A Sumbry has represented Phenix City's south side off and on for the past 35 years. Arthur L. Sumbry Sr., the longtime incumbent, succeeded his father, Austin Sumbry, on the City Council in 1980, launching a resilient political career that's been rife with scandal.
But voters passing the clusters of campaign signs on Seale Road these days may puzzle over which Sumbry is meant by advertisements for "A. Sumbry." In a surprise twist that has even political insiders scratching their heads, Arthur Sumbry's younger son, Arttie Pontez Sumbry, has qualified to run against his father for the District 3 seat that's long been synonymous with the family name.
"Arthur hasn't explained that to anybody, and he didn't tell anybody he was going to do it," said Councilman Jimmy Wetzel, who like the rest of his colleagues faces opposition at the polls Aug. 28. "Surely everybody believes that, by the time the election gets here, both of them are not going to be running."
The Sumbry enigma highlights an eclectic and unusually large pool of candidates jousting for four City Council seats and the mayor's office in the municipal election. From old-school officeholders like Cecil "Woody" McLemore to political newcomers like Chris Blackshear, 22 candidates qualified to run for office, a crowded campaign that follows four years of controversy in city government.
Each incumbent -- except for retiring Mayor Sonny Coulter -- shares the ballot with at least two opponents. The District 3 race has swelled to six contenders, increasing the likelihood voters will return to the polls for an Oct. 9 runoff.
"The more the better," said the Rev. Raymond Cochran, the politically active pastor of Franchise Missionary Baptist Church. "But I don't think God told everybody to run. I think we ought not to put that on God."
Coulter, who's been around Phenix City politics for decades, attributed the depth of the ballot to increased pay for councilmembers and the ruffled feathers of taxpayers. The mayor, like many of the candidates, said he disagreed with how council has spent money, but his voice has been increasingly marginalized by Wetzel's majority voting bloc, which includes Arthur Sumbry Sr. and District 2 Councilwoman Michelle E. Walker.
"I'm not sure that all of the voters, like myself, felt real comfortable with some of the decisions that were made, and I think that spurred a lot of people to run," Coulter said. "Every time we have elections in Phenix City, you always hope for this kind of situation where a lot of people would run, but it just hasn't been the case in the past."
Phenix City Schools Superintendent Larry E. DiChiara, who is supporting School Board President Eddie Lowe for mayor, welcomed the competition and the chance for new leadership on Broad Street.
"To see six candidates in one race or four or five in another, that is fantastic because that gives the voters a choice," he said.
Lowe's late entry took some by surprise, including at least one candidate who announced his candidacy thinking Lowe wasn't running. District 1 Councilman Max Wilkes, Antonio Carter and the Rev. Johnnie C. Robinson Jr. are also hoping to become the city's next mayor.
But the most closely watched contest may be the councilmember at-large race, in which Wetzel, perhaps the most polarizing politician in town, is squaring off against Blackshear and Johnny E. Barfield. Blackshear, who works at TSYS, has drawn a steady stream of contributions -- thousands more than his opponents through the end of last month -- and is waging an aggressive advertising campaign, according to campaign finance reports.
The competition isn't limited to any particular race. Five candidates are vying for the District 1 seat, and three are trying to unseat Walker in District 2.
"I don't care where you live in Phenix City, I believe you have the opportunity to vote for three good candidates," said Charles Adams, the former state representative who organized the Concerned Citizens Committee to recruit candidates for office. "I've got faith in the public that, if you give them good candidates, they'll select them at election time."
Some candidates have expressed frustration with a recent shift in district boundaries triggered by the 2010 Census, saying voters may be confused over where to cast their ballot. While they've been accused of giving short notice to affected residents, city officials say they followed the city charter to the letter.
One candidate, Eunice J. Patrick, announced her candidacy in April for the District 2 City Council seat only to find out later that her 28th Avenue residence now falls in District 3. Patrick said the change may actually boost her chances of winning because of the demographics, but she said her would-be constituents were "appalled" the city didn't do more to inform them sooner of the new boundaries.
Wetzel acknowledged voters could be confused as Russell County hasn't yet adjusted its voting lines, but he said the criticism has been misplaced and amplified by election-year politics. The city had no choice but to adjust the lines, he said, and held public meetings on the matter that were poorly attended.
Coulter agreed, saying voters still have ample time before the election to call the City Clerk's office with any questions.
"This year, it just happened that some of the redistricting took place during an election year," the mayor said. "I don't see it as a major problem, and I don't think it will be a major problem on Election Day."
Unriddling the Sumbry duo in District 3 could require a keener political acumen. It's not the first time Arttie Pontez Sumbry -- not to be confused with Arthur L. "Pee Wee" Sumbry Jr., the Russell County coroner -- has surprised political observers.
In 2010, he garnered some 15 percent of the vote as a last-minute write-in candidate for Russell County sheriff, losing to Heath Taylor by nearly 7,000 votes.
"He did doggone good for not knowing he was running until the day of the election," Arthur Sumbry Sr. said.
It's also not the first time one of Arthur Sumbry Sr.'s children has run for the District 3 seat while their father was engulfed by scandal. When the elder Sumbry was forced out of office amid legal questions over his eligibility -- he'd previously been convicted of perjury and unlawful voter registration and later received a pardon -- his daughter, Sabrina, ran for the seat in 1989 but lost in a runoff to former Councilman Noble Williams.
In the current race, Arthur Sumbry Sr. said he and Arttie Pontez Sumbry are running "together," adding his pending felony indictments -- and the specter of disqualification -- had nothing to do with his son joining the race.
"It's some complications and things came up, and I don't want to discuss it now," the elder Sumbry said. "It's a toss-up right now because the people want him or me."
Arthur Sumbry Sr. was arrested in May just before his perjury and forgery trial was to begin on charges he sought to influence a potential juror. A status conference is scheduled for Friday on the original charges -- allegations he forged a warranty deed and lied about it under oath -- but it's unlikely the case will be resolved before the election this month.
The councilman said in a telephone interview last week that he won't accept any plea bargains because he's innocent. The indictments have strengthened his political viability, he said: "My people know all that stuff is fictitious," he said. "That won't bother them at all."
Arthur Day, who is running against the Sumbrys along with Patrick, Frankie Horace and Clementine Warren, said it's difficult to stand out in such a crowded race.
"The vote's going to be split at least six ways," Day said, "because everybody in this race has relatives and family here in District 3."