He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction…
That’s from “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” the great songwriter Kris Kristofferson’s heartfelt — and heart-wrenching — tribute to a peripatetic soul. As with most any lyric, it’s easy enough to “borrow” that single line from the refrain, to isolate it from the context of the song and apply it to almost any person who’s the least bit colorful, controversial, or even merely conspicuous in their particular realm of endeavor or influence.
That includes politicians, many of whom fit into all three of the categories I’ve mentioned, for reasons both valid and not. From their own perspective, of course, politicians get all of the blame for things that are “bad” (or at least perceived to be so by significant segments of the population) and none of the credit for those that are “good” (ditto).
From the perspective of the general public, on the other hand, the inverse is more often true. That is to say that the broad popular perception is that our elected “leaders” spend eight days a week assigning themselves all of the credit for everything that can be remotely construed as “good” and absolving themselves of all responsibility for the “bad” and any and all repercussions associated with it.
(Gosh, but I’m putting a lot of words in “ironic” quotes today. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, when we — some of us, at least — have to take the trouble to wonder whether some or all of the “news” we’re getting from a particular source or sources of “journalism” is “real” or “fake.” In any case, I’ll try to keep the irony in check from here on out.)
From my point of view — and with the prefatory acknowledgement that qualifications and experience mean nothing in the new and uncharted age on which we are embarked, especially when it comes to the relative valuation of opinion and assessment — the truth of the matter is that politicians generally get too much credit for what’s good and too much blame for what is not.
There are exceptions to all of this, some of them glaring. But if you factor out every politician who toils purely in the public interest, all of the members of the public who think our system of politics and government works perfectly, and each would-be commentator who thinks that having opinions — and stating them as often and as loudly as possible — is all that is required to contribute to an “informed” (last one, I promise) public, and what you get is something like the equation I have proposed.
If you want living proof of this entire proposition, look no farther than this magic little city of ours (as one of its founders referred to Birmingham in the full flush of its early growth) and its current mayor, one William Bell. And, given that we’re now well into a year in which Birmingham’s quadrennial municipal elections will take place — featuring races for all 19 elective offices in the City of Birmingham — AND in which said elections are less than seven months away as I write this, AND in which Mayor Bell has already indicated, if not yet formally announced, that he is a candidate for reelection…well, given all of that, this seems an appropriate time to give some consideration to the mayor’s presumptive case for another term in office.
Bell himself has provided some impetus for such consideration, with the delivery on January 10 of his annual State of the City address. I was unable to attend the speech, and the Mayor’s Office unfortunately does not produce a formal transcript of the mayor’s remarks. April Odom, public information officer for the city, did provide Weld with the outline the mayor followed, along with the explanation that “The Mayor prefers to speak from the heart.” A cynic might look askance at the absence of a written record, but I’m grateful nonetheless to have some idea of what was said.
In some sense, of course, these things are predictable. I don’t know if Mayor Bell actually used this phrase, but I’m assuming that the message he delivered was that the state of the city is strong. To expect otherwise would be akin to expecting a rooster to keep quiet about the sunrise — which allusion brings to mind the old story about the rooster who thought he was responsible for the sunrise, and its potential application to Mayor Bell’s ultimate responsibility for the current state of the city, but let’s keep moving.
In some regards, there’s no doubting or disputing the veracity of the mayor’s assertion. Nor — I’m compelled to add as one who has been critical of him on a frequent basis over the years, dating back to his long tenure on the Birmingham City Council — is there any reason to want to do either. Not for anyone who understands and appreciates the importance of certain signifiers of municipal vitality, or anyone who wants the city to do well in general.
Fees generated by construction permits were up nearly 25 percent in 2016. The total valuation of construction activity in the city — more than $1 billion worth, according to Mayor Bell — was up more than 50 percent over 2015. The Uptown development around the Birmingham-Jefferson County Convention Complex is expanding, most notably with the addition of the Topgolf entertainment and event franchise to the lineup of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and lodging.
In downtown Birmingham, renovations of the landmark Pizitz and Thomas Jefferson Hotel buildings are nearing completion after years of languishing empty and deteriorating. Redevelopment and revitalization efforts continue to bring undeniable new energy to the Avondale, Woodlawn, and East Lake neighborhoods. Recent announcements by Bell promise substantial investments around the Crossplex sports facility at Five Points West and a new public safety complex in Ensley — two areas that have long had rightful complaints about lack of adequate attention from City Hall.
But there are deeper issues that, to various extents, have tempered the forward progress Mayor Bell touted — and, to the extent that they remain unaddressed, will continue to temper it in the future. Poverty, crime, education, transportation, housing, neighborhood blight — these are issues the mayor’s speech touched on, but for which he offered no overarching strategy for addressing, or for that matter, any reassurance that his administration had given them much thought prior to the past few months and the rumblings of political opposition from several quarters.
Without getting into the complexities of those bedrock issues in this space, I certainly don’t blame the mayor for touting what he and his supporters tout — and will tout with increasing frequency and intensity over the weeks and months leading up to August 8 — as indisputable forward progress. Birmingham is a palpably different city than it was when Bell took office in 2010, and I don’t have to be a particular fan of his — or particularly accepting of his definition of “progress” — to acknowledge the presence of a kind of energy that is unprecedented during my own lengthening tenure as a citizen of Birmingham.
The question is, What is going to happen to that energy? Or, perhaps more correctly, What should happen to that energy?
This question is the crux of Birmingham’s election in 2017. That’s true of the mayoral part of it at the very least, and just maybe the whole shebang, if it features thoughtful candidates and compelling discussion and debate over issues of critical import to the city and the people who live in it.
As long as I’m throwing praise in William Bell’s direction, conditional as it may be, I’ll give him credit for recognizing the ground on which the coming electoral battle will be contested. Bell has not spent the better part of four decades in public office without knowing how to size up the circumstances, marshal his resources, and do his best to pick his spots to engage or be engaged.
He’s also a gifted politician with a solid core of faithful longtime followers. As such, as I’ve written before, he had the opportunity to lead the way in addressing the deep-rooted issues that serve as a counterweight to his unquestioned successes as mayor. Things like the rising rate of poverty, the inequitable distribution of city resources, and the lack of a concerted, long-term strategy for creating opportunities — in education, in employment, in quality-of-life measures — with the potential to transform the lives of local citizens and serve as the foundation of a strong, prosperous, and fully inclusive community. As I said to someone the other day, I don’t blame the mayor for the city’s high poverty rate, but I sure wish he’d take responsibility for lowering it.
In my view, then, Mayor Bell has not taken the opportunity to be a great mayor. But that’s a matter for discussion and debate, particularly as he seeks another term in office.
What the mayor has done, with his State of the City address, is set the terms for that discussion and debate. To the extent that it takes place, to the extent that citizens are drawn into the active consideration of competing visions of what Birmingham can — and should — do and be in the future, the city will benefit from the process, no matter the outcome.
Our city is at a potentially definitive time in its history. How we proceed — and whom we select to lead us into the next chapter of our history — is a worthy preoccupation for anyone who cares about Birmingham.