On Feb. 25, CW staff reporter Rich Robinson spent the morning with Tuscaloosa city Mayor Walt Maddox.
It’s a typical Monday morning at Tuscaloosa City Hall in late February. Walt Maddox, the mayor of the city, is having computer issues.
His Lenovo ThinkPad is not syncing up to his email account. “Not a good start,” Maddox says with a slight smile. At 8:50 a.m., Maddox is drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper, the first of many he will consume today.
After a few more agitated keystrokes, city clerk Tracy Croom walks in for a meeting about the final ice skating rink budget. They are $5,000 in the red and must sell its benefits and cost to the city council.
“During my time as mayor, other than the city’s response after the tornado, I’ve never received as many positive responses,” Maddox says to Croom, a University of Alabama graduate and former employee of the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, Ga.
“It’s one of those things where you look and say, if it’s a $5,000 net loss even after start-up expenses, many of it which you won’t incur next year; and what’s the return on community as opposed to the return on investment? Why don’t we present that tomorrow?” Maddox asks Croom, who agrees.
Wearing a blue dress shirt, grey pants and a black tie, Maddox transitions to a meeting with his scheduling team. His hands are clasped over his head as the daily schedule is discussed.
The meeting now over, the mayor takes a phone call that leaves him slightly agitated.
“Putting out fires is what I do all day. It’s part of the job,” Maddox says. “You know, I had a professor in college, and I can’t remember what course it was, but he said that everything is based off human relationships, everything. And it really is.”
Then the mayor stands up from his desk and walks down the hallway to the Narashino room. It’s time for a photo op and proclamation reading with UA public relations students, who are working on an anti-bullying initiative in Tuscaloosa middle schools.
A different side of the mayor comes out when he walks into the room and interacts with the public. The inner politician is let loose from its office prison.
“Hey Jackie, I’m Walt Maddox. Nice to meet you,” He says with a toothy smile to a UA student in the room for the event. Small talk ensues. He then sits down to read the proclamation decrying childhood bullying. “They print me a bigger copy so I can read it. Those glasses are so expensive, and my wife says they’re not the most flattering on me, and so I’m self conscious when wearing them. She says they’re Harry Potter-looking.”
Twenty minutes later, after prying into the background of the students and organizers, and talking about the importance of ending bullying in schools, Maddox makes his exit. It’s back to the office, where he spends much of the day.
The mayor of Druid City is finishing up a quick phone call with Jimmy Junkin, the water and sewer director for the city. Tera Tubbs, director of the Tuscaloosa Department of Transportation, walks in and sits across from him. Part of her job is oversight of the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport.
“I guess I’m not a pilot, so it makes me nervous. We’ll still have our airport, but basically, you have to look around when you land,” Tubbs says to Maddox of the feared effects of sequestration on Tuscaloosa. “I cannot imagine an LSU night game and not having a tower. But I think that we would be okay until football season.”
Maddox looks concerned. He adds that if the city lost tower controls, then it would hurt economic development, but he also realizes how little control they have over the situation. And just like that, he changes directions and asks Tubbs about an incident he briefly heard regarding the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, a key achievement of the mayor’s time in office.
“Somebody ran through those bushes out in the front,” Tubbs says. “Ran through them and ran back through them. We’re going to have to get some guardrails up there.”
Maddox, aware of what he is about to say, smiles wide. “I can’t believe I’m about to ask this question, but are there any decorative guardrails?”
Tubbs says she will look in to it, and the meeting is finished.
After she leaves, Maddox says, “Being mayor is the coolest job in the world, because you can go from picking up someone’s garbage to negotiating a thousand new jobs in one conversation.”
Interspersed between answering emails, (he is quick to say he is 40 behind) Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox answers questions about his political ideology and background.
He didn’t come from a politically active family. Both of his parents were teachers, and Maddox wanted to be a football coach when he grew up. He played football at the University of Alabama at Birmingham but stayed abreast of government as a political science major. He then fell in love with a woman at UAB who had aplastic anemia.
She required health insurance for the serious disease, so Maddox put his career ambitions on hold and took a job with the Alabama Education Association. She soon died, and Maddox was alone in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That was the first time he says he felt real loss and was forced to take life one day at a time.
He then started to perform well at his job and worked on political campaigns that gave him insight into organized labor. He eventually took a job as executive director of Personnel for Tuscaloosa City Schools, which brought him home and back in touch with its problems. He ran for city council in 2001 at 28 and then was elected mayor in 2005.
Despite Maddox’s success, not all have been happy with his time in office.
Cliff Sims, the publisher of yellowhammerpolitics.com, a conservative website devoted to Alabama issues, listed Maddox as a local leader to watch in the future.
“Maddox has used the non-partisanship of municipal elections as a way to downplay his political leanings,” Sims wrote. “But make no mistake – he’s a liberal Democrat through and through. Still, with the Democratic party in total shambles, Maddox is one of their few great hopes for the future.”
When asked about Sims’ characterization, Maddox says he would grade out as a conservative Democrat on a hypothetical litmus test. But he also says that it matters little in his current job.
“Picking up one’s garbage does not require a Republican or Democratic perspective,” Maddox said. When asked where his beliefs come from, Maddox attributes them to his on-the-job experience.
“I think I get it from my seven plus years here and my five years with the Tuscaloosa City School System, because all I do every day is I wake up and try to do a good job for the people of Tuscaloosa. And I don’t have to worry about party politics,” Maddox said. “In fact the one thing that I look as a negative if I ever chose to run for statewide office is I would absolutely dread the party politics. I think it’s going to be very important moving forward in our politics that we all look at the individual and then make a decision based on what they are trying to do instead of looking at the party as a whole.”
Maddox does not shy away from questions about his political future.
“If there were an opportunity for me to serve and I felt like the timing was right, I would do so and it would be a honor to seek that office he said. “And there are a lot of considerations. Is it right for my family, is it right for me professionally? Because I absolutely love this job and I cannot imagine leaving this job at this point in my life.”
It’s time to go again, this time to a presentation with more than 20 city staff and officials about a new GIS proposal from Auburn University. The room is filled with two huge tables where people in varying degrees of dress are seated. Maddox sits in the rear of the room with legs crossed. Everyone is sitting in a deep red leather chair that squeaks when its occupant moves. The meeting lasts nearly an hour and a half and Maddox asks a series of pointed questions.
After a quick lunch, Maddox goes down to a lower level of City Hall. In a small crowded room, no larger than a typical high school class, sits the nerve center for the recovery of the city of Tuscaloosa after the April 27, 2011 tornado.
Robin Edgeworth, director of recovery operations, leads the meeting and briefs the mayor on the latest news and activity. The room is crowded with maps of the storm path, and with about 15 people who have desks in the area. Edgeworth and three other city employees’ only job is to rebuild the city. The money to pay them comes from the Housing and Urban Development Department.
They oversee projects, track down funding and do just about everything else required to have the city bounce back. Maddox becomes very serious in this room and asks numerous questions about each aspect of rebuilding projects.
After the meeting, Maddox says roughly 40 to 50 percent of his calendar each day deals with issues related to the tornado.
“There are moments when I am saddened, really shook to my core by what some of our citizens experienced. It’s something that burns inside of me every single day,” Maddox said. “I’m very passionate about the recovery, very determined that we come out better from this as a community and that those communities that were impacted come out better. Whether we wanted it to or not, it is something that is defining all of us.”
The meetings are mostly over for Maddox today. He has time to think for a few minutes.
“I believe I’m where God intended me to be,” he said.
Maddox was recently married in 2010, has a daughter, and is expecting another child in late summer. He is also running for election for a third term in August and does not see himself outside of Tuscaloosa for the foreseeable future.
“Right now I have no plans to leave this office,” Maddox said. “I love what I do every single day, I really feel blessed to be mayor of Tuscaloosa.”
He plans to campaign hard but says every day in office is a sort of campaign for him.
“I’m a believer that if you do your job, then every day is a campaign day. If we do our job here at city hall then the politics will take care of itself,” Maddox said.
Regardless of what takes place in August, Maddox will be seen as a potential candidate for many statewide races in the foreseeable future. He hears the faint call of ambition in the distance and does not run from it.
“It’s nice to have other opportunities and others would argue that, ‘Walt you should seize those opportunities,’ but I’m not ready to leave just yet, he said. “As long as the people will have me, I’d like to serve them as mayor.”
Later that evening, Maddox is back to focusing on city matters and learns something about the ice skating rink. Tracy Crooms tells him that they are in the black.
“It is nice to get good news,” Maddox says.