There is no other way to look at Birmingham anymore but as a city in decline. It continues to hemorrhage population. The average age of its citizens continues to rise. Residents flee the city, paying what they must to keep their children out of Birmingham City Schools. The opportunity for those left behind is wanting. This exodus is not a matter anymore of white flight, although that might have been the proximate cause. Rather, it's green flight—those with the money to live outside the city move.
To make matters worse, for the last two years Birmingham has suffered at the hands of a carnival barker whom even seemingly intelligent people mistook for a leader. The political observers in this town will spend the next 10 years or longer trying to explain how Larry Langford ever reached the mayor's office, when it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention that he was headed next to jail. Nor is it any wonder, what fresh hell Langford wrecked on Birmingham City Hall in his short tenure there. From Fairfield, to VisionLand, to Jefferson County—Langford left behind him one financial disaster after another. He ran the city the way he ran his personal finances. Today both he and the city are broke. In two months, Langford will face a federal judge for sentencing on corruption charges. Meanwhile, Birmingham must ask itself an embarrassing question—whether it is any longer capable of self-government.
With doubt in its mind and shame in its heart, Birmingham must choose a new mayor.
The choice is not easy. The better candidate is not apparent. Each have qualities that could benefit the city, but both of them are far short of perfection. Giving the job to either would seem unfair to them if they both weren't begging for it so badly.
Most news stories about Patrick Cooper introduce him with the salutary "Birmingham lawyer" before his name, which suits the candidate well enough. News stories do this because, when covering politics, a meager name is insufficient. Everyone must have a title, even those who are not yet entitled to one. Elected officials have their offices appended to their names as if they married into a family. Regular citizens become "local residents" or the hapless sap The Onion lampoons every week, the "area man." (Just a few headlines for kicks: "Area man unable to believe the savings," and "Area man feeds own self.")
The first rule of political campaigns is to define yourself and to define your opponent before you opponent does the same to you. By virtue of an Ivy League education and a membership with the Alabama Bar Association, Patrick Cooper is "Birmingham lawyer Patrick Cooper." Again, this suits his interests, because as William Bell is quick to insinuate, Cooper is not even an "area man."
By contrast, Bell is Jefferson County Commissioner William Bell, a title he shared with many convicted felons. In fact, much of Bell's life can be described succinctly by the titles he's held. Only a year ago, Bell was still Councilor William Bell. Before that he spent a four years as Area man William Bell, after Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid ran him off from City Hall. Bell has been Interim Mayor Bell and Council President Bell. Years ago, he ran unsuccessfully for County Commission, when the Jefferson County Democratic Party decided that, while he was an "area man," he wasn't area enough to actually live in the commission district he was seeking to represent.
As Commissioner Bell is quick to point out, Birmingham lawyer Cooper is actually from Mobile, a place so backwards and dysfunctional that more people want to live there than care to leave. Mobile is so far behind the times, that with the arrival of ThyssenKrupp, it is now the steel-making capital of the South—a title Birmingham achieved more than a century ago.
Bell also points to Cooper's voting record or lack thereof. It seems Cooper never voted in a Birmingham election until his name appeared on the ballot two years ago. Of course, the same might be true of Bell, but no one can remember a time when his name didn't appear on the ballot.
In turn, Cooper labels Bell with that old political handle—career politician. The charge is patently false. As Bell touts on the stump, he spent several years as a sales representative for Xerox, and he is remiss to mention that he has held various consulting contracts and lobbying gigs, sometimes synergizing those duties with the opportunities and influence of his elected office.
Off the debate stage, each campaign has savaged the other with the kinds of below-the-belt jabs that are typical for a Birmingham election.
An auto-dialer from Bell's campaign called Cooper a "confirmed Republican" and accused him of receiving most of his financial support from Over the Mountain. This is 21st century Birmingham, where racial sensibilities have evolved beyond asking, "Patrick Cooper: What color is he?"
Meanwhile, Cooper's troops have distributed literature and littered the airwaves with reanimated accusations from a 30-year-old police report. Three decades ago, Bell admitted that he and his wife had been involved in a domestic problem, and according to the police report, it was the kind of problem that put his wife in the hospital. Sure, that's 30 years ago and his wife is still with him, but when you get to ask your opponent whether he's still beating his wife, who can let an opportunity like that pass?
That's how each campaign treats the other in the field. On the debate stage, the candidates have the modicum of respect necessary to shake hands, and it is there that Birmingham voters have the clearest look into the future.
Cooper describes himself as a fresh face for Birmingham, and voters might see that face were they not distracted by Cooper's nervous gesticulation. Cooper doesn't speak with his hands; he uses them to assault the air in front of him with two-handed karate chops. Sometimes, his arms and shoulders join the attack, until he becomes a bad impersonation of Regis Philbin. When Cooper finishes his point, he picks a person from the audience to flash a Bush-like smile. It conveys the pride of someone who slogged through every rehearsed line without tripping, not once.
But at least Cooper smiles. On stage, Bell is confident almost to a fault. He is calm to the point of seeming shrewd. He wears the scowl of someone who just tasted a green persimmon. When he goes on the rhetorical attack, he has the countenance of a man who might poison his neighbor's dog.
Of course, it's what the candidates say that matters more than how they say it.
Bell is not afraid to boast of his accomplishments, even when those accomplishments are not his to boast. Every question during the debates elicits an example. Experience is key to his appeal, especially to voters without experience.
To believe Bell is to believe he brought Mercedes to Alabama. (If he could do that for Vance, just imagine what he could do for Birmingham.) When asked about providing opportunity for small business, he points to the Innovation Depot. Formerly known as the Sears building, that project was completed when Bell was gone from office. When asked about economic development, he points to the Applebee's in Five Points West. Credit for that project belongs to three people—Mayor Kincaid, former Council President Lee Loder and Economic Development Director Carol Clarke. To hear Bell tell the tale, the Summit shopping center was his baby. He's boasted enough on the Shelby Biomedical Research Center at UAB that they probably should change the name to the William Bell Biomedical Research Center. Ask Bell about the information technology and he might tell you he invented the Internet.
Without questioning Bell's so-called accomplishments, Cooper makes another valid point: Bell doesn't take blame for anything that's gone wrong.
When pressed on Langford's hike in sales taxes and business license fees, Bell says he was out sick the day the council approved them. In fact, he was out sick, but he did little to oppose Langford's taxing and spending before or after the vote.
When Cooper demanded to know what Bell had done to improve mass transit in Birmingham, Bell placed blame on "outside forces." In fact, when Birmingham got closest to fully funding mass transit in the last eight years, it was four Birmingham representatives—John Rogers, Mary Moore, Oliver Robinson and Eric Major—who obstructed the vote in the Alabama Legislature.
Bell brags on running toward the sound of gunfire in his own neighborhood, but he neglects to explain why he's a firefighter running away from a burning house. He won election to the county commission a more than a year ago, but little has changed since he got there. He ran for that office on the vow to fight back against Wall Street, and then when the time came to sue those very bankers, he expressed reservations about the lawsuit.
To his credit, Bell has proposed the best solution for dealing with Birmingham's financial problems. The city is in financial straits because Langford funded all his projects out of cash rather than the capital budget. Going to the bond market to pay for Langford's projects might not sit well with gun-shy taxpayers, but Bell is right when he says that's the appropriate way to fund a capital project.
However, Bell will let hope die for a domed stadium. The state and county must play a role in funding it, he says. Bell should know as well as anyone that the county has no money to contribute to a domed stadium. In this economy, the state might have even less.
In contrast, Cooper's pledge to phase out the city's one-cent sales tax hike seems like the right thing to do, but for the time being, that might be infeasible. The city is running a deficit and might have to cut essential services—not the time for a tax cut.
Meanwhile, Cooper is promising expensive new programs, including voluntary pre-kindergarten and public job opportunities for the unemployed. To pay for the former, Cooper has offered to forgo his first year's salary, bringing into question whether anyone has told him just how much the mayor's position pays.
Cooper claims the city can make up the difference by "scrubbing contracts" and cutting cronies off from the public trough. Is there waste and redundancy in city expenses? Probably. Is there enough to make up the city's current budget deficit, fund pre-kindergarten, provide jobs for the unemployed and hire as many as 100 new police officers, as Cooper has promised? Not even close.
In a debate Tuesday night, the candidates were asked to say something nice about each other. Neither had much in the way of an answer. If they can't say anything good about themselves, how can voters be expected to see anything more? Or is the unfortunate fact that each is telling the truth about the other?
The choice Birmingham has left is this:
Bell has experience, but he has a past. He is indeed a career politician who has had his wages garnished for old campaign debts he didn't pay. He brags on his achievements, when in most cases, those achievements belonged to someone else. In the brief term he served as interim mayor in 1999, he became hostile with the press and closed city hall to public scrutiny, lest more scandals ruin his chances. (It didn't work.) On the flip side, he understands how to work with other city councilors and he knows enough about municipal budgeting to make serious headway on the city's financial problems.
Cooper is a fresh face and brings to city hall ideas that he's borrowed from other places. He's also neophyte and thin-skinned. He has needlessly made enemies of city councilors whose support he will need if he becomes mayor. If he can mend those relationships, he might be a good mayor, but he hasn't shown yet that he's capable of making amends. If the council smells blood, they will eat him alive.
Birmingham needs a hero. For the time being, we'll have to settle for something less.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.comBirmingham Weekly