By Morgan Bryce
Nearly a week after winning one of the area’s most heated political races, Opelika radio personality Richard LaGrand said he is still stunned by his runoff victory over Auburn’s Bishop A.L. Dowdell Sr. for the Lee County Commission’s 5th District seat.
“I’m truly humbled by it. This (election) has been a journey, and it’s been a trip,” LaGrand said.
LaGrand edged out three other candidates for the position, including Elizabeth Burton, Kami Hendrix Billingslea and Dowdell, whom he defeated by a 30 percentage point margin in last Tuesday’s runoff election.
Following is a brief background on LaGrand and details of his first successful splash into politics.
Originally from Chicago, LaGrand and his family relocated to Alabama when he was 15 years old.
He made a name for himself on the gridiron and court at Beauregard High School, receiving All-State honorable mention and permanent team captain status on the football team.
LaGrand got his start in radio at WBIL Studios in Tuskegee while working for Eagle Budweiser, splicing and putting together local radio spots for the company.
“After I’d been doing commercials for a little while, George Clay, the owner of WBIL, liked what he heard and soon I was doing a show – the Hometown Review,” LaGrand said.
After several years of hosting “The Hometown Review,” LaGrand accepted a full-time position with WZMG 910 AM in 1986, Lee County’s first African-American radio station, deejaying R&B music before later switching to gospel.
Owned by now Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, LaGrand said he knew he had found the right spot to be.
“When Gary owned the station, I did a little bit of everything. I had my show, but I also did sales, marketing and live remotes, too. I’m grateful for Gary’s vision and confidence in me,” LaGrand said.
Running for office
Jumping into politics was not a career choice for LaGrand, but instead an opportunity to give back to the community and county that gave him his platform.
“I saw a need (for change) in this district about 12 years ago. But each time, the timing just wasn’t right,” LaGrand said. “(While on the campaign trail), I was seeing lots of roads that needed to be paved. I saw areas where there was a lot of trash … I got to see a lot of things (that need to be changed).”
With assistance from campaign manager Jackie Robinson, Melina Brown, Raven Harvis and others, LaGrand said his campaign strategy consisted of social media posts, word-of-mouth and making appearances at events and meetings throughout his district.
Just days before the June 5 primaries, videos surfaced on Facebook of Dowdell riding through Opelika, using a bullhorn to shout allegations against Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, Lee County Probate Judge Bill English, former House of Representatives Speaker Mike Hubbard and others of being members of the Ku Klux Klan, statements that he later retracted. Dowdell also accused LaGrand of receiving campaign funding from Opelika businessman John Rice, claims LaGrand vehemently denied in a June 1 interview with the Observer.
“John Rice has not filtered money to my campaign. But you know what, after I saw the accusations, I said, ‘you know what? I should have called John Rice’ … my immediate reaction was (to be) saddened, because people know me. I’ve been around for a while,” LaGrand said. “I live in Opelika, I live in Lee County, been on the radio serving people for the last 30 years, an African-American radio station.”
LaGrand added in the same interview that he had run a clean, community-focused campaign, with no aims of defacing anyone’s reputation or character.
“It’s one thing to sling mud, but it’s (another) thing to wallow in mud. And I refuse to do either one,” LaGrand said. “Having the support of two local mayors to me has to be nothing but a positive for our communities because we need to be able to work together. And the Lee County Commission’s District 5 consists of a diversified community, with different races, different people – and I represent all the people.”
In the June 5 primaries, LaGrand garnered 43 percent of the total vote, not enough to claim an outright victory. Dowdell finished second with 29 percent, enough to place him into a runoff race with LaGrand.
Last-minute pushes in previously pro-Dowdell territories proved to be key in LaGrand’s 65-35 percentage point margin victory over Dowdell.
With no Republican opposition in the November midterms, LaGrand is the de facto nominee for the position.
“(Through this race) I have learned that I have a lot of patience. A lot of patience,” LaGrand said.