The death last week of Tommy Stephenson was the end of an era and the loss of one of Jackson County’s most enigmatic public officials of the last five decades.
Few people today remember Stephenson; many of the old-timers have died and there would be no reason for the county’s newer residents to know who he was.
But there was a time when you could say “Tommy” and just about everyone attuned to local politics would know exactly who you were talking about.
Stephenson began his political ascent by becoming mayor of Commerce at age 27, defeating a six-year incumbent in 1981. Sporting long, black hair and a boyish grin, Stephenson stood out on the city council when seated next to the older council members, some of whom were getting pretty long in the tooth.
Commerce was in troubled waters financially and during his election, Stephenson called for the city to adopt a city manager government in a bid to professionalize city operations. At that time, council committees nominally oversaw the various city departments.
It didn’t take long for the ruckus to start. Within the first month of taking office, Stephenson kicked a hornet’s next. There was standing room only at his first meeting, council members were shouting at each other and by the end of January, there was talk of recalling Stephenson.
Stephenson quickly vetoed several actions the council had voted to approve, a situation that set up a caustic relationship from the start. But the young mayor said he was elected to “fight” and vowed to press on.
And he did. The pressure was intense; Stephenson walked out of at least one council meeting in a pique and he took to the local radio airwaves to rip his political opponents (this was pre-Twitter days; one can only imagine what would have happened if there had been social media back then).
Stephenson wanted to shake up the city council, but he was trapped in a “weak mayor” form of government, something he acknowledged after being in office for three months.
”Maybe I was too young,” he said. “I was foolish enough to believe that if I got elected mayor, I could turn things around. I did not realize how powerless the mayor really is. If I had known then what I know now, I would have run for a councilman’s position; at least then I could have voted.”
Stephenson went on to say that in retrospect, the previous mayor whom he had defeated at the ballot box wasn’t so bad after all.
”A mayor is only as good as the councilmen he has to work with,” he said.
Eventually, Stephenson’s call to hire a city manager and move away from the council running the day-to-day operations of the town won out. That didn’t stop all the controversy, but Stephenson was right to call for a city manager, although he made the effort more difficult than it had to be with a confrontational style in the early going.
But he learned from that. By the time he ran, and won, a seat on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in 1988, he had mellowed.
Back then, the BOC was a three-member board elected at-large. Agendas were often sparse and one of Stephenson’s first moves was to have the board meet once-per-month rather than twice, saying it didn’t make sense to have to cancel meetings so often due to a light agenda.
While on the BOC, Stephenson pushed for the county to adopt emergency 911 dialing and called for the county to move toward a county-manager government. The 911 system did get done, but it would take another decade for the county to move to a five-member BOC with a county manager.
In 1992, Stephenson won the local seat for state representative. From that perch, he continued to push for a county manager government, although that effort failed when the local state senator wouldn’t sign-off on the legislation.
Eventually, Stephenson became House majority whip, a leadership position that seemingly fell into his lap. Shortly after that, he rode with me to a media-political function in Atlanta and he was giddy about his new position in state leadership.
By 1996, he was ready for bigger things and Stephenson made a bid for Congress — and lost.
After that, his 15-year run in local politics began to fade. He ran again for Commerce mayor in 2011 and was defeated. Times had changed.
For most of his political career, Stephenson had been a cat with nine lives, always coming back just when you thought he would never see political office again. But after 1996, his leadership days were over.
I wrote a lot about Stephenson over his tenure in public office, some of it critical to the core.
But Tommy didn’t take it personally. He would call, laugh about whatever I had penned about him, and make a point to say he didn’t have any ill-will.
“You’re just doing your job,” he’d say.
Stephenson has been one of the few public officials I’ve covered who felt that way — most get upset at unfavorable media coverage.
In more recent times, Stephenson had reportedly struggled with some personal demons.
Still, his death from injuries in a car wreck were shocking to those of use who had known him at his peak of influence in the county.
Seems just like yesterday he was a young mayor in Commerce, wagging his finger at his political opponents.
And whatever one thought about his politics, the world today could use a dose of Tommy Stephenson’s idealism and good-natured political banter.