It's a new day in Birmingham. And if you don't like it, wait 24 hours and it will change.
Birmingham's city council runoffs yielded a new, if mostly tweaked, council Tuesday night. Some of the biggest winners and losers weren't even on the ballot.
The big winner Tuesday night was incumbent Council President Carole Smitherman.
Smitherman won with 51 percent of the District 6 vote. Typically, a margin that thin would reflect a weak incumbent and undercut her claim to higher office. It certainly doesn't look like a mandate. But there are more factors to consider than that naked number.
Politics is the family business for Smitherman and her husband, Rodger the Senator, and they have accumulated fierce rivals. Virtually all of Smitherman's enemies aligned against her, throwing their support to her opponent, Sheila Tyson.
Smitherman has run for mayor twice already, and it's a fair assumption, she would try for the office again were Mayor Larry Langford convicted of corruption charges. For future opponents, this council race was an opportunity to kneecap the council president.
Tyson received support from some major personalities in Birmingham politics. Patrick Cooper supported Tyson, who served as his campaign manager two years ago. Former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington mailed a letter to District 6 voters saying that Tyson's candidacy would factor strongly into his political future, too. (More on that further down.) Rep. John Rogers chipped in campaign funds for Tyson. Always coy but never bashful, Rogers said he had to support his cousin, Tyson, the same way Rodger Smitherman had to support his wife.
Smitherman's opponents smelled blood in the water. The campaign was fierce and expensive.
"There is nothing quite as exhilarating as being shot at and missed," Winston Churchill said. Smitherman must be feeling mighty exhilarated this week. She was shot at and missed more times than Gerald Ford and Inspector Clouseau combined. As a consequence, the attempts to tear her down could have backfired.
In any other reelection campaign, 51 percent would have been an embarrassment, but the assault against Smitherman makes the results Tuesday look like a hard-won victory. She didn't just beat Tyson. She beat Cooper, Arrington and Rogers, too. If Smitherman is to stand a chance in a special election for mayor, she needed a boost. Her opponents gave it to her.
Elsewhere in the city, District 2 incumbent Carol Duncan ran the kind of race Mayor Bernard Kincaid ran two years ago. She filed her paperwork with the probate office, but otherwise, the spirit wasn't there. During the last two years, Duncan has rolled over for Langford's fast and loose proposals, realizing only after the fact that some of her pet issues, specifically transit, had been screwed by the fine print.
When Duncan first ran for office eight years ago, she told me then that she believed in term limits. Two terms, max, she said. On Tuesday night, her constituents held her to that promise.
Backed by a ragtag crew of libertarians and neighborhood leaders, Kim Rafferty ran an enthusiastic race against an incumbent who was embattled if not beaten already. She will hate the comparison, but there is much to her campaign and her approach to the office that reminds me of Duncan eight years ago. That's not a bad thing, just a warning of what the future could hold for her if she isn't careful.
In District 5, Johnathan Austin defeated Elias Hendricks after a long election-night back-and-forth. Until the last box came in, neither had a clear lead over the other.
For Hendricks, it was his third attempt at the office and his second loss. The former councilor never fully understood or appreciated the importance of neighborhood leaders' support, and again, it cost him. With a few key endorsements, this race could have gone the other way for Hendricks. It didn't.
Instead, key neighborhood leaders, former opponents and Councilor-turned-County Commissioner William Bell all endorsed Austin. It gave Austin the edge he needed to win.
Austin was appointed to fill Bell's unexpired term. He was a compromise appointment, who was tarnished soon afterward by questions about his résumé and arrest record. However, Austin said something to me a few months ago that proved prescient. He told me he'd gotten all the dirty laundry out of the way the first few weeks in office. He was right, and Tuesday night, that helped him.
This election gives Austin legitimacy on the council he lacked until now. He might have been an appointee before, but Tuesday he won the backing of District 5 voters. The seat is his in his own right.
In District 7, Jay Roberson finished the race he nearly won six weeks ago. Most people I know who know Roberson feel comfortable with him on the council. Next to other council races, this one was among the more civil.
Roberson's opponent, Ernestine Williams, showed she wasn't ready for the office last month, when she told the Birmingham News that she had accepted in-kind campaign contributions from a donor who wanted to remain anonymous. Anonymous donations are OK if you're giving to charity, but in politics, they're illegal (unless, of course, you hide behind a PAC). Regardless, the best candidate seems to have won, and District 7 finally has a representative to fill Miriam Witherspoon's vacant seat.
In Disctrict 9, incumbent Roderick Royal defeated Leroy Bandy for the third time. On election night, he told the Birmingham News that his victory was over boss politics. He was talking, of course, about Bandy's support from former Mayor Arrington.
If there was a clear loser Tuesday night, it was Arrington. He supported Sheila Tyson. Tyson lost. He supported Elias Hendricks. Hendricks lost. He supported Leroy Bandy. Bandy lost. Arrington has predicated a return to Birmingham politics on the success of these endorsements. Indeed, the old machine-style politics failed. It's a new day in Birmingham. And if you don't like it, wait 24 hours and it will change.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org