Birmingham at the turn of the 21st century.
As you'll recall from our last class, in the 1999 mayoral election, Councilor Bernard Kincaid had come from behind to defeat Mayor Richard Arrington's heir apparent, William Bell, in what was widely perceived then to be a sea-change in Birmingham politics. In addition to support from Arrington's political machine, Bell had the financial backing of Birmingham business. Kincaid's victory was seen as a revolt against both.
Despite the loss, Bell still held some power as the council president and he used the office to spar with Kincaid until the next council election in 2001. Kincaid's momentum and voter backlash pushed Bell and all but one of the sitting councilors from office.
Again, the people perceived this change as one with tremendous promise and potential, an overall positive outlook that was consistent with the time and altogether Pollyannaish.
Kincaid was impeccably honest, a quality altogether inconsistent with the period, especially for elected officials. The trouble with reactionary politics, though, is that its staying power wanes once it achieves primacy. Kincaid was a caretaker mayor, but made little progress advancing any new initiatives. Voters forgot why they supported Kincaid in the first place, and after two terms, they replaced him with someone far worse than the candidates they had already rejected.
You see, while the public eye was cast on Birmingham City Hall, it was the Jefferson County Commission that was doing the most damage, some of which persists until today. As you'll remember from last week, the federal government forced the county into a consent decree, because sewer systems in the area had been dumping raw sewage into streams and rivers, especially the Cahaba river system.
In response to this, the county borrowed billions through bonds and warrants, but instead of simply rehabilitating the sewer system, it also built fantastic expansion projects, including a trunkline beneath the Cahaba River. That's right. It might be hard to imagine now, but the county actually tried to "solve" the sewage in the river problem by building a sewer directly beneath the river.
Citizen backlash halted the project, which they called the "Super Sewer," but the financial damage to Jefferson County had already been done. Bid rigging and petty corruption plagued the entire rehabilitation project and caused unimaginable cost overruns. Myriad contractors and public officials were convicted and imprisoned, but the taxpayers were stuck with the bill. The county borrowed $3.2 billion, when revenues from the sewer system could support only $1.5 billion, at best.
The county tried to deal with this problem the same way over-leveraged homeowners from the time did—by periodic refinancing, extending the life of the debt virtually forever. The county compounded this problem by gambling taxpayer money on complex derivatives, known as interest rate swaps. Investment bankers from Wall Street and some from Alabama used this as an opportunity to gin up huge fees, sometimes for completely bogus work. Again, corruption pervaded the county. Three commissioners would be found guilty of crimes related to the bond.
However, Wall Street banks and investment bankers went largely untouched by criminal investigations. The financial collapse of 2008 left the entire country on the precipice of a second Great Depression. Indicting more of the bankers who incited these financial schemes, much less the banks they worked for, could have exacerbated the crisis affecting the global economy. As a result, many of the culprits of what happened at Jefferson County got off scot-free.
In this context, it is altogether amazing that one of the primary culprits of the Jefferson County disaster, Larry Paul Langford, was able to convince Birmingham voters to elect him mayor in 2007. To this day, there is great and heated disagreement among academics regarding how this ever could have happened. The most widely accepted explanation is that Birmingham voters had become so disaffected with city politics that they saw its utility as for entertainment purposes, only. Seen through this lens, electing Langford to office almost makes sense.
Everywhere Langford had been elected, he had followed the same pattern of fiscal destruction — he borrowed money, which he then spent on extravagant purchases before defaulting on the debt. Not only did he follow this pattern in office, but in his personal life, as well. By the time he had reached the mayor's office, he had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, alone. Many abetted this weakness to solicit bogus business from the county and city.
In 2009, two of those accomplices, investment banker Bill Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre, cooperated with federal investigators in exchange for more lenient prison sentences. Late that year, a federal jury found Langford guilty of 61 counts of corruption and he was removed from office. However, Langford had continued his pattern of destruction at the city, and he left an enormous deficit behind for others to deal with.
After Langford's conviction, William Bell — who had returned to power, again as a city councilor and then a county commissioner — won a special election to the mayor's office. Politically, Birmingham ended the first decade of the 21st century pretty much where it began. This reinforces the historical consensus of the naughts as "The Lost Decade."
You see, despite so much political activity, it is astounding how little happened for Birmingham's progress.
However, there were other historic events that require our attention.
In 2003, the rock-star CEO and HealthSouth founder, Richard Scrushy, was revealed to be a fraud. The astounding profits his company had produced were largely works of fiction. This revelation nearly destroyed the company, and it is a testament to its resilience that the company survived.
Scrushy employed the prominent lawyer and banker Donald Watkins, who helped him exploit Birmingham's traditional fault lines—race, class and religion. By doing so, Scrushy was able to slip the government's noose. His accounting fraud trial turned into a circus, and the jury acquitted him of all charges.
Months later, another federal grand jury indicted Scrushy for bribing Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. That time he was convicted and imprisoned, as was the governor.
His imprisonment was problematic for museums, libraries, colleges and other institutions that had accepted donations from Scrushy. His philanthropy had come saddled with his narcissism. These institutions had to name their buildings after Scrushy, and after his conviction, they had to scrub that stain off their nameplates and cornerstones.
Around this same time, Birmingham saw the capture and conviction of the domestic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph. In 1998, Rudolph had bombed an abortion clinic on the city's south side. As part of his guilty plea, Rudolph read into the court record a racist radical screed, at one point blasting the UAB student and the Phenix City lawyer who followed and identified Rudolph the day of the bombing.
"Washington was lucky that day in Birmingham," Rudolph said—a phrase that has been uttered neither before nor since.
The Alabama Constitution of 1901 consolidated power in the state Legislature, where the rest of the state's political forces divided and conquered the county they impugned as "Imperial Jefferson." Political and racial gerrymandering polarized the county's legislative delegation. Most districts were overwhelmingly either white, Republican and suburban or black, Democratic and urban. As a result, none of the region's elected representatives had any reason to play toward the middle of the political spectrum, and consensus among them became impossible. The rest of the state exploited this divide at great cost to Birmingham and Jefferson County.
Throughout this time period, the population continued the pattern of mistakes carried over from the previous three decades. The region's core education systems continued to deteriorate for lack of funding and leadership.
It is positively amazing, in retrospect, how blind people were to these basic problems, no matter that how obvious they were. Both liberals and conservatives had reason to address it—education was at once a social justice issue and an economic development issue.
Rather than making the reinvention and resuscitation of core school systems a priority, the population continued its migration away from the core, despite enormous personal and social costs. Instead of investing in education, the population spent inordinate time and money commuting to and from nascent and unsustainable suburbs.
The investment in infrastructure alone is staggering. Despite experience after experience that adding more lanes to highways did nothing to reduce traffic, the region's leadership insisted that double-decking Highway 280 was a good idea. The development of a northern Interstate belt line around Birmingham became a pet project. Eventually, this belt line shifted the migratory pattern northward and rendered the southern suburbs the wasteland they are today. Meanwhile, the region made no effort to improve public transportation systems, which had already proven elsewhere to be more efficient and conducive to community building.
Individuals, politicians, business leaders—they all missed a crucial and yet simple concept. Infrastructure supports people, but people also have to support infrastructure. When the footprint of your development and infrastructure grows faster than your population, you're soon to have a huge problem. But because of prejudices of race and class, compounded by developers' interests, the city continued to repeat its mistakes.
At the same time, those left behind in the region's core saw the cure for their problems to be a huge infrastructure project, too. They wanted a domed stadium mostly because other big cities had domed stadiums. The rationale did not go much deeper than that.
At the turn of the 21st century, Birmingham pined to be more like Atlanta. Little did it know it was well on the way toward making that nightmare come true.
The city ended the decade as it had every one before, as the "city of perpetual promise." Some perceived this as an indicator of incessant failure. Others, rightly, knew its true meaning — the city of perpetual hope.
War on Dumb has been a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org