Wetherington keeps promise, to step down as Columbus mayor after one term

Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington kept the most important promise of his 50 years in public service.

Before the former police chief became mayor in 2007, Wetherington promised his wife, Shirley, he would only serve one term.

Thursday afternoon, in an emotional news conference attended by friends and family, Wetherington, 71, delivered on that promise. Confirming what everybody already knew, he announced he wouldn’t run for re-election next year.

During the 20-minute news conference, Wetherington didn’t mention the promise he made to his wife.

But he did talk about it in an interview before the news conference.

“I promised Shirley I wouldn’t run but one term,” Wetherington said.

There were those who tried to convince Wetherington to run again. In recent months, that pressure has been intense.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a strong Wetherington ally, was one of those applying the pressure for a re-election bid.

“There ain’t no question, he was getting a lot of pressure,” Smyre said. “We are right in the middle of a great opportunity. We have BRAC coming to Fort Benning, and his experience would have boded well.”

Smyre said he backed off a few weeks ago.

“He told me it was for personal reasons that he would not be running,” Smyre said. “When he told me what the deal was, I had to pull up. I have a lot of respect for Jim. And this community is in debt to him.”

Wetherington’s political consultant Frank Myers made light of the decision not to run when he held up a box of “Re-Elect Jim Wetherington 2010” bumper stickers.

“What am I going to do with 500 of these?” he asked. “Got 50 in the mayor’s yard last night, and that didn’t help.”

But what Myers didn’t joke about was Wetherington’s popularity. Citing numbers from a recent poll, Myers said 63 percent of the voters in Columbus said they would re-elect Wetherington, while only 9 percent said they would vote him out of office.

“He is doing this on his terms,” Myers said.

Wetherington said he could have wiggled out of his promise to his wife, but he wouldn’t do that.

“She told me if I wanted to run she would support me,” he said. “But she also said, ‘You have been in public life for so long, when are we going to start to enjoy the fruits of our labor?’”

Shirley Wetherington will only say they have been married “many, many years — our entire adult life.”

During that time, she has shared him with demanding and time consuming public jobs.

Wetherington spent 36 years in the police department, the final years as chief. He was on the state Board of Pardon and Paroles for three years and served four years as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections.

She started and owned West Georgia Plumbing Supply.

“I like to stay in the background, Jim’s the out-front guy,” she said. “He’s had his public life, and I have had my plumbing life.”

It was no secret that Shirley Wetherington, a successful businesswoman, was not thrilled about her husband’s foray into politics after a couple of retirements.

“She didn’t want me to run to start with,” he said.

So as the 2006 election approached she cringed as her husband was recruited as a candidate.

“Everywhere we would go people would come up to him and say, ‘You got to run,’” she said. “I just kept thinking, ‘Why don’t these people keep quiet?’”

But she knew her husband, who was raised in the Florida panhandle below Dothan, Ala., was committed to Columbus.

“Jim is a public servant,” she said. “He wants to be all things to all people. He just kept saying, ‘I feel like I owe it to the city.’”

Columbus Police Maj. Lem Miller worked for Wetherington when he was chief and has watched him as mayor. Miller said Wetherington’s formula for success has been simple.

“Whether he was chief or mayor, he was accountable to the people,” Miller said. “He always felt like he was working for the people.”

Wetherington rattled off a list of his major accomplishments, which included the passage of a 1-percent sales tax that has allowed the city to hire 100 new police officers, increasing the size of the force by 26 percent.

The list also included improved relationships with the mayor’s office and other elected officials and the Muscogee County School District.

“When the history of this administration is written, I hope it can be said that Jim Wetherington was a mayor who listened to the people, respected differing viewpoints, took responsibility for the workings of city government, was accountable to the people and left Columbus a better place than he found it,” Wetherington said.

Toward the end of the announcement, Wetherington thanked his wife.

“I want to thank my wife, Shirley,” he said.

Then he paused, choking back the emotion.

Afterward, she noted that he still has 14 months to serve.

“He is not quite through yet,” Shirley Wetherington said. “He’s not going to quit.”