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An inside look at Stimpson’s improbable victory in Mobile

Photo credit: Chad Riley, ChadRileyPhoto.com
Photo credit: Chad Riley, ChadRileyPhoto.com

Earlier this year I sat with Sandy Stimpson at an Alabama Policy Institute board members retreat.

By this point, he had already dove headlong into a campaign to unseat two-term Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, and to be frank, a lot of people thoughts he was crazy.

Mobile is a city of just under 200,000 people. 50% of the population is black, 44% is white. Over a quarter of the city’s residents live in single-parent or “non-family” households. Poverty is a serious issue.

Those are hardly the kind of demographics that work to the advantage of a white, male, staunchly conservative businessman running against a well-known black incumbent. Heck, Barack Obama garnered 61% of the vote in Mobile in 2012.

“Have you seen any polling numbers?” I asked Sandy, getting right to the point.

“I have,” he said calmly. “The pollster told me before I got into the race that he would give me a ‘green light, yellow light or red light’ based on the numbers. A green light would mean I could absolutely win, a red light would mean there’s no chance, and a yellow light would mean I’d have a shot, but it would be an uphill battle.”

He paused for a second, sat back in his chair and smiled.

“He gave me a yellow light, and that’s all I needed to know — that there was a chance.”

Over the next several months, Stimpson’s team ran a campaign that could potentially — and justifiably — be emulated by candidates across the country who are in swing districts or face demographic challenges that would normally be seen as insurmountable.

Yellowhammer spoke at length today to Stimpson’s campaign manager, Chad Tucker, who was anything but surprised by the race’s outcome.

“It wasn’t a surprise to us,” he said. “We felt like we would be successful if we ran a different campaign — not traditional — reach out to every corner of the community and bring folks together.”

“But you couldn’t have been that confident from the beginning, right?” I replied.

According to Tucker, once Stimpson saw there was a chance to win, he was decisive and immediately pushed forward with the campaign without any reservations.

“We had an honest discussion about the data,” Tucker said. “Sandy didn’t want to get in if there was no way to win. He didn’t want to waste money from contributors or the time of volunteers. As soon as we saw the research that said he could win, he pulled the trigger.”

Contributors and volunteers pulled the trigger, too.

Stimpson has always been seen as a viable potential candidate for most any office in the state because of his ability to self-fund. Remarkably, his mayoral campaign raised $1.5 million — more than all three of Sam Jones’s moyaral campaigns combined — but not one cent came out of Stimpson’s pocket.

“Everything started with us making sure the folks got a chance to know Sandy,” Tucker said when asked about the campaigns success with donors, volunteers and, ultimately, voter turnout. “We’ve been running wide open for a year. This wasn’t a campaign that said, ‘let’s raise money and just focus on the last 12 weeks,’ we spent a long time building real relationships with people. We ended up with 2,000 contributors and thousands upon thousands of volunteers. They were invested. They bought in.”

As part of their efforts to help voters “get to know” Stimpson, the campaign spent a significant amount of time building out an online presence that was a reflection of their candidate’s personality.

As of election day, Stimpson had garnered almost 14,000 “likes” on Facebook and uploaded almost 100 videos to YouTube over the past year.

Their most-watched video, which has over 27,000 views, is of Stimpson and members of the campaign staff doing the “Harlem Shake,” a popular viral video craze that swept the country in early 2013. On Wednesdays the campaign would post “Hump Day” graphics on Facebook, playing off of a popular Geico commercial.

It paid off.

“Most candidates sound like every other candidate you’ve ever heard,” Tucker explained. “Rarely do you see the real personality of a candidate. Relationships don’t get built that way. People needed to see Sandy’s personality and character, so we used social media as the way to do that. The ‘Harlem Shake’ video, for instance, was us saying, ‘this is going to be a fun campaign, we’re going to have a good time.'”

But there was a brief moment during the campaign when people on the outside questioned whether Stimpson was 100 percent committed to the mayoral race, or if he might actually switch directions mid-stride.

In late May, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner announced he would be leaving his south Alabama congressional seat.

Speculation swirled that Stimpson, then a long-shot candidate for mayor, might actually forego his mayoral bid in favor of jumping in the Republican primary for Alabama’s 1st Congressional District seat. He already had the campaign apparatus in place, his name ID was rising, and his financial resources could far outclass the potential field.

Tucker says now that there wasn’t a single moment that Stimpson considered jumping in the race.

“When Sandy learned of Bonner’s resignation and that his name was being brought up as a potential candidate, he immediately said, ‘no chance.’ He sincerely thought he had a much better chance of bringing change in the community at the local level, not in Washington. He didn’t even consider it for one second.”

And now that he’s pulled off the surprise political victory of the year, speculation is already bubbling up about what the future may hold.

Although it’s a lifetime away in political years, I asked Tucker if Stimpson might consider a run for Governor in 2018.

“It doesn’t seem to be on his radar at all,” he said. “No one’s more passionate about what he’s about to do than Sandy. He’s going to live and breathe Mobile for the next four years. People want to be part of something. They want to be heard. Sandy’s campaign gave them that outlet. And now he’s going to deliver what he promised.”

Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims