SEALE, Ala. -- With her unabashed hip-shaking and a raspy drawl that beckons customers to the big yellow Fireworks Outlet off U.S. 431, Wanda Lamb has become something of a local television celebrity.
Her smiling face appears on billboards and the store’s website -- one clip posted to YouTube has been viewed nearly 40,000 times -- and she can’t seem to go anywhere without someone recognizing her as the “Bang Bang Lady.” Some have even asked for autographs.
But as Russell County voters head to the polls for the March 13 primary, Lamb has been focused on a campaign of a different kind, seeking to parlay her popularity into a successful bid for one of several contested seats on the county commission. With the oomph of a Roman candle -- and campaign coffers that dwarf those of her opponents -- Lamb has lit a fuse under the three-way Democratic primary here.
“I’ve been thinking about this for about 20 years and I just now did it,” said Lamb, 51, of her campaign last week during an interview at the Fireworks Outlet, where she works as manager year-round. “The only promise I make is I will work my rear end off to do the best I can for this district.”
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The race for District 7 -- a broad rural swath that includes Seale, Pittsview, Hurtsboro and the southwestern reaches of the county -- highlights the mixed bag of fresh and familiar faces vying for office in a season of political uncertainty. With the state’s accelerated presidential primary schedule, Russell County voters head to the polls this month instead of June, and Lamb is one of many new names they’ll see on the ballot.
As a newcomer to politics with limited experience, Lamb may seem an unlikely candidate for public office. Her opponents, incumbent Larry D. Screws and former commissioner J.D. Upshaw, have done the job before, and each points to his respective accomplishments in wooing voters.
But Lamb seems to have gained momentum as the primary approaches. She recently won the endorsement of the local Fraternal Order of Police, and she’s been propelled by an infusion of more than $15,000 in contributions from her out-of-town bosses, an eyebrow-raising amount of cash for a county commission race that has enabled an aggressive advertising campaign.
“She’s a down-to-earth person with an honest desire to offer herself for service -- what else can you ask for?” said Charles Adams, a former state representative working with the Concerned Citizens Committee, a grassroots movement focused on Phenix City government that recently began vetting candidates for the county commission as well. The group plans to endorse a crop of candidates after a political forum it’s co-sponsoring at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Central High School auditorium.
“I don’t think it’s an exceptionally impressive group,” Adams said of the candidates overall, “but we’ve got to live with it.”
Besides Screws, three other incumbent commissioners face primary opposition, and two other races are three-way contests.
“The winds are blowing and they’re asking for new blood to come in and they’re asking for a better direction than they’ve been getting,” said Tillman M. Pugh, a longtime Democratic commissioner in District 2 who switched to the Republican ticket this year.
At a time of volatility in Phenix City politics, Pugh said the discontent of some voters with city government could be a factor in the county race, too.
“I don’t know whether the politics inside the city limits has fanned the fire -- that’s what I’m told -- but it’s bringing a spotlight on everybody,” he said.
Four candidates, including three Democrats, have thrown their hats in the ring to represent Russell County’s most rural district, where a lack of paved roads and sewage are salient issues among voters.
Lamb, who will appear on the ballot as Wanda “BangBangLady” Lamb, said she has learned a lot about county business by attending commission meetings religiously. She’s lived in the district all her life and says she understands the people.
“I grew up very poor -- very poor. My father was a logger, so I know how the people in this district feel,” she said. “I’ve walked in their shoes. It just seems like District 7 has been forgotten about. Nothing’s happening here.”
A look around Seale suggests Lamb is winning the advertising war. Though she claims hundreds of her signs have disappeared in recent weeks, the Bang Bang Lady has a strong presence at major intersections and in many front yards.
While her competitors’ coffers are nearly empty, Lamb has been generously funded and spent several thousand dollars on advertising, according to campaign finance records. The bulk of the money has come from the owners of the fireworks store, including $7,500 contributions each from Wilton E. Tugwell Jr., a Marietta, Ga., businessman, and Robert B. Wilcox, a retired Atlanta urologist who lives in Key West, Fla.
Tugwell said that figure was an “arbitrary” amount he chose because he didn’t know how much it would cost to finance a county commission campaign, acknowledging it may have been “a little too much.” Alford M. Harden Jr., the Russell County probate judge, said businesses are limited to $500 contributions in the county commission election, but there’s no cap on contributions made individually.
“I don’t see how it could have any impact on our business,” Tugwell said of Lamb’s candidacy when asked about his interest in the race. “She was fortunate enough to have somebody that believes in her and that we could afford to do it and we did it.”
Tugwell said he owns about 110 acres in the county, part of which he considered selling before the economy tanked. He said he may still use some to expand the fireworks store on U.S. 431 south of Phenix City, but added, “We could do that whether (Lamb) is on the commission or not.”
Tugwell also made a $500 personal contribution to Chance Corbett, who is vying for the District 6 seat.
“Our business is actually in his district,” Tugwell said, “so we supported him.”
It remains to be seen whether Lamb’s campaigning will translate into votes on a crowded ballot.
“If I don’t win it, I won’t give up,” she said. “I’ll try again. That’s one thing I’m not is a quitter.”
For Screws, the 60-year-old Pittsview incumbent who recently retired after a long career in public education, this month’s primary is in part a repeat of the 2008 contest in which he unseated Upshaw, a three-term commissioner who is a Baptist minister and pastor of Mount Hilliard Baptist Church in Union Springs, Ala.
Screws narrowly defeated Upshaw in a runoff that year by a vote of 420-373, and was unopposed in the general election. Upshaw attributed his loss to “real dirty politics,” though he declined to say who he thought was responsible.
“I don’t want to put it all on my opponent,” Upshaw said in an interview in his pickup truck in Seale.
Looking back on the past four years, Screws said he’s pleased with his first term in office.
“One of the things I stressed mostly was to increase services in the district, and I think we’ve done that,” he said. “We’ve looked at the needs of the citizens, making sure roads are maintained, and I think we’ve done that.”
Screws said county officials have also re-routed log trucks away from the heart of Pittsview.
“I think we’ve made a concerted effort to listen to the people and try to meet their needs,” he added.
But Screws’ opponents aren’t satisfied with his record. They say District 7 is sorely lagging behind other developing parts of the county and needs an assertive voice on the commission to effect change.
“He won’t ever take a stand,” said Republican candidate William B. Smith, 70, a retired colonel and veterinarian who will face the winner of the three-way primary in the fall. “If you go back and look at the vote over the years, he’s abstained on a lot of critical things so that he wouldn’t offend anyone. I’ll speak up and say what’s got to be said because I’m not worried about a second term.”
Upshaw, 65, said his former constituents persuaded him to run for the seat he held for 12 years.
“I had several people in my district to call me and ask me to run,” he said. “I wasn’t going to fool with it to be honest with you, but they talked me into it and said they need me back up here.”
Like other candidates, Upshaw stressed the need to pave roads. He said some residents live in areas ambulances cannot access.
“There’s a lot of people still in the mud who need to be out of the mud in District 7,” he said. “The roads are just that bad. We have people who are suffering because of that.”
Douglas Jones, an unemployed 44-year-old voter in Seale, said he plans to support Screws because he’s satisfied with his representation of the district, though he acknowledged Lamb was making a splash.
“The only advertisement you see is the Bang Bang Lady,” he said. “She’s well known in this county.”
Jones said he’d appreciate it if the winner could help him find work, but he’s tempered his expectations, likening the office of county commissioner to the presidency.
“They’re only going to be able to do so much,” he said with a shrug.