It was twenty years ago this week that lawyer Bobby Bright unseated Montgomery, Alabama’s long-time mayor and once-gubernatorial candidate Emory Folmar in a surprising upset. Folmar had been mayor since 1977, when he won the special election that followed the resignation of then-mayor Jim Robinson, and had won re-election five times, in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, and 1995. In two of those, Folmar had run unopposed. Heading into the 1999 election, another Folmar term seemed likely, as the Montgomery Advertiser reported in late August that he had raised three times as much campaign money (over $333,000) as the next closest candidate, Bright (over $114,000). There were six candidates in the race this time, among them was Robinson, the man Folmar had replaced.
On election day, October 12, Bright came within striking distance, garnering 21,000 votes to Folmar’s 30,000. Since no candidate received more than 50% of the votes, a runoff would come on November 2. Bright then won the mayor’s job in that two-man race by a margin of 32,819 (54%) to 28,223 (46%), effectively ending an era in Montgomery. Folmar had been a leader in Alabama’s capitol city for the last quarter of the twentieth century, having been city council president from September 1975 until April 1977 then mayor from April 1977 until November 1999.
Interestingly, that bold “BRIGHT WINS” headline on November 3 was followed by a subheading that read “Better schools, unity top issues for new mayor”— which were the same things that the candidates in the 2019 election were promising. Also interesting is: at the bottom of the front page, in an article about the shock and dismay among Folmar’s supporters, one of Montgomery’s 2019 mayoral candidates Ed Crowell was quoted as saying, “I’m a little bit perplexed about how it turned out [ . . . ] It’s obvious that the people spoke, but I don’t know what change they were looking for.”
Change came nonetheless. Bright completed his first term and was re-elected in 2003. His signature achievement was the revitalization of Montgomery’s downtown. Toward the end of his second term, Bright was elected (as a Democrat) to the US Congress and was succeeded by County Commissioner Todd Strange, who continued the revitalization work. After a few terms of his own, Strange did not seek re-election in 2019, and most recent mayor-elect is Probate Judge Steven Reed— the son of Folmar’s main political rival Joe L. Reed, a former city councilman and state senator, and the leader of the Alabama Democratic Conference.