Two community organizations, the Citizens for Good Government and the Grassroots Coalition, invited declared candidates for the Birmingham mayoral race to a community forum at Avondale Brewing on Monday night. Patricia Bell, Carlos Chaverst, Randy Davis, Ervin Philemon Hill, Fernandez Sims, Randall Woodfin, and Chris Woods participated in the event; incumbent Mayor William Bell was invited but did not attend.
Local attorney Tameka Wren moderated the event, asking questions to the group and then giving each candidate a set amount of time — ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes — to give a brief answer. Wren opened the discussion by setting ground rules of decency, demanding that the candidates and audience be respectful and refrain from personal insults. Despite Wren’s rules, the forum occasionally turned testy.
In response to a question about how the candidates would continue to serve the city if they lost the race, Hill, a local business owner, declared, “I, more so than any other candidate running for mayor, have been in the trenches fighting for the rights of our children in the Birmingham City Schools, fighting for our citizens in City Hall, fighting for transparency, fighting for accountability. … It’s only because it is election season that most of my opponents, in any race, whether it be mayor, council, or school board, have gotten in front of a TV and said they are fighting and have been fighting for our children.”
Candidates Bell and Chaverst responded to Hill’s assertion by recounting their own years of community activism in the city. Bell recalled campaigning for Richard Arrington Jr.’s mayoral campaign in 1979 and working for the Birmingham office of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1984. Chaverst directly challenged Hill’s declaration and said that he has dedicated the last eight years of his life to community service.
For most of the forum, however, the candidates broadly agreed about the nature of the problems affecting Birmingham. The candidates repeatedly praised the community for its self-reliance and strength, with Sims, the pastor of Charis Community Church, at one point describing Birmingham’s citizens as “the greatest renewable resource.”
The candidates also agreed on the need to increase the rate of inclusion of minority- and women-owned businesses in city projects. Woods, Bell, and Chaverst each described the Birmingham Construction Industry Authority, a city-funded organization created in 1990 to promote minority participation in city projects, as running a “pay to play” scheme that ultimately hinders minority businesses. Woods, who successfully sued the city for wrongful termination in 2013, said that he had been fired because he would not give “kickbacks” to the BCIA and faulted Mayor Bell for allowing “pay to play politics.”
The BCIA did not respond to Weld’s request for comment.
When asked by Wren about how they would help grow Birmingham’s many neighborhoods, the candidates were unanimous about the need to provide assistance to the city’s more impoverished areas but provided differing approaches to the problem. Woodfin, a member of the Birmingham Board of Education, proposed revitalizing the city’s parks as a first step toward bringing businesses into new areas.
“I think the biggest opportunity among us is our parks. Look at the growth of Crestwood North … a large part of its growth started with its park,” he noted. “If you take a look at downtown Ensley, you take a look at downtown North Birmingham, commercial quarters exist to support small businesses in proximity to parks.”
Bell, however, looked abroad for inspiration on how to support the city’s less prosperous neighborhoods.
“I would take a page out of Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in this world. You know what they did? They had micro-loans for the poorest people [and] start-up loans. All you have to do is take the money from the mismanaged budget that’s top-heavy and put it where it’s supposed to be, where the people are fighting and hungry,” she said. “They want ownership; they don’t want to wait until somebody comes to set up a business for them.”
Asked by Wren about how they would address the city’s crime rate, the candidates concurred about the need for more community policing but disagreed about what other programs would be useful. Woods, who said he wants to see the police force operate as a “lean, mean, fighting machine,” proposed eliminating salary caps on police officers, which he said drives experienced officers to other cities that pay more.
Hill, however, argued that he had not seen any research showing that raising officer salaries has any impact on crime rates. Woodfin discussed how increasing employment would reduce crime, while Sims called for initiatives to reduce domestic violence.
Davis, a current Jefferson County deputy sheriff and former Birmingham police officer, explained his plans to foster better relations between the police and the community. “One thing is knocking on doors and meeting people. If everybody on that beat meets ten people a day, shake their hand … that develops a rapport between the officers and the neighborhood,” he said. He called for “strategically” placing cameras in certain high crime areas, noting that the suspects in the recent murder of Wenonah High School senior Juzahris Webb would not have been arrested had security cameras not recorded their car fleeing the scene.
When an audience member asked whether the candidates would support the city council’s designation of Birmingham as a “sanctuary city” if the state or federal government threatened the city’s funding, as President Donald Trump has promised to do, the candidates differed. Woods said that under his administration, the city would not harbor illegal immigrants in defiance of federal law.
While Bell said she did not want to deport all illegal immigrants, she wanted them to “get to the back of the line and come in the right way. I want them to be given a chance to come in, but come in the right way. We believe in laws for all the people and not just some of them,” she said, drawing boos from some members of the audience.
Chaverst, in contrast, affirmed his support for the designation of Birmingham as a sanctuary city, saying that he is working with other activists and community organizations to draft a sanctuary city ordinance.
Hill said that he would try to negotiate with the state government to allow Birmingham to remain a sanctuary city. “Just because something is legal, [that] doesn’t make it right,” he said. Sims swiftly seconded Hill, saying that the community must work to change unjust laws.
The candidates unanimously supported a comprehensive audit of the city’s finances proposed by an audience member. Sims went further, saying that he would require that every salary paid by the city should be attached to a social security number to ensure that no “ghost employees” were being paid by city hall. “We want to make sure Casper’s not in the house getting a paycheck,” he said to laughter and applause.