I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?
— Benjamin Disraeli
Does William Bell want to be a great mayor?
This question nags at me from time to time. Actually, it has become downright vexing of late, as I ponder the fact that in August, barring the emergence of some epically proportioned scandal, Mayor Bell is going to breeze to a second full term in office — and that’s regardless of who else, or whether anyone at all, might enter the race against him. I have stated before my belief that, on balance, this probably would not be an undesirable outcome, my rationale being that the city will benefit from the stability.
Still, the question nags. Does William Bell want to be a great mayor? And beyond that, another question: Does he have the capacity for greatness in him?
Certainly there can be no doubt that Mayor Bell has the requisite political skills and personal presence, as well as the intellectual acumen, to be an effective officeholder and a winning representative of the city. Likewise, it cannot be argued that good things — unprecedented things, even — are happening in Birmingham, and that they are happening on Mayor Bell’s watch.
Of course, that points up a truism of political life, which is that, generally speaking, elected chief executives — be they mayors, governors or presidents — get too much blame when things are going bad and too much credit when things are going good. What is arguable then, is whether the good things that are happening at present would be happening without William Bell in the mayor’s chair. By extension, this raises the prospect that the greatest skill on display among the mayor and his brain trust might be an uncanny acuity for being in the right place at the right time — an ear for the groundswell, an eye for the photo opportunity, a nose for the winds of expedience.
These things were very much on my mind last Thursday, May 9, as I gathered with about 40 other folks — including Mayor Bell and Victor Mendez, the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration — at the groundbreaking ceremony for the portion of the countywide Red Rock Ridge and Valley trail system being funded by a $15 million federal grant. The ceremony was held in the historic Smithfield neighborhood, the locus of so many of the dozens of racially motivated bombings that took place during the Civil Rights Era that the neighborhood became known as “Dynamite Hill.”
The mayor took note of this piece of history in his remarks, pointing out that part of the Red Rock system dovetails with the city’s Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Bell also noted that when completed, the 29-mile trail system will pass through 21 Birmingham neighborhoods.
Mendez hailed the broad public-private partnership that helped the city land the highly competitive “TIGER” grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Birmingham’s was one of just 218 projects nationwide that received funding last year, out of more than 4,000 proposals.
“Getting a TIGER grant requires a real community effort,” Mendez said. “It speaks to the importance of what you’re trying to do here, and it would not have been possible without the partnership you’ve put together. That’s the only way to get things done in today’s world.”
One of the best things about the Red Rock Ridge and Valley system is the vital link it will provide between areas of the city that previously have had little or no connection to each other — or, in some cases, to the city at large. One of those is the area comprising the Norwood, Fountain Heights and Druid Hills neighborhoods, which will be connected by various means — including surface roads that also would facilitate foot and bicycle traffic — to the city center and points south, as well as feeding into to the Red Rock system.
Unfortunately, all of that — most particularly as it relates to Norwood — would be completely disrupted by the Alabama Department of Transportation’s recently announced design for the renovation of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham. Norwood residents — and, increasingly, other concerned citizens from throughout the city — are building opposition to the plan, though it remains unclear whether ALDOT will be swayed.
In this space three weeks ago, I suggested that perhaps the only person with the standing and wherewithal to turn the tide and insist that ALDOT make the project more palatable to the public is Mayor Bell. This project, critical to the future development not just of Norwood, but all of downtown Birmingham, I wrote, presents a true leadership moment.
Following the May 9 ceremony in Smithfield, I asked the mayor about his stance on I-20/59. What I heard did not sound much like leadership, as he rehashed all of the reasons that ALDOT had rejected alternate proposals, including rerouting the interstate northward and rebuilding it below grade.
I also asked Mendez about the project. While he said he was not familiar with the controversy over it, he also said — tellingly — that “the city can take the lead” on the resolution of such issues with highway projects, and that in his long experience, “no problem is insurmountable” if all affected parties are at the planning table.
To be fair to Mayor Bell, he also told me that, in his view, ALDOT “remains open to searching for other options,” and that he will “continue to seek avenues for compromise” that will address the concerns of residents and businesses that would be adversely affected by the current plan. Since that conversation with the mayor, I have been told that his talks with ALDOT have intensified, and that what a source termed “a secret meeting” between the mayor and state officials was to take place early this week.
In the meantime, it is incumbent upon the public to keep the pressure on — and upon the mayor to pay heed. This is but one issue of many on his plate, but it also is one that touches on many of the larger issues — systemic poverty, urban revitalization, economic and community development opportunities — that he must tackle if he wants to be remembered as more than a caretaker of the job he coveted for three decades before finally winning it. As he does so — if he does so — he deserves our support, and our best wishes for success.
So…does William Bell want to be a great mayor? The resolution of the I-20/59 project is a true test of that question. Lord knows, Birmingham needs a great mayor, now more than ever. And we’re going to have four years to find out whether this one is up to the challenge.