Come this August, I will have lived in Birmingham for 37 years, the entirety of my adult life. I love this city, truly and deeply. A big part of loving it has been giving myself over to the never-ending process of learning it — its streets and sidewalks, its neighborhoods, the undulant roll and swell and comber of the valley and the hillsides, the architecture of the homes and shops and warehouses and factories that, even in the neglect and ruin into which so many have been allowed to fall and fester, have never stopped speaking to me of the possibilities of our future.
Neither have the people who populate our city. It is my great good fortune to have made acquaintances and established long and lasting friendships with people in every corner of Birmingham, and in every circumstance in which it is possible to reside here. As a writer and a journalist and a citizen, I continue to be engaged, informed, and inspired by the people of Birmingham — their stories, their opinions and beliefs, their hopes and fears and aspirations and disappointments, for themselves and for this place we call home.
Which brings me to something else that happens this August, namely, the election of a mayor (we’ll also cast votes that day for our respective representatives on the Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Board of Education, but those are topics for another time). Qualifying closes on June 23, and to date, eight people — seven men and one woman — are vying to lead us for the next four years.
That includes the incumbent, William Bell, who has been in office since January 2010. That’s when he won a special election to serve the nearly two years remaining on the term of Larry Langford, who was removed from office following his conviction on corruption charges. Since then, Bell has twice won re-election, first in 2011, to a truncated two-year term — done to accommodate the alignment of mayoral and city council terms, which since the 1989 move to council districts had been staggered two years apart — and then to his current four-year term in 2013.
Mayor Bell’s career in city government reaches back considerably further than 2010. He was first elected to the Birmingham City Council in October of 1979 — that’s 10 months before my long residency in the city began, if you’re keeping score. For an extensive review of Bell’s first 20 years on the council — which was distinguished mostly by a series of ethical scrapes, occasional public fits of pique, and the loss of a no-work position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that was the last actual job he held before becoming mayor more than a decade-and-a-half later — I refer you to the local treasure known as Bhamwiki.
Bell first ran for mayor in 1999, fulfilling what he and his political patrons had long viewed as his role as heir-apparent to Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. Arrington is the closest thing to a great mayor Birmingham has had, and for much of his time in office he was very close. He was first elected in the same year Bell was elected to the city council, and won four more terms after that without much in the way of a close call.
But by ’99, Arrington was tired and, by his own admission, “out of ideas,” and he stepped down with 89 days remaining on his last term. By law, that elevated the president of the city council — Bell — to the role of interim mayor.
Viewed by many as Arrington’s way of handing the baton to Bell, the early transition to the mayor’s chair turned out to be Bell’s undoing. With a war chest of more than $1 million — he had virtually unanimous backing from the local corporate community, and outspent his closest rival, first-term city councilor and eventual victor Bernard Kincaid, roughly seven-to-one — Bell spent the campaign being chauffeured around in a rented limousine and generally behaving with the entitlement of Sonny Corleone (the character in his favorite film, The Godfather, whom he most resembles temperamentally).
It almost worked, as Bell polled 49.4 percent of the vote in the primary. He led second-place finisher Kincaid by nearly 17,000 votes — of more than 73,000 cast — and was fewer than 500 votes shy of winning without a runoff.
The runoff was a different story. Bell still had all the money, all the corporate backing, all the splendorous trappings of incumbency and heir apparentness — but in a one-on-one contest, those very things were enough to make many voters take a second look at the choice before them. You can say that Kincaid fought a brilliantly scrappy campaign to win, or that Bell pulled one of the all-time “come from ahead to lose” choke jobs (from my view, it was roughly equal parts both). Either way, when the 63,000 runoff votes were counted, Kincaid had 1,100 more than Bell, 50.9 percent of the total.
I covered that election as a reporter for the city paper Black & White. I spent the evening shuttling back and forth between Kincaid’s increasingly jam-packed little storefront headquarters at the corner of Second Avenue and 24th Street North and the cavernous and progressively more tomblike Boutwell Auditorium, where Bell’s coronation had been scheduled to take place.
One of my most enduring memories of that evening is walking across the mostly-deserted floor at Boutwell to head back to Kincaid headquarters when it started to become apparent that the upset was imminent. I met Bell campaign consultant Ken Mullinax coming in the other direction.
“What do you think, Ken?” I asked. Mullinax glanced around the big auditorium — over at the five-piece band that no one was dancing to, up at the huge net of balloons suspended from the ceiling, toward all the uneaten food that lined the buffet table. And then he gave one of the most honest answers I’ve ever heard a losing political consultant give.
“I’m thinking we should have spent some of this money on advertising,” he said.
(Here, by the way, is my customary disclaimer: After Kincaid beat Bell, he offered me a position on his staff, which I accepted. I stayed through the first of Kincaid’s two terms, and then returned to my lucrative existence as a writer and journalist.)
Having lost a skin-tight election for an office he’d been waiting 20 years to occupy, Bell returned to his post as council president with the opportunity to do himself and the city proud. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but there’s every chance that, had Bell behaved like an adult and been cooperative and accommodating toward the man who beat him fair-and-square, he could have run against Kincaid in 2007, positioned himself as the elder statesman, and won.
Instead, he apparently asked himself, What would Sonny do? With the support of five councilors who remained loyal to him, Bell (among other things) slashed the mayor’s spending power, hijacked the city budget process, greatly expanded the size of the council staff, and generally created and institutionalized the inherently poisonous relationship that has existed between the mayor and council ever since.
Oh, and he spearheaded the transfer of the assets of the Birmingham Water Works from the city to the Water Works Board. That opened the door to the millions upon millions in lucrative consulting contracts that continue to flow (pun intended) from the Water Works to political pals of Bell’s.
In the short run, that behavior cost Bell his council seat, as he lost the 2001 election to Elias Hendricks. He won it back in 2005, but then ran for and won the seat on the Jefferson County Commission vacated by Langford when the latter was elected mayor in 2007. And there, presumably, he would have stayed, had Langford not done him the favor of going to prison, making the mayor’s office vacant, and setting Bell up to run against attorney Patrick Cooper, who had plenty of money, led on primary day (polling 40 percent, to Bell’s 25), and ran an even worse runoff campaign than Bell had run against Kincaid in 1999.
I voted for Bell in that election, by the way, having decided that I’d rather have a dishonest mayor than an incompetent one. Actually, I harbored the hope that Bell had learned something from his years in the political wilderness. I shared that sentiment with a friend who was supporting Bell, and she suggested that I let him know of my intention. So I called him and told him that, notwithstanding our differences over the years, I’d be voting for him because I thought he was better qualified for the job.
“I appreciate that,” Bell told me. “You won’t regret it.”
He was only half-right. On the one hand, I don’t regret it, because Patrick Cooper would have been a terrible mayor. On the other hand, I do regret it, because William Bell is not a good mayor. That’s largely because he learned nothing from his years in the political wilderness. Instead, he’s doubled down on being Sonny Corleone.
Bell has spent millions on his own security detail. He has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more on travel that has brought the city little to nothing in return, at least in terms of jobs and opportunities for its citizens. He has done nothing to improve the life of the average resident of Birmingham, as evidenced by the fact that Birmingham’s poverty rate continues to rise and its neighborhoods — with a few notable exceptions, for which I give the administration the credit it deserves — continue to deteriorate. City services and resources are not distributed equitably.
And so, here we are again, 18 years after the first time William Bell ran for mayor, seven-and-a-half years after he finally became mayor, coming up on an election in which he has a nice war chest, the backing of the corporate community, the trappings of incumbency — and may well be riding for a fall. This brings me back to all of the people I know and talk to in every corner Birmingham, and to the fact that none of them profess to be happy with our mayor.
One of Birmingham’s distinguishing characteristics is that, by and large, our citizens don’t get interested in municipal elections until late in the game. That’s as true in 2017 as ever, but I can tell you that, right on schedule, people are starting to get interested. And, frankly, the more people get interested, the less I like William Bell’s chances. The more people ask questions, look at the record, weigh the alternatives, the more it starts to look like 1999 all over again.