Where there is no vision, the people perish…
— Proverbs 29:18
A few days ago, I was handed a flyer that is being distributed by the re-election campaign of Birmingham Mayor William Bell. The back of the flyer features 10 bullet points, “Reasons why we NEED to vote” for Bell on Tuesday, August 27. These points are introduced by the proposition that, The way you know what a person will do is by looking at what they have already done.
With the mayor’s people having been accommodating enough to raise the question, I will go ahead and pose it: What has William Bell done since winning a 2009 special election to complete the unexpired term of Larry Langford and then claiming the seat in his own right the following year?
In providing what we are supposed to take as the answer to that question, Mayor Bell’s campaign hands us a mixed bag of approximate truth, partial truth, empty homily and patent prevarication. Of course, most political campaigns — perhaps most especially those of candidates who, like Bell, are assured of re-election by the absence of strong opposition — are a study in the art of getting by with telling as little actual truth as possible (not unlike what Mark Twain once said about the role of truth in his profession — and mine — which is that writers consider it to be “their most valuable possession, and therefore are economical in its use”). Still, having been proffered to the voters of Birmingham, the claims of the Bell campaign cry out for some examination.
On the “truthy” side of the ledger, the mayor rightly takes credit for having “worked with state legislators on the land bank bill…to eliminate abandoned houses and overgrown lots.” The concept of legislation to allow the city to acquire title to vacant houses and properties and convert them to productive use has been kicked around City Hall for at least a decade, but Bell got it done — and because he did, pointing out the fact that he was in City Hall as either a city councilor or mayor for most of that time probably amounts to nitpicking. Score one for the mayor.
Bell also says he has “implemented various projects including: the Birmingham Crossplex, Railroad Park, Westin Hotel, and the Uptown Entertainment District.” This is true as far as it goes, and one of the advantages of being mayor is the wherewithal to claim credit for any good thing that happens under your watch. But all of the projects mentioned had their genesis in previous administrations, and almost certainly would have happened regardless of whom occupied the mayor’s seat at the time. Certainly, they are not the product of any grand vision of Bell’s — more about which in a few moments — but rather what amounts to reaping the low-hanging fruit of others’ labors. Still, this shouldn’t count against the mayor.
More troubling are intimations that Bell has worked productively with the Birmingham Board of Education and with those who are attempting to save Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. Each of these situations — along with the ongoing controversy over the Alabama Department of Transportation’s plans for reconfiguring Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham — has been made worse by the shocking lack of leadership, or even simple engagement, by Mayor Bell. For his campaign to claim otherwise is the height of disingenuousness.
Bell also claims to have “reduced crime in Birmingham,” a claim that, while probably — probably — true on an overall base, nonetheless seems at least a little tone-deaf coming on the heels of the month of June, which saw 13 murders in Birmingham, including eight in one 10-day period. And while a campaign flyer is not the place for the mayor to acknowledge the appallingly low level of morale among the city’s police force, there can be no doubt that the reduction in crime Bell so blithely trumpets is not one for which officers on the street feel appreciated by City Hall.
Other claims on the campaign flyer are so meaningless as to be insulting to any thinking person who takes the time to read them. The Bell Administration, we are told, “will continue to quickly identify areas of improvement, devise action plans, and execute with precision.” It will “continue to create and expand opportunities for the younger generation,” as well as continuing “to enhance the quality of life for senior citizens and the less fortunate,” and “be accessible and accountable to all citizens of Birmingham as well as promote diversity and equality for all.” In none of these cases are concrete examples given of the policies, programs and initiatives that are to be “continued.”
Is this really what we’ve come to in Birmingham? Are our expectations of the chief executive of our city so low that we are content to greet the prospect of his re-election with a sense of resignation rather than celebration? Are we willing to accept the probability that more than 80 percent of the registered voters of our city will not participate in the upcoming elections — for city council and the board of education, as well as mayor — as a fact of life rather than a challenge to do better?
I confess that I do not know the answers to these questions, but I do know this: A fish rots from the head down, and to the extent that Birmingham is not doing the things it needs to do to assure a brighter future for all of its citizens — which means addressing core issues like poverty, education and crime at their root — the blame can only be placed at the door of the city’s leader.
We should all want Mayor Bell to succeed, and Lord knows we all need him to. The question is whether he has the vision, the will and the desire to do it — that and whether we as citizens care enough to hold his feet to the fire.