Here in Birmingham and Jefferson County, we struggle with ourselves. I’ve written it before, but it’s worth repeating that we are much, much better than we generally give ourselves credit for.
This was brought home to me most recently in a conversation with an old friend from my hometown. In the midst of commiserating about the sad state of our state and the prospects for its future, this confirmed country boy offered up the opinion that, if Alabama’s problems are going to be solved, the solution is going to have to come from Birmingham.
“Birmingham is the most enlightened city in Alabama,” he declared. I couldn’t resist the obvious response.
“That’s a low bar, isn’t it?” I asked. He countered, as is his manner, with a pronouncement that put a period on the discussion.
“That don’t make it any less true.”
And he’s right. Which got me curious enough to do a little research to see how our community stacks up against Alabama as a whole. In doing so, I didn’t restrict the term “community” to the city proper, but — as is going to have to be the case if indeed we are going to lead our beleaguered state out of the wilderness — all of Jefferson County.
What I found in my cursory look at some demographic and economic data is not surprising (though it does beg the question of why we don’t do more with what we have). Start with education: The high school graduation rate in Jefferson County is 6.4 percent higher than the state average, while the percentage of county residents who are college graduates exceeds the state average by 32.7 percent. In terms of economic capacity, our median household income is 7.5 percent higher and our poverty rate 9.4 percent lower. We have higher concentrations of women-owned and black-owned businesses.
I also looked at an admittedly more subjective measure of our enlightenment, the results of the November 6 elections. Statewide, Mitt Romney outpolled President Barack Obama approximately 61 percent to 38; in Jefferson County, Obama won 52.5 to 46.5. Likewise, while the proudly benighted Roy Moore eked out a 52-48 victory over Bob Vance in the race for Alabama Chief Justice — returning Moore to the post from which he was ignominiously removed by a federal judge in 2003 — the tally in Jefferson County was 63-37 in favor of Vance.
Let me be quick to say here that I am not necessarily suggesting that that the fact that Democrats outpolled Republicans in Jefferson County last week indicates a higher level of sophistication among our voters here. In fact, I will go so far as to say that in the Democratic sweep of the county — in something of a dramatic reversal of recent trends, Democrats won every contested countywide race — a number of better qualified Republicans, including both incumbents and prospective officeholders, lost out.
Actually, as I think about it, what that means to me is that in Jefferson County, even the Republicans — to an extent, anyway — are more enlightened. Not so statewide, where the signal “accomplishment” of Republican control of the Alabama Legislature is an immigration law that has resulted in reams of bad publicity for the state, with an economic impact that may be incalculable, particularly in terms of our current and ongoing ability to attract new business from outside Alabama.
They’ve also teamed up with our Republican governor to pull a raid on the Alabama Trust Fund, taking money from the people’s savings account to evade their responsibility to produce a balanced budget for our state government. Meanwhile, none of the problems that have plagued Alabama for decades receive any meaningful attention. If the idea is that Republicans are supposed to be different from Democrats in the results they produce, our Alabama Republicans are doing a poor job of distinguishing themselves. Indeed, they are putting me in the rather unfortunate position of agreeing with the late George Wallace’s assessment that, when it comes to doing things that have societal, rather than strictly political, benefits, “there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference.”
Speaking of Governor Bentley, he’s not doing the people of Alabama any favors either, with his shamefully political refusal to create a state health exchange in accordance with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare.” Hiding behind protestations of the health care law being “unworkable” and/or “unconstitutional,” Bentley is merely carrying on the long tradition of Alabama “leaders” who abdicate their responsibilities to our citizens — especially the poor, of which Alabama has more than its share.
“Alabama needs a doctor” made for a fine slogan when Bentley was campaigning for his job. But it would have been nice to know ahead of time that we were getting Doctor Death.
Which brings us back to Birmingham and Jefferson County. We have plenty of problems of our own, not a few of which — mass transit, land use planning, governmental corruption — have bordered on intractable. But we are making progress, and in that we are far ahead of the state as a whole. Far enough ahead, in fact, to lead, if only we will.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.