On Saturday, August 27, Randall Woodfin, a soft-spoken assistant city attorney and Birmingham school board member, announced his candidacy for mayor.
At 35 years old, Woodfin said he considers himself an outsider who can “push the reset button” at city hall.
“I think people are tired of tax dollars not being allocated toward improving people’s quality of life,” Woodfin said over the phone on Tuesday. “And all of the energy at city hall being personal or being petty or even being vindictive, that’s just not good in a city where we see poverty increasing and people afraid to sit on their porch.”
The day he announced his candidacy, Woodfin spoke from a podium at the North Birmingham Recreation Center — the neighborhood in which he grew up. He laid out his plans for the city if he were elected mayor to a crowd of several hundred supporters.
“I’ve been intentional about my public service ever since I made the decision to dedicate my life to that cause,” he said. “It’s extremely important if you take an oath of office, whether you are an attorney or mayor, to put others first,” Woodfin said, adding that the city is in the middle of a “leadership crisis at city hall.”
A big part of Woodfin’s vision for the city, he explained, is empowering communities to begin to hold elected officials more accountable. “If we don’t hold them accountable, then we are at fault as much as they are if things aren’t happening the way we want them to,” Woodfin said. “If I’m elected, I demand that you all hold me accountable.”
Rather than speaking about his platform specifically, Woodfin couched his goals in terms of what legacy he wants to leave for the city if elected. “I want to change the educational landscape for our youngest generation here,” Woodfin said. “We are going to have real neighborhood revitalization, and lastly we will have created a space where if you open a business, or if you have an existing business you want to expand, then we are going to make sure you do that right here in the city limits of Birmingham.”
Looking at education, he said, Birmingham’s schools are not where they need to be. Part of that can be attributed to the lack of early childhood education opportunities available. One of his goals would be to put early childhood learning centers in all of Birmingham’s elementary schools. Education has to be a mayor’s top priority, Woodfin said.
“We have to champion education. That’s bigger than K-12, that’s bigger than 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and it’s bigger than August to May,” he said. With the help of public-private partnerships, Woodfin said he would like to see large investments being made toward education and summer reading programs to help close the achievement gaps.
As school board president — Woodfin has since resigned that post — Woodfin inherited a school system that was under state intervention and was on accreditation probation. “Those were extremely high hurdles,” Woodfin said, “and we overcame that. We’re in a space where we can now focus on getting our operation together and to make sure our finances are in the right place. All of those things come second to student achievement. I wish I could turn around student achievement in three years to the point where everyone is excited where our children are. It is a burden to me personally that too many of our children aren’t reading at grade level. But we are moving with an overwhelming sense of urgency.”
Woodfin also took note of criticism that the city needs to focus more on neighborhoods which have unmet needs. “Birmingham is only as strong as its lowest-quality-of-life neighborhood,” he said. “I believe when you have $420 million in the general fund and a second phase of $75 million in bond funds, there is a way to take care of all your neighborhoods — at a bare minimum, the infrastructure and basic services. Right now we don’t have that.”
Asked if he would have a security detail costing upwards of $1 million — as local media has reported is the case for Birmingham Mayor William Bell — Woodfin replied, “Absolutely not. The plainest way I can put it is, I won’t need $10 million to fund the mayor’s office. That’s not a department. That’s money for infrastructure. That’s money for dealing with dilapidated houses. That’s money for supporting your education program. That’s money for transit. I could go on and on. It’s tax dollars. It’s not my money.”
Majadi Baruti, a spectator in the audience on Saturday who has not decided who he will vote for in the upcoming election, said he wanted to hear Woodfin’s stance on a variety of topics. “One aspect that I appreciated was when he spoke about neighborhood revitalization, he spoke to all 99 neighborhoods,” Baruti said. “That’s really important because there has been so much focus on downtown. That’s cool. That’s cute. But it doesn’t speak to everyone in Birmingham.”
Baruti said that the current administration does not speak to the neighborhoods. “There is no direct reference or action given to the neighborhoods other than cutting some grass. Again, there is no connection at all,” Baruti said.
Adorned in a “Woodfin for Mayor” T-shirt and with her three children playing with balloons at her feet after Saturday’s speech, Peggy Biga said that she supports Woodfin because he has a “strong focus on education.” Her eldest son, Avery, is in the Birmingham City School system. “I believe he can bring education where it needs to be in this city, for all students,” she said.
Biga’s husband, Chris, said he appreciated Woodfin’s comments on people in the community taking a personal responsibility for their neighborhoods. “It’s not what the city does for us as much as it’s interconnected with what we do for ourselves and our community,” he said. “From my perspective, Randall is not ingrained in the dynamic that has historically been responsible for discontinuity within the city.”
As it currently stands, Woodfin will be facing incumbent Mayor William Bell on the August 22, 2017 ballot.