Just over a year from now, in August 2013, voters in the city of Birmingham will trek to their polling places to cast ballots in three contests: For mayor, and for the city councilor and board of education member in their respective districts. I mentioned this in this space a few weeks back, in the midst of a reverie about the possibilities of municipal democracy as a vehicle for transformational change in Birmingham. Or some such thing.
I mention next year’s elections again now — and will return to that topic with regularity in the coming weeks and months, as a bee to the hive — because those possibilities are brought home to me in some way almost every day that I venture beyond my own front door. Good things are happening all over Birmingham, from the inundation of locally made beer to the community garden movement to the resurgences of historic commercial areas in Avondale and Woodlawn.
These and a bushel load of other things are happening as the result of cooperative partnerships between individuals, neighborhoods, small businesses, foundations, corporations and governmental entities. These types of partnerships, that spirit of cooperation, have been the building blocks of growth and progress in other communities around the country. That they are becoming increasingly prevalent in Birmingham — and producing increasingly tangible results — is, in and of itself, cause for optimism.
At the same time, of course, we have so many problems — some old, some new, some self-inflicted, others thrust upon us, some unique to Birmingham, some endemic to large American cities. Partnerships alone are not enough to address them. Cooperation will carry us a long way, but we are not going to clear all of the hurdles in front of us until we bring the same attitudes — the same sense of purpose, the same desire for progress and positive change, the same willingness to work hard — to bear on our local electoral process.
In other words, friends and neighbors, for every issue — and opportunity — we face as a community, the solution is ultimately political. Period. We have to find good candidates. We have to work for them. We have to vote, and we have to help persuade others to do the same. If we truly want to change things, we’d better be prepared to do some heavy lifting. If you don’t believe this and aren’t willing to act on it — if you’re one of those folks who thinks politics is beneath you — then you’re really just paying lip service to the idea of progress.
Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty. That gem came from the namesake of our troubled county, Thomas Jefferson, and it says a great deal about how we got where we are today, politically speaking.
Throughout its history, Birmingham has proved nothing if not its ability to resist change, a characteristic that sometimes appears to have had a cumulative effect on our electoral process, most notably in our collective belief in the possibilities of electoral politics. We complain about ineffectuality, inaccessibility and corruption among our officeholders, but we do not focus our outrage when and where it would do the most good — on Election Day, at the ballot box. We bemoan the utter mediocrity that prevails in our political realm, but it is we, the voters, who perpetuate this mediocrity. We have been made timid.
If you dispute this, do me the favor of considering that in 2011, the last time the voters of Birmingham had the opportunity to elect a mayor, only 15 percent of them found the time to go to the polls. Of course, that low turnout can be largely attributed to the fact that Mayor William Bell had only token opposition, so we’ll go back to 2009, the last time City Council and Board of Education seats were contested, where we find that…Oops… Turnout in that one was an even more abysmal 14.5 percent.
(To be fair, you can go back to the last hotly contested mayoral election, the one in 2007 that gave us Larry Langford, and find a turnout of nearly 41 percent — not great, but much closer to being a true expression of the public will. But that election was driven by the outsized personality of the victor and the poorly run campaigns of the nine candidates — including the then-incumbent, a city council member, a well-funded “outsider,” and the current mayor of Birmingham — whom he defeated without a runoff.)
Fifteen percent voter turnout is a pretty weak engine on which to run a democracy. In raw terms, that means that fewer than 18,000 people get to decide the fate of a city of more than 200,000. Of course, the other side of that equation means that 9,000 votes will elect a mayor, and 1,000 a city councilor or school board member — all the more reason to get busy, find a good candidate — or get behind a good incumbent — and start holding meetings, knocking on doors and persuading people how important it is to go to the polls.
Let me close by saying that this should not be taken as a blanket indictment of incumbents. We have some fine people in public office in Birmingham. Unfortunately, they do not predominate, and the responsibility for changing that lies with us, the voters.
If we want Birmingham to succeed, we need better leadership. To get better leadership, we must elect better leaders.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org