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Dow's dramatic decision to go
for all the marbles in 1989
(Courtesy of The Press-Register 2006 (copyright). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.)
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Mike Dow finally caved in on a slow and sticky Sunday evening in the early summer of 1989.
All was quiet in the trailer that was his City Council District 6 campaign headquarters at Airport and University boulevards. Campaign workers scarce. It was just the candidate and his campaign thoughts in the muggy Mobile dusk.
A friend and adviser stopped by unexpectedly. Dow listened for the umpteenth time as Mark Berson, then of the upscale women’s fashion boutique Raphael’s, pitched his case.
Dow — the rich, articulate QMS Inc. executive — could not beat incumbent Jane Q. Baxter for her City Council seat, Berson said. The 41-year-old political novice could, however, oust Mayor Arthur Outlaw, a towering figure whose wealth, national standing in the Republican Party and respect among the community’s power structure seemingly cloaked him in a thick political armor.
District 6, the Cottage Hill area, was a closed door? But the door to the mayor’s office was wide open? Crazy talk. But sometimes on such talk a city’s history turns.
After that evening, ambition, minor resentments and realpolitik would conspire to deflect Dow from his original plan: to ease into the action, play a safe hand, warm up and be in the game for a big pot later on down the road.
As the cards were falling in this game, the line between a bold strategy and a cautious one had blurred. It could, Dow realized, be safer to shoot the moon.
Seventeen years and four terms later, Dow and others recalled in-depth for the first time publicly and candidly how he began his political career with an audacious run for mayor. Accounts from the various players in the various camps reflect the differing perspectives of the people involved. They also show how close Mobile came to a different modern history.
"Mark Berson was first on my case, relentlessly from day one, to jump to mayor," Dow recalled recently, almost one year after deciding to step down after four terms at City Hall.
Soon to be 59, Dow is now heading sales and marketing for CentraLite Systems, a high-tech home lighting company. Dow and his brother-in-law, CentraLite founder Jim Busby, hope to take the company public as they did with QMS more than 20 years ago.
"(The late) Bill Yeager, Danny Sheridan, John Lockett, Richard Dorman, Tom Busby and other close friends, advisers and supporters pressured me to run for mayor. In my speeches around town people would walk up to me afterward and say, ‘Please tell us you are going to run for mayor and not the City Council.’"
Dow listened, perhaps even weakening at times, but he had a plan and he would not be deterred.
"I wanted badly in those early days to run for City Council part time and to start another company ... That goal was crushed in the political stampede that occurred."
King Arthur or Kindly Uncle A?
The Outlaw administration began in 1985 with much fanfare, a new beginning in Old Mobile. Out went the scandal-plagued City Commission, whose three members had been elected at-large and, invariably, were white middle-aged men whose faces sometimes changed but whose power bases remained constant. In came a nonpartisan mayor/city council government that eventually would include black and female representation.
Soon enough, the new mayor and council had their detractors, stemming from an early rift with then Press-Register Publisher Bill Hearin over a proposed elevated expressway along the city’s downtown waterfront. What followed was broader public disenchantment with the administration’s signature initiative: construction of a $60-million-plus riverfront convention center at the foot of Government Street.
Funding for the project would come from an increase in the city’s lodging tax and the so-called "hamburger tax," a 1 percent increase in the city sales tax on prepared food. The public outcry was immediate and long-lasting.
"My initial heartfelt goal in running for the City Council in 1989 was to help (Outlaw) implement the city’s ‘Goals for Mobile Strategic Plan,’" Dow said. "I also had a burning desire to redevelop our embarrassing, sadly abandoned downtown."
Dow had even contributed $500 to Outlaw’s re-election bid.
On the outside looking in
"Prior to the 1989 elections I called and/or met in passing with Mayor Outlaw on numerous occasions and attempted to set up a breakfast to tell him that I wanted to get his support to serve on the council to help him and the city succeed," Dow said. "I received no encouragement or positive response to those requests. I never was able to set up that breakfast. I moved forward with my plans to run for the City Council."
What the Dow camp may or may not have known was a secret that the Outlaw inner circle hoped to keep. Outlaw was no longer a political colossus astride Mobile. He was closer to being a paper tiger.
Six months out from the election, polling found Outlaw to be very vulnerable, said his then-administrative assistant, Harding Fendley, who managed the Outlaw campaign until the mayor was forced into a runoff with Dow.
The poll showed that Outlaw would prevail over former City Commissioner Lambert Mims, who had stated his intention to run for mayor despite a looming indictment on federal charges related to a long-investigated proposed garbage-to-steam plant.
The poll suggested, however, that should a well-financed newcomer "such as Joe Bullard or Mike Dow" enter the field, the Outlaw regime was likely one and done. Far from holding a full house, the mayor was in need of a good bluff and a lot of luck. He had neither.
Clearly, to some in the two camps, Dow was a genuine mayoral prospect.
We got a winner
An ad man of Yeager’s experience could easily see that Dow’s story was a political consultant’s dream come true. If he couldn’t get voters to buy in on Dow, he should stick to making car commercials.
When Dow was 9, his alcoholic father abandoned the family. Soon thereafter, his mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Orphans, Dow and his three brothers shuttled between foster homes as wards of the state. At 17, not having the money for college, Dow joined the Army.
"I joined the Army airborne unassigned, got an infantry rifleman assignment, went to basic training on a train, attended advance infantry training, a leadership school and paratrooper training," Dow said. "I had to jump out of the first airplane that I had ever been on."
Dow and his entire jump school class were shipped to Vietnam. Dow spent 27 months in the 173rd Airborne as a helicopter door gunner. He returned "angry and uneducated," he said.
He came to Mobile as a 21-year-old, got married, started a family — ultimately fathering four children — and attended the University of South Alabama on the G.I. Bill while working full-time.
Over seven years, he got an economics degree and an MBA. He joined his brother-in-law Jim Busby at QMS, helping take the high-tech start-up from its humble beginnings on a $10,000 loan to a $300 million market cap listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
With QMS up and running strong, Dow became involved during the 1980s in community service on a dozen or more boards, including a role as the first business volunteer vice chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s newly formed community services division. He developed an itch for public office and decided to scratch it in 1989 by running for the District 6 seat on the City Council, with a long-term goal to succeed Outlaw when the mayor decided to leave office.
Relating his background to Yeager at a lunch to discuss the District 6 race, Dow said he concluded with the thought that, "Most everything good in my life had happened after I came to Mobile and I felt compelled to give something back."
"Bill gave me a sly smile and said, ‘You are going to be our next mayor,’" said Dow. "He had a busy schedule that election, and agreed to take me on because of my ‘mayoral potential’ as he called it. Bill never got excited about my run for the City Council."
Dow may have been thinking City Council, District 6, but Yeager was running a mayoral campaign.
Yeager flooded the city and its outskirts with billboards proclaiming "Mike Dow — Leadership for Mobile’s future." An unorthodox tactic in a City Council race.
"Bill took out the billboards to preserve my and his options," Dow said. "To Bill, I was going to be the mayor."
You can leave your hat on
Jane Baxter had caught some grief early in her first term on the City Council. A lot of it was standard 9-to-5 media buffoonery: attacked as a flighty female; derided as Old Mobile; fretting over the proper hat wear to the inauguration. An easy target. But Ms. Baxter had been a staunch Outlaw ally, perhaps his most steadfast, although Outlaw worked without tiring to unite the entire council behind him. The result? A reciprocal loyalty.
"Unfortunately I was not on very many people’s radar screen citywide running against Jane Baxter for City Council," Dow said. "The media did not seem to care. Jane, to her advantage, had a very large Arthur Outlaw supportive district and voter base behind her, many of whom wanted her to stay, understandably because of her established relationship with Arthur Outlaw."
Dow said the local GOP executive committee’s endorsement of Baxter (now Jane Conkin) without even speaking with him was a major impetus in his jump to the mayor’s race.
"Since Arthur was at that time the chairman of the state Republican Party and Jane’s campaign manager and a cousin were on the local Republican Executive Committee, the group met one night early on in the race and endorsed Jane Baxter against me," Dow said.
"No one on that committee had the courtesy or cared enough to meet with me and ask me about my politics or platform. I got mad at that point and determined that if I wanted to be the mayor one day and make a difference in the welfare of our city and its citizens that I was going to have to bypass the City Council. The rest is history."
Baxter’s campaign manager, Les Barnett, however, intimated his belief that it was fear or common sense more than anger that motivated Dow.
"We put up 1,000 yard signs on a Sunday night," Barnett recalled. "The next few days later, he switched to the mayor’s race. The grapevine said that Dow’s advisers felt he could survive politically if he lost — yes, lost — the mayor’s race, but not if he got beat to death in (District) 6."
Had he remained a District 6 candidate, Dow was facing a humiliating defeat, according to Baxter’s account.
When Dow called to inform her of his plans to run for the District 6 seat, he suggested that she consider not running for re-election since her defeat was inevitable, Baxter said. "He made reference to the amount of money that he planned on spending and that there was no way that I’d be able to keep up," she said.
According to Baxter, Dow informed her that his plan was to run for the council seat, serve one term, increase his name recognition, then run for mayor because he felt Outlaw wouldn’t want a third term.
"And then he said, ‘Who knows what I’ll run for next?’" Baxter related. "He was implying that Sonny Callahan’s seat would be available in the next 8-12 years and that he’d run for Congress. I laughed at him because of his naiveté.
"Who in their right mind would call an incumbent and try to discourage her from running and then imply that he really wanted the job as a stepping stone for greater offices?" Baxter marveled. "That’s why I never cared for Mike Dow. I thought he was a jerk."
Though they locked horns for much of Dow's first term, Baxter's initial impression of Dow softened over the years.
"He's really been popular, never said a bad word about anyone so I now know he's definitely not a jerk but a pretty nice guy," said Baxter.
With her GOP roots in a GOP district, Baxter said, she remained confident of re-election whether Dow stayed or went.
"We knew we were strong and Dow knew he’d lose," she said. "He couldn’t lose to a young City Council woman. That would kill him politically before he ever got started. But, in his polling, he discovered that Outlaw was weak. Outlaw was taking the damage on the convention center hoopla and, let’s face it, Outlaw was a fabulous human being and statesman but he just couldn’t get that across to the public."
Baxter said she got a call from Ann Bedsole near the qualifying deadline, telling her that Dow would not oppose her and instead would take on Outlaw for mayor.
"She is so savvy," Baxter said. "She knew everything."
Baxter said she went to City Hall and immediately informed a disbelieving Outlaw.
"He doesn’t believe me because Dow had given him $500 in the mayoral race," she said. "Well, the rumors were flying. So about 4:45 p.m. we were all sitting in (City Clerk) Richard Smith’s office and here comes the Dow camp. Actually, Mike was so green back then, he wanted to run for both offices. Richard told him he couldn’t do that. So Dow dropped District 6 and ran for mayor."
While Dow would never admit "that I was whopping him in District 6," Dow’s team knew it full well, said Baxter.
"Do I remember?" she asked. "Like it was yesterday."
Dow’s memory of the events is a bit different. He said he never intended to run for both offices, that he only wanted to be fully informed of process and procedure.
As for being "a jerk," Dow said he "had a fun time with Jane Baxter. She and (former Councilwoman) Irmateen Watson gave me hell for three years. When my second election came up, Jane had begun to support and work with me and my administration and she had even put my re-election for mayor sign in her yard.
"I said, ‘Jane do you have to put that sign in your yard? Are you really trying to help me?’ We all worked hard and accomplished a lot."
Sheridan, a nationally known sports analyst, adamantly credits Berson with prompting Dow to try to bring about change from the mayor’s office rather than a council seat.
Berson’s analysis, his dissection of the factors guiding the outcome of either race, council and mayoral, was so compelling, so undeniable that Dow deviated from his plan, Sheridan said.
"This is exactly what happened," Sheridan continued. "Mark stopped by the campaign headquarters that Sunday evening (just days before the qualifying deadline). Nothing much is going on. Nothing buzzing six weeks or so out. Mark tells Mike, ‘You’re not going to win in District 6 and here’s why. You’re a great candidate but you can’t win.’ He laid it out for him. ‘This is a silk stocking district and you’re going to lose. What you need to do is run for mayor.’"
According to Sheridan, Dow called him later that night and relayed the crux of Berson’s analysis.
"He said, ‘Mark has a point, Mark could be right,’" Sheridan said. "He tells me, ‘Mark has convinced me I’ll lose the District 6 race through no fault of my own, but he thinks I can win the mayor’s race.’"
Sheridan was uncertain, thinking maybe there was a misunderstanding or a practical joke was unfolding, he said.
"Well, Mark has an unusual sense of humor," said Sheridan. "Dry, I suppose."
Mims’ presence in the field and his near certain 10-15 percent of the vote guaranteed Dow a spot in the runoff, according to Berson. Then, the extra three weeks would serve as a showcase in which Dow’s political stature would mature virtually overnight. In the runoff, Dow would have issues, money and momentum, Berson prophesied.
"I said, ‘That does make sense,’¤" Sheridan said. "Berson said the timing is right and Outlaw has no control over it. The timing is right for a fresh face. Mims will get crushed and you’ll be in a runoff. People will vote for you. They’ll come out of the woodwork."
Sheridan said he then called Lockett, saying Berson was "crazy." But as they discussed the Berson scenario, "we saw he was right. Dow could win the mayor’s race. He had no chance at (District) 6. The rest is history. If Berson doesn’t go over there on Sunday night, his day of rest, and say ‘Mike, I want to talk to you’ and they talk for about an hour or two, Dow does not run for mayor."
Dorman, an attorney, said his recollection of the events is "hazy at best."
"I don’t know if it was Berson or Bill Yeager, but yes we were the few who thought he should run and could win," said Dorman. "I think Mike made the decision and then went to Lockett to ask him to run the campaign. It was all so quick any of us could be off a little on this."
Lockett, now a circuit judge, said Dow had already decided to run for mayor when he asked Lockett to handle the campaign.
"When Mike called me and asked me to manage his campaign in late May or early June 1989, he had made the decision to run for mayor," said Lockett. "How he got there, I do not recall. I did agree that he had a good shot at beating Outlaw and Mims and enthusiastically signed up.
Berson said he urged Dow to try for mayor, and even "beseeched" him.
"I’m sure there were others that weighed in for Mike to make the mayor’s race," said Berson. "Although I had the utmost respect and admiration for Arthur Outlaw, I felt that a younger, more energetic person was what Mobile desperately needed at that time.
"As I recall, there was not much time left to qualify for mayor. Maybe a week to 10 days. I know that I beseeched him at that time. I don’t know how many others may have done the same. I hate to claim credit for his change in course. Mike gave the city 16 wonderful years and I hope that he has some more ‘public service years’ left in him for a gubernatorial run in the future."
On Aug. 22, Dow pulled 18,962 votes to Outlaw’s 17,892. Mims drew 4,114 votes, while assorted also-rans totaled about 1,300. Dow and Outlaw would meet in a runoff three weeks later. But the politically astute knew it was already over. The outsider was in. Mobile would have a new mayor — Mike Dow.