Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.
— Henry Brougham
How late is too late?
As it relates to the Birmingham municipal election scheduled for August 27, as good an answer as any can be found by copping the refrain from one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs: It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. Before too many more weeks come and go, it might be appropriate to switch to a verse from the Book of Jeremiah: The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.
This is an important election for a lot of reasons. Far from least among these is that the office of mayor and the entire Birmingham City Council will be on the same ballot for the first time since 1963, the year that the change to a mayor-council form of government went into effect. In that historic election — and this gets directly to the point of this column, at which I will arrive presently — there were four candidates for mayor, along with 76 candidates to fill nine city council seats. Just to assure the reader that there is no misprint here, I will spell that out: seventy-six candidates.
I make note of this because over the past few months, I have devoted considerable amounts of this space to reminding anyone kind enough to pick up our newspaper or visit our website of the importance of this upcoming election. I have done this through various devices — writing about the need for visionary leadership, of the need to encourage good people to run for office and to support them when they do so, and above all else, of the importance of voting.
That last item in particular is something of which no one with even a passing knowledge of Birmingham’s history should need reminding. Our city, as perhaps nowhere else in America, is a shining example of how an engaged community with a shared purpose — in the case of the voters of 1963, driving Bull Connor from office and ending official segregation — can effect sweeping change.
Not that I expect anyone to get all charged up simply on my say-so. Indeed, the direct and critical connection between voter participation and at least the potential for better government — especially on the local level — should be self-evident.
Apparently, that is not the case. The election of 2013 is, I will repeat, important — but you wouldn’t know it from either the level of public interest in contests that are only a dozen weeks away as I write this, or in the number, let alone quality, of candidates who have declared to date in the races for mayor and council. I hasten to add that I don’t mean to say that there are no good candidates, or that any number of good people might not jump into one race or the other in the next few weeks. At the moment, however, the pickings remain slim.
Prospects are at least slightly better in the third election on the ballot this August, the district-based selection of the nine members of the Birmingham Board of Education. Including both some current board members and several announced challengers, the increased public interest in our city’s public education system that has evinced itself in various ways in the past year or so is reflected in the field of candidates. Still, that same interest is not yet reflected in — well, in actual interest in the election. Few things would improve Birmingham and help pave the way to the brightest possible future for us all — either substantively or in terms of self-image and outside perceptions — than the turnaround of our school system. The best way to ensure that happens is to elect a qualified, focused school board that can unite around what remains a daunting mission.
Which brings me back to where I started this column. It’s getting late, late enough that my biggest fear at this point is that even if we wind up with several fine candidates, they have not given themselves time to catch on with the public. The upshot of that is that such a situation almost guarantees that voter turnout will be abysmal, which in turn virtually assures that we will get little to none of the change we need to kick the civic momentum Birmingham has built up of late into hyperdrive.
I won’t say that I’m beginning to despair — yet — of the increasingly likely outcome of the 2013 elections. But neither do I find much at this increasingly late date on which to hang my hopes.
In closing this week’s column, I’m going to take a moment to note the tremendous response to what I wrote last week, urging the public to contact their city councilor about Mayor Bell’s omission of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve from his recommended budget for FY 2104. In addition to the number of citizens who have made their feelings known to City Hall, I’ve been made aware of at least one civic organization — the YMBC Civic Forum — that has passed a formal resolution urging the City Council to provide adequate operational funding for Ruffner. This, too, is how change is effected, and wrongs corrected.