By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
As one who has covered Birmingham City Council meetings from time to time, I can attest they can be raucous affairs.
Even when Birmingham is moving steadily forward, as it has for the past few years, the mayor and City Council are known to fight each other, sometimes literally.
Often in Birmingham, it’s like we have 10 mayors – THE mayor, the one elected at large by voters in the city, and then nine City Council members — little mayors, so to speak, of their individual districts.
Still, under Mayor William Bell, the progress in the city has been impressive. Bell didn’t get that done by himself. To get anything done takes a majority of the council – at least five votes. Bell is pretty good at counting votes, most of the time.
Even so, Bell has a fight on his hands. In Tuesday’s City Elections, Bell found himself trailing lawyer and former Birmingham Board of Education President Randall Woodfin by a few percentage points. Out of 12 candidates, Bell and Woodfin will be in a runoff on Oct. 3.
Certainly don’t count Bell out. He’s won from behind before. But not as an incumbent. This time, Woodfin outpolled Bell. One would think that the incumbent is going to get about all the votes he can get in the first election.
Yet, the election is going to depend on which candidate – Bell or Woodfin – can get his voters to come out for the runoff. While Tuesday’s voter turnout was fairly dismal, it was better than the election Bell easily won four years ago. On Tuesday, fewer than 27 percent of voters bothered to cast ballots. With the majority of City Council races already decided, the turnout isn’t likely to be any better on Oct. 3.
Woodfin is a good campaigner, though. He does it the hard way – door to door, meeting people, selling his ideas. Though much has happened in downtown Birmingham as far as revitalization, there is the perception that neighborhoods have suffered. Woodfin wants to keep downtown thriving, but he wants to also set a better tone for neighborhood revitalization. Crime and economic growth are issues for both candidates, of course.
But there’s always been that downtown vs. neighborhoods rivalry. Over the past nearly two decades, Birmingham has traveled a rocky path. Mayor Bernard Kincaid just said no to almost anything; Mayor Larry Langford said yes to just about everything.
Bell brought stability and some common sense to the city’s growth.
And to be fair to Bell, when it comes to individual neighborhoods, it’s really up to individual council members to sell their programs at City Hall.
City Council President Johnathan Austin finds himself in a runoff, too, against challenger Darrell O’Quinn in District 5.
So maybe voters are just looking for major changes in the city’s top leadership. Oct. 3 will tell that story.
One other incumbent, District 2’s Kim Rafferty, also trailed her opponent Hunter Williams and is in a runoff. In District 9, the incumbent didn’t run for re-election, so the runoff is between former City Council President Roderick Royal and John Hilliard.
But most voters are comfortable with their little mayors.
The Birmingham Board of Education, which can have meetings even more contentious than the City Council, will see many changes, including the loss of Woodfin. Five of the nine school board races are in runoffs.
So maybe runoffs in the mayor’s race, certain City Council positions and the majority of the school board will drive voter turnout on Oct. 3. And maybe not.
The election Tuesday didn’t really clear anything up. Birmingham could be a very different city as far as its elected leadership is concerned, or it could be pretty much the same.
The best news is where the mayor and City Council runoffs are concerned, there aren’t any embarrassments. Birmingham is going to be OK.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]