Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy…
Just a few days before Birmingham’s municipal election last August, I found myself in conversation over drinks with two high-level executives of major local corporations. Soon enough, talk turned to the imminent mayoral contest — not with regard to the outcome, which was a foregone conclusion, but rather to the incumbent whose impending victory was, for him, something akin to a coronation.
William Bell had been elected mayor in 2009, chosen by Birmingham voters to complete the two years that remained in the term of Larry Langford, who was bound for prison after his conviction on federal corruption charges. Bell won his own term in 2011, but had to run again in 2013 because the Alabama Legislature passed a bill aligning the elections for mayor and city council, which previously were staggered every two years.
Bell had coveted the mayor’s chair openly for most of a political career that began in 1979, with his election to the Birmingham City Council. He came heartbreakingly close in 1999, when he entered the race as a prohibitive favorite with a campaign war chest nearly 10 times that of his only real challenger, Councilor Bernard Kincaid. Bell came within a veritable eyelash of winning the primary outright, but Kincaid forced a runoff that culminated in a seismic upset. In the aftermath, Bell — who remained president of the city council — spent two years using his considerable political skills to hamstring Kincaid’s every move before losing his council seat in 2001.
Bell ran for mayor again in 2003, but finished a distant third behind Kincaid and City Councilor Carole Smitherman. He regained his seat on the council in the election of 2005, but without the power and cachet of the presidency, often seemed downright bored on the dais and was all but invisible outside the weekly council meeting.
In 2007, he made yet another run for the city’s top office, but this time finished fourth in a field of 10, earning less than 7 percent of the total vote in an election that Langford swept without a runoff. At least partly to his credit, Bell didn’t lick his wounds for long. He entered and won the race for the county commission seat Langford had vacated.
And, but for Langford’s legal transgressions, it seems highly probable that William Bell would have remained on the county commission to this very same day, and at this moment would be gearing up for a campaign to keep himself there until at least 2018, when he would be 69 years old and have spent all but four of the previous 39 years occupying one elective office or another. But of course, fate — in the form of Langford’s fondness for, among other things, bespoke clothing and top-dollar accouterments — intervened, and Bell gained possession of the office he’d always wanted.
As Bell defeated attorney Patrick Cooper — perhaps the most inept candidate ever to mount a serious campaign for mayor — in 2009, the narrative that emerged was that he had “matured,” that his time in the political wilderness had inculcated a gravitas and instilled a focus on the job at hand that would serve him and Birmingham well. Gone, the narrative went, was the petulant, self-involved, ethically challenged officeholder who for 30 years had time and again placed the interests of his financial supporters and his own political fortunes and grudges above the welfare and stability of the city.
Somewhat against my better judgment, I made a conscious decision to accept this narrative — or at least to spend a lot more time hoping it was true than looking for evidence that it was not. Over the ensuing four years, with occasional exceptions, I either kept my mouth shut or joined the general applause as Bell reaped a harvest mostly sewn by his predecessors, dating all the way back to Arrington, and watched Birmingham begin to enjoy an unprecedented run of positive civic accomplishments that continues unabated.
Not that there weren’t nagging signs that the narrative was, at best, flawed. And, to be sure, there were those who warned all along that the mayor remained as beholden as ever to cronies, shady dealers and others to whom he previously had opened wide the city’s coffers, largely indifferent to such critical issues as education and poverty and willfully blind to the need for a strategic, holistic approach to the challenges and opportunities facing Birmingham. But those warnings were easy to ignore in the general hoopla — perhaps dangerously so.
Which brings me back to that after-hours conversation with the two corporate executives on the eve of the election last August. At some point, I asked them about the general feeling toward Bell in the business community. What would the next four years be like? Were they excited? Hopeful? “All in” with our Mayor?
“Given William’s history, I just hope he gets through the next four years without doing something to screw it up,” said one.
“Like going to jail,” said the other.
Nearly eight months later, having set himself up for some open-field running with a full four-year term, Bell is running full-speed in the wrong direction. Rather than dedicate himself to the hard work of becoming a great mayor in his own right, he has made, or attempted to make, a series of deals that are good for cronies and bad for taxpayers, and engineered, or attempted to engineer, several heavy-handed power plays that would institutionalize the mechanisms of graft.
Cost overruns to the tune of $6 million on the construction of Regions Field. Broken promises of funding for Railroad Park and Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. Attempts — some still afoot — to gain control of the boards and alter the employment practices of the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority, the Birmingham Housing Authority and the new Land Bank Authority. And, to top it all off, according to sources inside City Hall, the upshot of all of this bad dealing — and the general lack of either competence or ethics (or both) on the mayor’s senior staff — the possibility that the city soon will be shown to be running a deficit of somewhere between $12 million and $18 million.
In the face of such mounting evidence, and to my great chagrin, I don’t believe the narrative any more. And I do not intend to stand by and watch Birmingham go down the drain because there are too many people in this town who are so desperate for a great mayor that they’re willing to pretend we have one.