma still faces a myriad of problems. Crime, unemployment, education, tourism and public perception are just of few of the issues that the mayor of Selma will continue to battle over the next four years, whichever of the men win the job.

“Since I’ve been in this office, the schedule has been intense,” said Perkins, who beat then-incumbent Joe Smitherman in the last campaign. “To date, I have more experience being mayor than any active public official (the other two living former mayors of Selma are both retired from public life.) I’ve probably gotten eight years of experience in these four years.”

Salaam says his unique combination of experience in the legislature and sitting on the city council has prepared him for the job,

“I served seven years on council in competition and cooperation with a mayor who had served 36 years, a city attorney who has served for 30-plus years and a president of the council that had served 30-plus years,” Salaam said. “I learned enough about municipal government to last a lifetime.

I have been uniquely prepared and trained to lead this city.”

Hisel, who owns a pair of BP Stations on Highland Avenue and has been in business in Selma for 26 years, says his plan is to clear the air and help bring unity to the town and it’s government.

“I can bring cooperation between the people of Selma, a concerted effort in one direction,” Hisel said. “I can show respect to each and every person.

Coming our city and speaking to leaders, I have found that they want unity and peace in Selma.

That would be the starting point for all of the positive things that Selma should be.”

For King, who has served the United Auto Workers (UAW) union’s board for over 30 years, this election is all about jobs and improving Selma’s workforce and opportunities.

“The main problem is jobs, we’ve got a job problem,” said King, who promises to use his contacts with the auto industry in Detroit. “I was a union rep for Ford, I served in several capacities, I’ve been a campaign consultant since 1973. I’ve been owning a radio station since 1992. I have experience.”

The decision to take the daunting task of mayor of Selma doesn’t come lightly.

Each of the men have families and the responsibilities of the position can be as hard on loved ones as it is on the actual mayor.

“My wife was against me running for office again,” Salaam said. “Both she and my daughters felt that our family received horrendous and despicable treatment during my race for State Representative seat number 67.”

Salaam said his family felt unduly antagonized, especially considering one his daughters was battling a terminal illness at the time.

“(My wife) went through a spiritual process of evaluation and decided to support a mayoral race,” Salaam said. “I must add if she had not come around, I would not be a mayoral candidate at this time.”

Hisel, too, had to convince his wife. The pair, who had left Selma to live in the country 17 years ago had built a house still in the police jurisdiction of Selma, what is now Valley Grande.

After Hisel made the decision to run, the pair rented a house in Selma and have been living there for seven months.

They have an option to buy some property on Merrimac Street.

“Our family was growing, we built a house in Valley Grande,” Hisel said. “It was truly hard to leave our home. It’s been a big adjustment.”

For the Perkins family, the job has been a test.

Often other children hear something about the mayor at home and then repeat it at school to Perkins’ children. They also had to deal with the turmoil of the previous election and Perkins becoming the first black mayor of Selma.

“My family has shown tremendous courage and support throughout the entire process,” Perkins said. “One thing

that helped Cynthia and me was communications with our children.

One thing that helped us go through this process are family meetings.

Anyone can call one, anyone can put an agenda forward at the meeting and get the voices and opinions of everyone. They have been a powerful and effective tool.”

King, who is also married with a family, was born and raised in Selma.

He left after attending Wallace and went to Michigan where he worked for several years.

He returned to Selma in 1990.

“I served as an outreach minister for all nursing homes,” said King, who pastors the grace Baptist Temple Church, “making sure we have a good program.”

King added that if he is elected, he will relinquish day-to-day control of the radio station.

“Most of our system is automated anyway,” he said.

Building relationships is important to being Selma’s mayor as well.

Perkins and Salaam each point to connections they’ve made while in their respective offices while King talks about his UAW connections.

“I have developed relationships in Washington and Montgomery that cross racial and party lines that have been beneficial to the community,” Perkins said. “I want to build on those relationships.

This is not just a job, it’s a process of building.”

Perkins mentions directly his relationships with several leaders, including State Senator Hank Sanders and U.S. Congressmen Artur Davis and U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby.

“Because of those relationships, we have been able to make the highway system a priority for many people, we have been able to press down unemployment rates in our region,” Perkins said.

Salaam, who spent 17 years in academia, either as a student, dean or professor, has also made contacts across the state and in Washington.

“That’s a very important factor,” he said. “As a city councilman I developed skills to be able to tab into the federal governmental system.

My service in the state house means we have a chief executive that has intricate connections in Montgomery as well as Washington D.C.

That’s very important for the future of the city.”

King says he has been in touch with auto industry leaders in Michigan about bringing training programs to Selma.

“The City of Selma can tap into many businesses with the government and private sectors if you have yours truly, the man with the right direction,” King said. “In Detroit the do all the training for GM, Chrysler and Ford.

They bring these people in and train them at a salary.

I’ve been to the plants and all that and I’ve been in touch with these people to bring jobs to Selma but they said no due to all this antagonizing.”

King also sees Selma attracting more convention business.

He helps bring the Alabama Baptist Sunday School BTU convention to Selma every year and says more conventions could be lure to town.

“I would encourage better business development for the city and make sure more conventional business comes to town,” he said. “I’m a PR man for the state of Alabama.

I brings a big convention here every year.

We need more conventions.”

Like King, Hisel also sees a problem bringing in a lot of industry until some of the contentiousness surrounding city politics is taken care of.

“The atmosphere of the city, many people see a dark cloud hanging over the city of Selma,” Hisel said. “The atmosphere is not conducive to cutting crime, attracting industries, opening communities and getting sound fiscal leadership.

The atmosphere must be cleared before Selma can become progressive.”

Though in an election, it’s common to talk about the problems that need to be met in the next election, each of the candidates talked about some of the things they enjoy about the Queen City of the Black Belt, as well.

“One of my favorite things about Selma is the tremendous resilience in the face of cataclysmic history.

The uncanny collective instinctive ability to do what’s necessary to survive,” Salaam said. “If Selma had not changed since 1965, Yusef Salaam would not be the only Muslim sitting in the state legislature.

That is a tremendous statement that corroborates the flexibility of Selma in terms of being able to adapt.

That’s a very beautiful trait I respect and admire a lot.”

For Hisel, the town’s growing tourism trade is a source of pride that can be expanded upon.

“I think we need to further exploit our already flourishing tourism industry,” Hisel said. “I’d like to see all of the large tourism drawing events placed under one banner for the city.

The City could sponsor those events as a whole, which would show unity in our community.

This would be a great draw for our greatest industry.

Certainly all emphasis should be put on tourism.”

Both King and Perkins talked about the riverfront development project and improving the city’s infrastructure.

“We have raised enough money for the riverfront development project to know it is going to be a reality,” Perkins said. “We’ve got a million dollars right now, we’re going to start the renovation of Water Avenue and highway 80.

we’ve got another half million to start Riverfront Development. We’ve already done a million and a of sewage and drainage work.”

King says he also wants to take advantage of Selma’s waterway, the Alabama River.

“I want to develop this river port for import and exports, all types of businesses in the district,” King said. “I would improve the Bloch Park fishing area, too.”