Mayoral runoff: Experience vs. changes

Decatur Mayor Lynn Fowler will keep selling his experience, while challenger Don Kyle promotes changes, the candidates said Wednesday as they prepare for the Sept. 14 runoff.

Both face challenges that range from voters seeking change to a popular third-place candidate who endorsed the incumbent.

Fowler, 71, a former BellSouth manager, is emphasizing his more than two decades of experience in education, business, economic development, and government, along with his accomplishments to maintain a high level of basic services and quality-of-life services.

Kyle, 54, a former business owner, is pushing basic services, budget control, helping both small and large business, simplifying ordinances, and inviting public input in government.

Kyle said he hopes to reduce the controversial 2001 penny sales tax hike, although he said he is not associated with the Citizens for a Sound Economy group that endorsed an immediate tax cut.

Fowler said it is necessary to maintain the current level of services and he never committed to a tax cut.

Kyle, who finished election night 11 votes ahead of Fowler, said he will seek the support of the four losing candidates. Fowler said he will do the same.

Fowler received 3,830 votes as formally certified by the City Council on Wednesday. He was the top vote getter in Districts 2 and 3. Court reporter and former state Rep. Morris Anderson won in Districts 1, 4 and 5, but finished third overall with 3,448 votes. Kyle came in second in all five districts, but was the top vote getter with 3,841.

Both candidates face a runoff battle in which they will have to stretch the conventional rules of election politics, according to experienced political observers.

In a general election, the incumbent normally has an advantage, experts say.

‘More visibility’

“They have more visibility, more name recognition for fund-raising ability,” said Andree Reeves, associate professor of political science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Fowler is the incumbent. He has more than 20 years of visibility as a member of the Planning Commission, city school board, industrial development projects and one term as mayor.

Kyle comes from an established Decatur family, and he’s known in the banking and business communities in which he has worked, but is a political newcomer.

Incumbents can have problems, however, “if there’s some issue that is so prevailing that might have been a negative,” said Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, a former mayor. “He or she has got to come forth and make the electorate see that we’ve got to look to the future. They’ve got to re-sell themselves. Sometimes that’s difficult because they still have to carry out all the duties of the office.”

Both Fowler and Kyle won roughly 31 percent of the votes cast, theoretically a dead heat. But incumbents generally get most of the votes they’re going to get in a general election, Reeves and Dukes said. People who voted for a change in the general election usually still vote for a change in a runoff.

‘Not happy’

“In general it says that 69 percent of the people aren’t happy with the way the mayor handled his job,” Reeves said.

Conventional political wisdom says that fewer people vote in a runoff than in a general election, but it also says participation is relatively higher in those districts with more than one race at stake.

The mayoral runoff will be on the ballot with City Council runoffs in Districts 3 and 5. District 3 was one of two where Fowler was the top vote getter with 1,568. Kyle was second with 1,052.

In his home District 5, Morris Anderson was first with 1,001. Kyle was second with 850 and Fowler was third with 794.

Notably, runoff council candidate Ray Metzger won more votes in his three-way race, with 1,242, than any of the top three mayoral candidates with a platform dominated by an immediate tax cut that Fowler so far has rejected.

Political observers say voter apathy usually benefits the incumbent because of his existing base of support and visibility.

Voter turnout

However, the city election didn’t quite meet predictions based on the visibility of the 2001 sales tax issue hammered repeatedly by council critics.

Dukes said he expected 55 to 60 percent of voters to turn out. Only 40 percent did, higher than 2000’s 34 percent, but not quite the 43 percent in the 1996 election.

Campaign spending and knocking on doors also helps get people to the polls, Reeves said. Fowler spent about $47,000, doubling the advertising efforts of his five challengers combined.

Kyle closed his Wheeler Marine boat business this year and ran for mayor full time, spending much of it knocking on doors, a luxury Fowler didn’t have while he was directing the city.

One final factor could be crucial. In general, it should be easier for the losers in a local election than those in state or national elections to steer their supporters to a runoff candidate because people have met the candidates face to face and have a greater connection, Reeves said.

Anderson drew 3,448 votes, 28 percent of the total cast, compared to 1,218 total for the race’s three distant finishers, Terry Smith, Jim Robison and Joe Johnson.

Anderson declared quickly after the results were apparent that he will encourage his supporters to vote for Fowler.

Anderson said his decision was based partly on his belief that many of his supporters might otherwise have voted for Fowler. It also was based on a spat with the Kyle campaign, he said.

According to Anderson, a Kyle volunteer also distributed fliers endorsing candidates for the Morgan County Democratic Conference, the party’s predominantly minority wing. The group had endorsed Anderson, but the volunteer was telling people to vote for Kyle, Anderson said.

Hopes to reconcile

Kyle said he also had heard the story and hopes to reconcile with Anderson, even though he thinks it will be difficult for Anderson to direct all his support to Fowler.

Another rule for runoff elections runs counter to general election rules, Dukes said.

“In a general election, the most important days are the last five to 10 days,” he said.

“In a runoff, the most important days are the first five to 10 days, getting organized, getting campaign strategy, studying the polls, studying the ballots, where do we need to concentrate, what are the issues in this section. Then they’ve got to woo these people. You know what the issues are. Now you’ve got to come forth with something a little bit different, something a little bit new and convince every citizen they can possibly get to, that this is what I’m going to do for the future.”

Dukes’ model candidate, ironically, is someone Fowler hasn’t always agreed with — District 1 Councilman Billy Jackson, who walloped challenger Doris Baker 1,262 to 282 Tuesday.

“That’s the perfect example of the incumbent,” Dukes said.

“He’s always been high profile, getting things for his constituents. He always speaks out. He explains to people. He’s from one of the highly respected families in this city. And he has a broad base across all the citizens.”