50 questions for Birmingham's next mayor
by Ben South
I appreciate the artful way Kyle Whitmire, chief political columnist of Birmingham Weekly, has explored Birmingham mayoral politics throughout 2009.
As we get closer to an important vote on our city's future—the mayoral run-off election between William Bell and Patrick Cooper on Jan. 19—every registered voter in our city should be asking the candidates serious, substantive, penetrating questions.
Inspired by Whitmire, I am offering these suggested questions for voters to ask Bell and Cooper in order to learn more about their vision for Birmingham.
Please feel free to use my questions when you show up at the January debates or better yet, create your own.
1. With the past as prologue, what good things have you accomplished for Birmingham that would not have happened without you?
2. What are some unpopular positions you hold related to moving Birmingham forward? Why are they unpopular, and how would you have those positions embraced?
3. Standard and Poor rates Birmingham number two in the United States, after only Detroit, Mich., in lousy municipal credit ratings. What three things are you bold enough to say we cannot afford to do at this time?
4. Which current city projects or ones you would propose are most crucial for us to fund?
5. The economic outlook for Birmingham has dimmed dramatically in just the last two years. If you were to "get real" with us now about the city's finances, without either sugarcoating or unduly frightening us, what would you tell us know about our money?
6. Contemporary politicos talk a lot about how they value "transparency" in decision-making and about the negative role money plays in policy-making, only to obfuscate and disappoint the voters once elected. How would you increase your accountability to skeptical, even jaded, taxpayers?
7. In recent decades, many businesses have fled Birmingham. Without increasing taxes and threatening to drive away even more businesses, how would you find new revenue?
8. Would you favor "selective tax breaks" in order to keep and attract business and jobs? If so, what would you select?
9. What would you say to those businesses that you did not select for preferential treatment?
10. Many businesspeople consider Birmingham government an anti-small business bureaucratic quagmire. How would you change this perception and/or reality?
11. What is your vision for reestablishing a middle class in Birmingham?
12. Which construction projects would you give highest priority to and which would you place on the back burner?
13. I am interested in the way Birmingham looks. More than many cities, we have spirit-lifting beauty juxtaposed with abject squalor. What is your personal vision for how Birmingham could look by 2020?
14. What about Birmingham has made it a hellhole of drug crime? How would you help rid us of this epidemic?
15. Do you think education initiatives like DARE work to dissuade youth from taking drugs? What would you propose for drug use prevention?
16. When so many Birmingham children "just say no" to going to school, what evidence do we have that any anti-drug education is working?
17. There has been an increased acceptance of legal marijuana use nationally. Considering Birmingham's crowded jails, would you advocate lessening the prosecution of marijuana use? How about cocaine?
18. Are Birmingham jails large enough to keep pace with drug arrests? If not, where would you build them and how would you propose we pay for them?
19. If we were to release those currently jailed for lesser crimes, what should happen to them?
20. Should any of the city budget pay for drug treatment? If not, from where should that funding come?
21. How would you improve the Birmingham Police Department? Is the answer more money? If so, where would you get it?
22. Nashville is using churches effectively in its most crime-infested areas to address domestic violence and other such problems. Birmingham has historically strong and influential churches. While respecting the division of church and state, do you see opportunity to better the city by working with them?
23. Birmingham has one of the most obese populations in the nation. Would you ban trans fats as Mayor Bloomberg has done in New York City? What other ways would you help us improve our nutrition? Also please discuss your views of what government should and should not be involved in.
24. Poorly performing schools are one of the main reasons businesses give for not wanting to locate in Birmingham and homeowners give for not wanting to live here. What do you think is good and bad about Birmingham city schools? What would you do as mayor to improve them?
25. The Birmingham Board of Education has long been elected by the citizens. Should it be? The schools don't seem to get any better. What alternatives might you propose?
26. President Obama has talked about the important role that parents have in improving education by becoming actively involved in schools and homework. He has used the example of his mother waking him early to drill him on his homework. What would you do to encourage parental involvement in education in Birmingham?
27. Should low-performing Birmingham city students be in school six days a week and through the summer? If so, how would you pay for that?
28. Birmingham needs more good low- and moderate-income housing. How would you encourage that?
29. The city is dotted with residential foreclosure signs. Any ideas on how to reverse that trend? If so, how would we pay for those ideas?
30. Should developers benefiting from Obama administration stimulus money to build government projects be required to do something to support affordable housing nearby? For example, a health clinic in walking distance from some housing.
31. To avoid ghetto-izing, should low-income housing be built in middle and upper-income Birmingham neighborhoods?
32. Failed families flood Birmingham social service agencies and courts. What is the appropriate role of city government in addressing such problems as unwanted pregnancies and unpaid child support?
33. What positive effect could you have as mayor to wean people off welfare?
34. How would you address the problem of panhandlers on Birmingham streets or inside public buildings? How would you address the problem of the mentally ill homeless in Birmingham? Can you point to a model program in another city that you would like to try here?
35. Do you have any creative ideas about how to reinvigorate residential real estate in the downtown loft district?
36. A controversial Operation New Birmingham plan establishing a sort of pedestrian mall in the downtown area has been proposed. Do you like the proposal? Should we change some of the one-way streets into two-ways?
37. What about the physical health of Birmingham residents? Some city mayors have addressed such problems—for example, methamphetamine addiction in Nashville, syphilis in Atlanta and smoking and fat in New York City. What health problems would you most like to address?
38. Should those working in Birmingham but living outside it pay a street use toll? If so, how much, and how would the money be used?
39. How often do you ride city buses? What ideas do you have for making Birmingham buses more attractive to potential riders? Any other plans for enhancing public transportation and lessening reliance on privately owned vehicles?
40. As mayor, what would you do to make Birmingham a "greener," more sustainable environment?
41. What is your perspective on the interdependency of the City of Birmingham, other area municipalities, Jefferson County and the State of Alabama? Do you have a vision for these entities working together more effectively?
42. Related to question 41, what DOGS (duplications, overlaps and gaps) would you eliminate among the various governmental entities affecting Birmingham? Please be specific. What unnecessary and costly government duplications would you eliminate?
43. Your ambition is to be elected to the highest office in a major American city. Getting past the platitudes—for example, "I love this city and its people," "I want to give back," etc.—why should the voters believe that you are really any better than the other guy who says that he wants to be in charge?
44. What checks should be imposed on the power of the mayor of Birmingham?
45. Are you a Democrat or a Republican? If so, what are the distinctions between the parties? Is that relevant to this election?
46. What special interest groups and companies have given you the most campaign money? Please talk candidly with us about patronage and about your ability to ignore "politics as usual" and make decisions based purely on what is best for all the people of Birmingham.
47. Would you fully, actively support your opponent for the good of Birmingham if he defeats you?
48. Do you pledge to serve your full term as mayor of Birmingham even if offered a juicier political role? If you changed your mind, what would you propose the citizens of Birmingham impose as your penalty?
49. If you win the election, how would you "make nice" with the other team, that is, with your opponent's core supporters? And be honest, because this says something about your core character.
50. We are reluctant to talk about race in America, much less in Birmingham. Any racial aspects to this race that you would address? What would you do as a 21st-century mayor of Birmingham to ease tension between the races? The classes? The religions? The haves and the have-nots?
51. Your term would last four years. In 2014, what three things would you hope to be able to say that you have accomplished as mayor?
Lastly, as a Birmingham voter, I only have one question about your personal life. I don't need to know if you ever committed adultery or even lusted in your heart, or anything about your private parts. My one personal question comes from a Birmingham marriage counselor named Jim Cotton, who told me it was the ONLY exercise he ever found that worked for the relationships he counseled.
My question is, "What was your favorite children's book? And, why?" The point of this question is to understand your "core personality" and whether you are a compatible match for me. Yes, it could seem like a throwaway question at the end of a rigorous drill. It is not. Thank you for your attention to my questions and for your interest in leading our city.
Ben South is a Birmingham artist and activist. You can learn more about him at www.southernness.com. You can send your comments to email@example.com.