With the Birmingham municipal elections coming up fast on Tuesday, August 27, it is important to know the facts surrounding the race. Who are the candidates? What are their platforms? What are some of the impacts that this election can have on our city? We try to answer some of these questions below in this election issue of Weld.
Veterans of Birmingham elections analysis like Dr. Larry Powell, a political communications expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, say they believe that Mayor William Bell will defend his seat without much trouble.
“Mayor Bell appears to have light competition,” said Powell. “He should be in a good position to win reelection.”
Bell’s campaign lists among his achievements reducing abandoned houses and overgrown lots, bringing in the entertainment district, the Crossplex multi-use facility, the much-acclaimed Railroad Park – a linchpin in a nationally heralded resurgence of Birmingham’s downtown – and a reduction in crime, which has recently been marred by a spate of murders.
Powell said other parts of the upcoming municipal elections besides the mayoral race, like the city council race, are more interesting than what many people say is an already-decided Bell reelection. Powell asserts that the school board elections have the potential to be the most impactful.
The Birmingham school board has been embroiled in controversy related to financial conditions and declining enrollment – leading to a state takeover — and to leadership: members of the board tried unsuccessfully to oust the superintendent, and have fought publicly with former State Superintendent Ed Richardson, charged with bringing the system’s finances under control.
“The school board is the area that I find most interesting. You’ve got a dysfunctional body that has been highly territorial, resulting in putting the school system at risk of losing accreditation,” said Powell. “Will the voters care? Will they stock the board with new people? Or will they simply support the turf battles that have created a lot of the current problems?”
Bob Friedman, a Birmingham independent and former operations manager for WJLD radio, also feels strongly about the importance of the school board elections. He said he hopes, in the face of the school board’s potential loss of certification, a more motivated and publicly aware school board will emerge from the race.
“I would hope, like most Birminghamians, that anyone who gets elected to city council or school board would have the priority to work double time to figure out how to work together and have a consensus,” said Friedman. “The board needs to listen to the public.”
Powell also said the city council race is also a particularly interesting part of the elections. “City council seats could be interesting, depending on turnout. There is a possibility that the makeup of the council could change considerably. Since the current members haven’t always agreed with the mayor, that could alter some things,” said Powell. “However, will turnout be high enough to show that voters are interested?”
Like in many Birmingham municipal elections, voter turnout for the 2013 decisions is likely to be lackluster. Powell predicts the turnout to be no more than 20 percent, and Friedman also said he believes turnout will be low, attributing much of this bleak participation to a culture of cynicism towards politics.
“Society has inculcated most adults into the cynical malaise of ‘voting for the lesser of two evils’ in elections like the upcoming municipal race,” said Friedman. “This is not an optimistic reason for people to go to the polls.”
Friedman said believes that this cynicism will only maintain the status quo.
“General cynicism has always benefited the incumbents and political clubs.” said Friedman.
Regardless of the outcomes in the upcoming elections, Friedman said he feels Birmingham needs strong political leadership to overcome its problems.
“Throughout history people have wanted some charismatic leader who they can walk alongside and follow towards a solution to their problems — I talked to a school board member who wishes a ‘Martin Luther King-like figure’ will emerge from the school board race behind whom everyone can rally and move forward,” said Friedman. ”But this desire raises the question: how do we ourselves become leaders? Because it was not just Dr. King who made the Civil Rights Movement what it was, but many people who took the initiative to became leaders and organize the people around them for the greater good.”
Friedman ended his description of his wish for emerging Birmingham leadership by focusing on the mayor.
“A lot of people, especially the poorest Birminghamians, are discouraged that nothing in this city will ever change,” said Friedman. “Whoever is elected mayor needs to be more of a leader — more of a patriarch figure — and listen to the various voices in Birmingham.”
Many of the candidates who are running are veterans of previous failed campaigns.
This year, Birmingham voters choose between incumbent Bell and four other candidates: Kamau Afrika, Patricia Bell, Stephannie Sigler Huey and Adlai M. Trone.
Afrika, who ran against Bell in 2011, has a background in real estate and community activism and feels that those experiences will help him if elected, according to his campaign Facebook page. The most important issues to him, according to a June post on the Facebook page, are “improving our city’s image, crime reduction, economic empowerment and to tear down dilapidated and condemned structures which are extensive in Birmingham.”
Patricia Bell also ran against the mayor in 2011, and has run in three other elections. She has worked in marketing in Dayton, Ohio, Chicago and Birmingham, but the part of her career experience that might serve her best in office would be her background in education. In New York, she worked for “New York City’s Pre- School and Early Childhood Education System [and] studied classroom management,” and taught pre-school and kindergarten, according to her Facebook page. Her campaign slogan is: “We will make Birmingham a model city.”
Huey, a graduate of Parker High School and Miles College, ran in 2003 and 2009 – a special election to replace former Mayor Larry Langford.
That wasn’t her first brush with politics. In 1999 she lost a mayoral bid for Denver, Colorado, according to news reports. In several accounts, she was quoted as saying that “she doesn’t want voters to ‘elect’ her. She wants them to ‘hire’ her for two years, then renew her contract if they’re happy with her performance.” In 2009, she entered the race because she felt that her ideas concerning the stalled dome stadium development and a mass transit system had been put on the “backburner,” according to a radio interview with WBHM.
Trone, who is a native of Birmingham and possesses degrees form both Alabama and Auburn, is running for mayor for the first time. Although this is his first time entering the political world, he has an extensive background dealing with the community, according to his campaign web page. In 2007, he started an “Independent Financial Planning Center” in Auburn to help people financially. And in 2009, he returned to Birmingham, to become a teacher. His platform states that he would like to “build progressive relationships with the Birmingham City Council, re-implement recycling and green initiatives,” and boost “crime reduction efforts.”
Besides the mayoral election, eight city council districts face contests this election. District 1 features incumbent Lashunda Scales, who chairs the council’s economic development committee, against Pat Davis and Keith Rice (who ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 school board seat in 2009). Scales made news earlier this year when she was arrested and charged with six felony counts of violating state ethics laws. She pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors – interfering with an elector and unintentional use of public equipment, which did not involve a jail sentence or disqualify her from running in the election.
District 2 pits Kim Rafferty, who chairs the transportation and communication committee, against Rolanda Hollis (second attempt at the District 2 seat), Richard Rutledge (second attempt), Neil Shah, environmental lawyer Bart Slawson and criminal attorney Everett W. Wess, who, for a time, represented Toomer’s Corner tree poisoner Harvey Updyke.
District 4 has Maxine Herring Parker, the incumbent since first being elected in 2005 and the chair of the council’s park and recreation and cultural arts committees, facing Edward Maddox, the former president of the Birmingham School Board, making his second run at the council seat.
Maddox’s internal disagreements with the state takeover of the school district’s finances, the methodology employed by Ed Richardson, and with Superintendent Craig Witherspoon – whom he tried to have fired — came to an end when Maddox resigned from his post last fall. He resigned as part of an agreement with prosecutors when he pleaded guilty to charges of using his office for personal gain; he voted to fund his Woodlawn Missions and More charity while serving as Woodlawn neighborhood president, and he voted as a school board member to raise the salary of his daughter, an employee of the city schools. He was given two years of unsupervised probation.
In District 5, challenger Robert Walker (who failed to defeat Maxine Parker in District 4 in 2009) will try to unseat incumbent Johnathan Austin, chairman of the public safety and technology committee for the council.
District 6’s council seat, vacated by Carole Smitherman when she was elected a circuit judge last year, is being contested by seven would-be councilors: Keith Aaron (making his second run for the seat), John J.C. Harris, Latanya Millhouse, Michael R. Morrison, James L. Stewart, Sheila Tyson and real estate lawyer and previous candidate Willis H. “Mickey Mouse” Hendrix. Hendrix, by the way, got the unusual nickname by playing the titular cartoon rodent at the Alabama Theatre prior to going off to fight in World War II.
The District 7 race will involve James “Jay” Roberson Jr., chair of the public safety and beautification committee and his single challenger, Gary Bruce Lavender.
District 8, Steven W. Hoyt, chairman of the finance and budget committee, takes on Gerri Robinson.
The District 9 race features six candidates vying to replace outgoing Council President Roderick V. Royal, including former District 9 councilor Leroy Bandy, Angene Coleman, Eric Hall, Marcus Lundy, David Russell – making his fourth run for the district seat — and Ellen H. Spencer.
There are 24 candidates running in the various School Board elections, which is five less than the City council elections.
In District 1 there are four candidates running: incumbent Tyrone H. Belcher Sr., Sherman Collins Jr., Douglas Lee Ragland and Jerry Tate.
There are two candidates in District 2: current board member Virginia Volker and challenger Lyord Watson.
In District 4, the seat formerly held by Maddox and now occupied for the remainder of the term by Carol Clarke, three candidates are contending for the position: Daagye Hendricks, Rodney Huntley and Gwen P. Sykes.
District 5 features only two candidates: Martha Casey McDowell and Randall Woodfin.
The biggest race for the school board lies in District 6 with six candidates. They are Lavon Beard, Gwendolyn Thomas Bell, Cheri A Gardener, Ervin Philemon Hill Sr. and Joy A. Smith.
The race for District 7 concerns three candidates vying to fill the seat formerly held by Alana Haynes: Wardine T. Alexander, Laurence Jackson and Darius Moore.
There are also three candidates in District 8: Patricia Bozeman-Henderson, incumbent April Myers Williams and Atwon B. Womack.
The final school board race, in District 9, pits Emanuel B. Ford — who until recently represented District 5 — against Sandra K. Brown.
You must be 18 or older and a U.S. citizen to vote in Alabama. If you have been declared mentally incompetent by a court or carry a felony conviction, then you are disqualified from voting.
Birmingham requires that you register 10 days before the election.
If you have to be away on election day, you can vote absentee in conference room A on the third floor of city hall from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays until Thursday August 22 – the cover date of this issue of Weld.
You can pick up a sample ballot with all of the candidates and districts in it in the city clerk’s office on the third floor of Birmingham City Hall, although the real ballots will only show the elections that you are allowed to vote on.
With so many candidates in the various races, there are bound to be run-offs, and the run-off election is scheduled for Tuesday, October 8. The last day to register to vote in the run-off is September 27. The last date to vote absentee in the run-off is Thursday October 3.
For more information
Where you live determines where you vote. There are more than 70 polling places in Birmingham’s 9 districts in churches, libraries, community centers, parks, fire stations, schools and other public buildings. There is a large precinct map posted outside the door of the city clerk on the third floor of Birmingham City Hall, and voters were to have been provided cards with polling place assignments and telephone numbers for questions about registration (at (205) 355-5550) and other election queries (at (205) 254-2290).
Birmingham City Clerk Lee Frazier’s page on the city website contains links to everything from a detailed calendar, to polling places, polling precinct changes, a sample ballot, a link to a state website to help you locate your polling place, and so forth. Another good online starting point is, of course, the city government website.
Weld interns Gates Porter and Wyatt Stayner contributed to this report.