TRANSITION IS HARD The transition of leadership for any community is difficult, but it seems to be particularly difficult in Northwest Florida. Up until recently, elected officials were rarely successfully challenged in elections. Incumbents seldom lost.
In fact, the easiest path to political office was to be appointed. Mike Wiggins, Ronald Townsend and John Jerralds were appointed to the Pensacola City Council before they had to run for the office. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Marie Young to replace the indicted Escambia County Commissioner Willie Junior. He also appointed Lois Benson to the Emerald Coast Utility Board.
Before 2008, the only successful challenges against incumbents were in 2000 when Ron McNesby defeated Sheriff Jim Lowman and Jim Paul defeated School Superintendent Jim May—and those defeats may have had more to do with political affiliations than the incumbents. Both McNesby and Paul ran as Republicans. The same year, Mike Whitehead was soundly defeated when he went after Clerk of Court Ernie Lee Magaha, and a year later Lois Benson failed to beat Mayor John Fogg.
However, the reluctance to pass the baton to younger generations is more than a political issue. During the past decade, the “go to” spokesmen for the most progressive causes were three leaders well past age 65. Retired Vice Admiral Jack Fetterman fought for Oriskany, Maritime Museum and Community Maritime Park. Vince Whibbs, Sr. also was the major advocate for the maritime park, right up until his sudden death. M. J. Menge led the last charge for charter government in Escambia County. When these three giants passed away, they left a huge void.
The Pensacola Young Professionals was formed in 2006 to help provide a voice for the next generation of community leaders. Since their successful effort to pass the referendum for the maritime park, PYP has struggled to find their voice and have it consistently heard. None of their members were on the city’s Charter Review Commission.
PYP has failed to show it consistently can get its age group out to vote. Clay Ingram was elected on Nov. 2 to the Florida House, but member Courtney Peterson lost his bid for the Pensacola City Council and Lumon May lost in 2008 to incumbent State Rep. Clay Ford.
In the African-American community, there has been little mentoring of rising leaders. In fact, the young leaders are more likely to be criticized for stepping out on issues. Despite its own lack of tangible accomplishments over the past two decades, the senior black leadership quickly resorts to name-calling and peer pressure to keep the voices of the young leadership silent.
In the Pensacola mayoral race, the older African-American leaders sided with Mayor Mike Wiggins and they successfully delivered him the black vote during the August primary. All three African-American city council members supported Wiggins.
On Nov. 2, the young leaders didn’t sit quietly on the sidelines. Why? Because they see firsthand the suffering in their neighborhoods. While Commissioner Marie Young is driving by in her shiny Mercedes, they are coaching on the ball fields, counseling families and tutoring.
The West Side Plan that has been shelved since 2007 needs to be funded and begun. The disparity study needs to be done to open city procurement to minority-owned businesses. The level of service has to be more equitable.
While status quo worked for the older black leaders, the new leaders saw that Ashton Hayward offered an opportunity to truly deal with these problems, and they got the vote out for him on Nov. 2.
And maybe that is the only way the transition of political power can be done. It must be taken.