When Alabama tax payers stood firm against the proposed I-10 bridge expansion toll, the man at the center of the fight had already been in the ring for decades.
State Auditor, Jim Zeigler, began his political career as a teenager, winning the title of Student Government Association President in 1970 at the University of Alabama.
To claim that victory, Zeigler went head to head with an organization known as The Machine. The more-than 100-year-old group has been accused of white supremacy, election interference both off campus and on and physical assaults against students.
“But we beat ‘em,” Zeigler says with a slight smile.
So it should have been no surprise then that on May 13 when a Facebook page dubbed “Block the Mobile Bayway Toll” appeared, Zeigler was at the keyboard, leading the charge.
“The toll scheme was so bad we had to fight it,” he says. “It had to be done. I looked up to see if anybody else had taken the lead and no one had, so I did it.”
Many around him said it was an impossible fight. But Zeigler intended to win, again, regardless of what they naysayers claimed about the toll, or him.
Zeigler became the youngest individual to run for and win Alabama state office when he became a member of the Alabama Public Service Commission in 1974. In the years since he has been outspoken on issues and a regular on the ballot in numerous statewide elections, always coming close to a win but never taking home the prize, a record that earned him the moniker “Mr. 49 percent.”
He won the state auditor position in 2014 and again in 2018. Now facing the end of his job, due to term limits his opponents say the bridge fight was the political theater he needed to prepare his next act.
But after the more than 55,000 strong Facebook page showed up digitally and in person to government meetings, it is hard to argue that regardless of his personal goals, he has invigorated the masses.
“This was a textbook civics lesson,” Zeigler says. “The politicians have awakened a sleeping giant. When the tax payers get organized to work together, we can back down Montgomery.”
Lou Campomenosi, Ph.D., head of the Common Sense Campaign tea party, said Zeigler delivers a populist message of anti-establishment, one that is popular because it is directly linked to residents’ pocketbooks.
“The short answer to me is that whatever people say about him, frame that against what 55,000 people show on the website and he’s off to races with this issue,” Campomenosi says.
“What [the Alabama Department of Transportation] was doing was taking lots of money out of the local economy and hitting individual families, so right away the message that Jim was delivering had a base of support because everyone understood they didn’t want to pay the toll,” Campomenosi says.
The retired career Marine and political science professor said the arrogance of state officials in dealing with the public and then raising the proposed toll from a possible $3 – 6 to $6 one way was a political disaster.
“Those things really do resonate and I think people are fed up with this,” Campomenosi says.
Zeigler is no stranger to questioning the establishment. In March, 2016, he filed a report asking the Alabama Ethics Commission to investigate the alleged affair between then Gov. Robert Bentley and Rebekah Mason, one of his top advisors. His concern was that Mason was paid via a private organization rather than through public funds, an arrangement that might be a violation of the Ethics Act in Alabama. Zeigler asked for that organization’s financial information to be made public and for Mason to formally register as a lobbyist. She resigned a week later.
Zeigler, a Mobile resident, says he immersed himself in the I-10 bridge fight after he says he “heard the magic word, toll.”
As he discusses the government’s plan, he is animated and raises his hands and pauses dramatically before he speaks again.
“The more we found out about the plan, the worse it got,” he says. “This scheme is the worst government proposal I’ve ever seen.”
His words are measured and careful as he continues.
“The idea of tolls on an interstate highway,” he sighs and hangs his head. “President Eisenhower may be turning over in his grave at the idea of putting tolls on a freeway system, emphasis on the word free.”
Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and considered it one of the most important achievements of his presidency. By the way, the bill included a federal motor fuel tax that was meant to replace tolls.
Americans today still agree, the broad expanse of road is not just necessary but life changing.
At public meetings held on both sides of the bay, residents told story after story of crossing the 8-mile stretch. Their travels were not a luxury but a necessity to care for family members and access health care.
“If you take a family and their budget is barely in balance and you add $1,080 per car you put them in financial trouble,” Zeigler says. “That’s a huge cost to our citizens.”
Campomenosi says that cost is what drives citizens to sit through government meetings, take to the microphone and sift through jargon-filled documents that they might normally ignore, even for other issues they feel just as strongly about.
He points to the fight against Common Core curriculum as an example. He says while a majority of people understand the issue, and don’t like it, it’s not a fight that will pull 50,000 people into an active role because the motivation is different.
“Grassroots campaigns really go back to the economic impact,” he says. “All of a sudden it just becomes an extremely costly venture to cross that bridge that is going to harm people in terms of health, in terms of dealing with loved ones. It goes beyond the abstract idea of, ‘oh it’s costly’,” he says.
“At this point this whole toll business becomes very, very personal and when it does it explodes and I think that from a grassroots standpoint the combination of factors creates a synergy that is not normally there.”
After the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 8-1 to remove the controversial project from the Transportation Improvement Plan, Gov. Kay Ivey publicly deemed the project dead.
Zeigler says she failed, however, to tell the Federal Highway Administration which met two days later and gave final approval for the project.
Campomenosi says, “The real question now is, is it really dead?”
Now, Zeigler says, voters and lawmakers are in “unchartered territory.”
Within hours of the FHA’s approval, Zeigler created the “Lazarus Project” urging voters to be prepared to fight a toll that would rise again.
Their method, Zeigler says, is to stay focused and continue to pressure local politicians, and to simply be heard. Members are urged to call and email local leaders. He has also heard local council members and mayors say constituents approach them at gas stations, shopping centers and church, all with one thing to say, “No toll.”
As the back and forth with Montgomery continues, and the dragon appears at least temporarily be slayed, Zeigler has been painted as a hero.
No such thing, he says. He is quiet. He looks around and fiddles with his phone before answering.
“I feel I’m right where I need to be at this time, doing exactly what I should be doing,” he says.
He is quick to point out that his work, however, is nowhere near done.
“Since the MPO people say it’s dead. I think we ain’t seen nothing yet,” he says.