A New Mayor For a New Era


joey-kennedy-randall-woodfin

By Joey Kennedy // Photo by Chuck St. John

I’ve lived in Birmingham for 35 years. I mean, literally, Birmingham. My wife and I have never lived outside the city’s boundaries. We’ve lived on the East side of Birmingham, on the Southwest side, and now we live on Southside, a few blocks behind UAB, where we’ve owned a home since 1999.

When we came to Birmingham, Richard Arrington was mayor. He was followed for a brief time by William Bell (as interim), then Bernard Kincaid, Larry Langford and William Bell again. It’s been a rocky road at times, one filled with never-ending potholes. Except during an election year, when the potholes seemed to get filled.

In all that time, curious readers, I’ve never witnessed the excitement I’m seeing today about the election of a mayor. This month, on Nov. 28, a young lawyer, an innovative thinker, Randall Woodfin, will become the youngest mayor Birmingham has had in a long, long time.

The excitement is real. Many people are wondering what’s next for the Magic City. How will we move forward? How far will we move forward? Is this for real? Or are we in for another letdown?

Arrington was a good mayor. In any other state, one that wouldn’t mind electing an African-American as, say, a U.S. senator, Arrington would have moved on after a couple terms. But this is Alabama, and we still, sadly, are reluctant to pick a qualified other-color over an unqualified white as snow.

That’s how we end up with a Jeff Sessions as Senator for Life, until he became U.S. attorney general under the worst president in U.S. history. That’s how we have the Republican nominee for U.S. senator, Roy Moore, as an individual who strips money from his own nonprofit for his own personal gain, even after being thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court twice for not following the law he swore he would uphold. It’s how we pass an immigration reform law that is punitive, not constructive, because most immigrants are brown and not snow white.

Accept it. Don’t get defensive. Curious people can handle the truth.

Now, we have a young man, Randall Woodfin, who will become mayor this month, replacing William Bell, who served more than seven years after the Larry Langford disaster.

Bell has been a good mayor. He’s done much to help revitalize Downtown, Midtown, Parkside, Uptown, and other areas of Birmingham. He saw the completion of Regions Field and the Crossplex and the launch of an ambitious effort to make Birmingham a contender for Amazon’s new corporate headquarters.

Birmingham is on the map, and we can thank William Bell for that.

But Birmingham wanted better. A wise person once told me the biggest threat to being great is being good.

Voters didn’t like the bickering between City Council and the mayor. They didn’t like it that a lot of the city’s finances were being hidden, that what they did know was not what they wanted to know, that there seemed to be an arrogance at City Hall that appeared to serve those who were elected instead of those who needed to be served.

Enter Randall Woodfin, the once-president of the Birmingham Board of Education, still a school board member as this is written. Woodfin ran a ragingly successful campaign. Nothing negative. Just a man and his supporters who covered neighborhoods, who knocked on doors, who said, “Hey, I’m something different.” But not bad-different.

As successful as Bell has been as mayor—and it’s absolutely fair for him to claim many successes—he is not a great communicator. He keeps information close to the vest. He scraps with the City Council, even though 95 percent of what he and the board want to do is approved.

Bell also has one of the largest mayoral staffs for a city Birmingham’s size in the nation. That’s a lot of money, going for a lot of stuff, that could be going to a lot of other stuff that we need more than his stuff.

“The silent majority spoke,” Woodfin told me, shortly after his election was certified. “They wanted something hopeful, solutions, and a different style of communicating.”

Yes, indeed. An open style of communicating. Treating citizens as partners in government, not partners only during election years.

One of Woodfin’s first tasks will be to assess the mayor’s staff.

“I’m waiting for anybody to show me that a city our size has 101 people serving at the pleasure of the mayor,” Woodfin said. “I’m waiting on that. I’ll probably be waiting a long time.”

It’s not that Woodfin, a city employee in the law department, wants to wipe the slate clean and just replace people. But he said he wants to make sure that those who serve the city are the best people he can find to serve.

During the election, Woodfin also said he’d take some of those resources from a trimmed-down mayoral staff and put them toward public safety, surely one of Birmingham’s highest priorities.

With everything positive going on in the city today, Birmingham still has one of the nation’s highest crime rates. While many crimes can’t be interdicted by the police, many can. In any event, Birmingham clearly needs more resources in public safety, and Woodfin is determined to find those resources.

One other important area Woodfin said he will concentrate on is financial transparency.

Nobody is going to argue that the Birmingham School Board, where Woodfin has served most recently, is a fine-tuned, clean, running machine. Indeed, it’s mostly a disaster. But Woodfin points out a reality that is startling.

The school board meets once a month. The City Council meets once a week.

“We (the School Board) get more financial information on a monthly basis than they (City Council) do every week,” Woodfin said.

Here’s what Woodfin said: We’re going to get more information about city finances than we probably want. More than we probably can even understand. But transparent, the city will be. At council meetings. On the internet. Through phone calls.

And then, gladness to my heart: “You, being a journalist, shouldn’t have to wait six weeks or six months for travel records,” Woodfin said. “You shouldn’t have to file a lawsuit. It shouldn’t be that way.”

The excitement is real. Bell was kind as he conceded the election. Woodfin was humble as he accepted the mantle. These next years could be the best times for Birmingham in a long while. The potential is there.

“I would like people to know a little more about me,” Woodfin said. “I’ve never wanted to be the smartest guy in the room. I don’t want ‘yes people’ around me. I want people to execute and to be smarter. That’s going to require a lot of leadership.”

A young man who ran an amazing campaign is tasked with providing that leadership, starting now.

Leave a Reply