An unfortunate political ending

Published 10:33 am Saturday, June 30, 2012

Politicians and football coaches — disproportionately to other occupations — have trouble going out on top. They tend to hang on too long, creating unhappy endings where storybook finishes are more fitting.

Veteran Franklin Mayor Jim Councill left office this week on terms other than his own, having been turned away by voters this spring in his bid for a ninth term.

That’s unfortunate, mostly because it didn’t have to end that way for a man whose passion for his city’s well-being is unequaled.

The handwriting on the wall was apparent four years ago when Councill limped to victory with 43 percent of the vote against then-unknown challengers Ellis Crum and Greg McLemore. On the same ballot, one of Councill’s staunchest City Council allies was soundly defeated, and a candidate for an open seat who had been painted by his opponent as cozy with Councill lost as well.

A man whose political effectiveness flowed from his ability to build coalitions awoke the morning after the election a weakened victor with no council allies.

It was the beginning of the end for Jim Councill in elected service.

Some have pinned Councill’s May 1 defeat on his handling of the city’s dalliance with the Navy about hosting pilot training at Franklin Municipal Airport. It might have been the proverbial final straw, but it was hardly the cause of the mayor’s political demise, which was well under way by the time the Navy came calling.

Jim Councill’s political fortunes declined when he lost touch with a fiscally conservative electorate. If you want an explanation for Councill’s ultimate defeat, try this: Franklin city government spending, under his watch, grew 62 percent — from a $32 million enterprise when he took office to $52 million in a decade-and-a-half, a window in which the city’s population was stagnant.

Other than some retail development along the Golden Mile, the tax base stagnated during that period as well, and homeowners began to shoulder more and more of the burden of municipal government. There was no visible, urgent preparation for what should have been apparent as soon as International Paper purchased Union Camp in 1999: Franklin’s paper mill wouldn’t be the town’s economic anchor forever. Many share in that blame, but Councill, as the community’s highest-profile leader, was the primary target of citizens’ rhetorical question of community leadership: Why didn’t you see this coming?

A rocky relationship with black voters complicated Councill’s political math. Controversial comments attributed to the mayor by a Washington Post reporter in the aftermath of the 1999 flood got him off to a rough start with the black community. A bigger factor was his alienation of black council colleagues, including the woman who would ultimately defeat him. When Councill had a rock-solid “posse” of four votes on the council prior to 2008, he didn’t need the votes of the other three and did nothing to endear himself with the council minority. What goes around indeed comes around, especially in politics.

By January of this year, it was clear that Councill was in political trouble in the spring election. Some of his most loyal supporters over the years recognized it, went to him and asked him to bow out gracefully, to go out on top, to make room for new leadership, lest Franklin end up with an undesirable mayor.

Some are blaming that small group for Councill’s defeat. In fact, they tried to save him from it. He ignored their pleas — and mustered just 37 percent of the vote, a predictable, if sad, outcome.

Of all elected servants, Jim Councill should have gone out a winner. Opponents can question his policies, his philosophies and his style, but they can’t question his heart for this city and its citizens, or the passion with which he represented Franklin everywhere he went.

His 16 years of service warrant more than the plaque and resolution he received at Monday night’s City Council meeting. Somebody should declare Jim Councill Day in the city. Name Hunterdale Road after him.

His legacy should not be defined by the 2012 election.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is