McKinstry, Lanier Prepare for Tuscaloosa City Council Special Election
In just over a month, the fate of the Tuscaloosa City Council District 7 seat will be decided in a special election, and it's set to be the rematch of the century.
Incumbent District 7 Councilwoman Sonya McKinstry and newcomer Cassius Lanier are going head-to-head once more. Back in March, McKinstry lost her district race by a margin of fewer than 25 votes. She then filed suit against Lanier, the apparent victor, claiming he was unfit to hold office.
The suit cites Lanier's previous state felony convictions and one federal felony conviction disqualify him from holding public office. Lanier applied to obtain pardons from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole for each of his previous crimes after the suit was filed, the oldest of which occurred well over 10 years ago.
He obtained four state pardons and one federal pardon in April for his crimes, making him eligible to hold office. However, a Birmingham Circuit judge nullified that decision just two weeks later because Lanier was not legally able to hold office at the time of the general election.
This has forced a special election to be called, allowing anyone in the district who may have been previously interested to run.
However, the only two candidates voters will find on the ballot will be the two returning faces. Richard Rush, the city's communications director, confirmed that no other individuals qualified to run.
Filling this seat is crucial, as the possible tie-breaker seat has been vacant since the new council took office on May 17.
The Thread reached out to both candidates to see how they're preparing to re-energize their campaigns. They also each spoke one what their biggest takeaways from the March results are and weighed in on the timely issues currently being discussed in the City Council.
Candidate Cassius Lanier
Lanier told The Thread that in the wake of the judge's decision, he immediately got back to work rebuilding his campaign. He believes the judge made a fair decision, and he hopes that his new pardons will help some skeptical voters see him in a new light.
"The feeling I have those pardoned is great," Lanier said. "As for the judge nullifying the results, I'm not even mad. He ruled on the law as he saw fit. I'm not going to argue with his decision; I respect the law."
As for his campaign, Lanier said he aims to keep increasing momentum. He is already back to work canvassing neighborhoods. He has a self-described "block party" campaign rally scheduled for June 26 in Skyland Park.
"This is one of the neighborhoods that wanted me in office," he said. "So, I'm making sure they know I still care about these communities. People believe in real life. They understand mistakes happen, and they don't hold you to your past decisions."
Lanier believes his support has grown stronger since the general election. When asked about some of his stances on the recent gun violence, he said he is very passionate about ensuring District 7 and the city of Tuscaloosa address this surge in crime.
"I don't have to be on the council to have a stance on gun violence; I'm a father, a husband, a son. When it takes place at these public places, it's a threat to anyone," Lanier said. "I am very forgiving for those turning their lives around, but I have a zero-tolerance policy for stupidity ... This isn't up to the police, or the council. It's up to the community to know what's going on in these houses and come together. If you see something, say something. It's going to take cooperation and working with the police, the church, and the city."
Lanier is also an advocate and promoter of the Second Chance Program, which helps former prisoners find gainful employment and housing. He uses his connections with the SCP to connect people in the community and personally has job fairs at his offices each week.
He told The Thread that the best way of connecting with community members is using members of the SCP to build relationships with those who he feels aren't being reached by community services, those with "cultural capital" that can serve as a leading example.
Candidate Sonya McKinstry
After the general election, McKinstry's biggest takeaway was the surprisingly low voter turnout in District 7. Just under 1,500 voters turned out in March, a fraction of the district's total population.
"I think that it's important for everyone to come out and vote; I believe there were a lot of factors as to why they didn't," McKinstry said. "We had a lot of people that didn't come out to vote. The polling location was changed, which was a big factor. I want to spread the message that every vote matters, and I think people see that after what happened in March."
McKinstry has not spoken with Lanier since the ruling, but she said that in terms of her campaign, she is sticking with her three core tenets: public safety, neighborhood revitalization, and economic development.
She emphasized the necessary infrastructure improvements and she has a strong desire to incentivize businesses to come to her district. All that comes at the cost of dedicating the necessary time and resources to improving the district.
"We had our biggest source of blight – the old McFarland Mall – torn down, giving us a great new business opportunity with the sports mega-complex," McKinstry said. "I've also been very vocal about providing additional lighting. Part of the conversation going on right now is bolstering our police force, which we were able to do through Elevate Tuscaloosa."
McKinstry attributed many problems present in District 7 as a result of the April 27, 2011 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa. Families relocated in droves to McKinstry's district, which she says has resulted in high crime and underserved communities. She hopes to keep a police substation located in the district to better serve Districts 6 and 7.
She told The Thread that this special election is crucial for the future of District 7, if anything, for making sure its issues get addressed.
"We've been going through this since January –that's six months. People are tired, aggravated, and burned out," McKinstry said. "It bothers me that nobody's sitting at the D7 seat. For example, there's a big hotel negotiation that could come to D7 but nobody is advocating for that at the council meetings."
She is still talking to citizens and hearing their concerns. She told The Thread that there's no magic formula to addressing these major problems, but it does require the cooperation of the entire council, and communities in her district working together.
"D7 has proven leadership, things we had set out to accomplish, we still have lots of projects pending," she said. "We need someone in the office that we can trust. We have the ability to continue to move the district forward."
The special election will take place July 27 at East McFarland Baptist Church, the designated polling place for District 7. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For more information, visit elections.tuscaloosa.com or reach out to the City Clerk’s office at 205-248-2010.