“I’m not running against William Bell. I’m running against the giant Goliath of poverty,” said Frank Matthews, a longtime community activist and the founder of the Outcast Voters League who launched his mayoral campaign earlier this month. Noting that close to a third of Birmingham’s citizens live below the poverty line, Matthews said that helping the city’s poor is the ultimate goal of both his activism and his political campaign.
Matthews joined a crowded race ahead of the August 22 election. The incumbent Bell, school board member Randall Woodfin, contractor Chris Woods, pastor Fernandez Sims, entrepreneur Ervin Philemon Hill, Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Randy Davis, and educator Patricia Bell have all also announced their candidacy.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Matthews became involved in a gang when he was a teen, and was sent to West Jefferson Correctional Facility for forgery in 1985. While incarcerated, he became a born-again Christian and dedicated himself to reducing gang violence. When he was paroled in 1989, he says, he turned to the guard walking him out the back door of Elmore and said, “I’m going to put you out of a job.”
Moving to Birmingham after being released, Matthews begin speaking out against gang violence, leading a march in response to a series of murders in Metropolitan Gardens in 1990 and founding Intercession Ministries to minister to gang members. A chance meeting with Richard Arrington’s son at a church where Matthews was speaking brought him into the orbit of the then-mayor, who appointed him the city’s gang liaison in 1992.
Matthews eventually started his own radio show, In Your Ear, to speak out about other issues that mattered to him, like police violence and poverty. Determined to do something about these issues himself, Matthews first ran for office in 1998 for the State Representative seat in District 58 against Oliver Robinson.
In 2007, Matthews served on Larry Langford’s mayoral campaign and was appointed the co-director of the Office of Citizens Assistance after Langford assumed office. Matthews was fired in 2009 after engaging in a heated argument with supporters of Patrick Cooper, who was then running for mayor, at a Citizens Advisory Board party.
Matthews remained involved in community activism, organizing many events and protests with the Outcast Voters League, an advocacy group he founded in 1999. In February, he filed a class action lawsuit alleging malfeasance against the Birmingham Water Works Board in the wake of the dramatic increase in water bills many customers experienced after the Board changed billing systems in November.
Matthews said that his administration would build a “bridge over poverty” by investing in local businesses and education. A central tenet of Matthews’ platform is the establishment of a fund that would set aside $10 million to aid small businesses throughout the city. He said he also plans to bring in businesses from around the world by creating what he calls an “Office of International and Global Recruitment.” This office would incorporate “the best and brightest minds” in Birmingham to negotiate with multinational corporations and conglomerates to persuade them to bring business to the city. The office would also oversee an international training center that would teach different languages and other skills necessary to operate in a global economy.
Matthews said he also wants to implement serious reforms in Birmingham’s education system. He argued that members of the school board should be elected by the city at large instead of by defined districts within the city. The current system, he said, has forced board members to prioritize the wellbeing of their districts instead of focusing on what is best for the entire school system. Matthews has proposed reducing the number of school board members from nine to five, with whoever wins the most votes in the election becoming the board president.
Matthews ultimately wants to see Birmingham become a town “that creates bright minds for the 22nd century,” one that serves as a model of opportunity and success for other cities around the world. “We have to represent hope for man, just as we represented liberty for man during the Civil Rights movement,” he said.
Reflecting on his work with gang members and criminals, Matthews said that as mayor, he would create an “Office of Recidivism Reduction” to help recently released convicts find steady employment. In addition to reducing unemployment, Matthews said, such efforts would help lower crime as well, as the difficulty that released prisoners often have finding jobs is a major contributor to the high rates at which they fall back into crime.
In addition to establishing the anti-recidivism office, Matthews said that after taking office he would travel to all 14 correctional facilities in the state and sit down and personally speak with every inmate who is within six months of release. He plans to listen to their concerns and in return ask them to sign what he called a “covenant” with him, in which he would promise to have the Office of Recidivism Reduction help them find employment if they would promise to avoid reoffending in the future.
Matthews expressed particular frustration at the disrepair he sees in Birmingham’s roads and neighborhoods. He pointed to a burned-out house next door to his office in north Birmingham as being an example of what he saw as neglect from the city government. Matthews promised that, as mayor, he would dramatically reduce the $10 million allocated to the mayor’s office under the current city budget and redirect the money toward cleaning up and repairing the city.
“Birmingham is not ‘Brokenham’; it’s ‘Richingham’ really,” he said. “All that money given to contractors and consultants? Not going to happen under Frank Matthews’ administration.”