War on Dumb by Kyle Whitmire
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford (who lives in Fairfield) says he won’t work with the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce because the organization has “regional” in its name. On Tuesday, Langford (who lives in Fairfield) told the city council that the Chamber no longer represents Birmingham and that the city needs a new Chamber of commerce to represent it.
Langford’s statements came a day before the Chamber’s annual Washington D.C. fly-in, when business and political leaders from the region meet with senators and congressmen to lobby for federal investment in local projects.
Langford (who lives in Fairfield) said Tuesday that he won’t be going on the trip.
“First of all I don't like planes anyway,” Langford (who lives in Fairfield) said. “I'm not flying to Washington, D.C. to carry water for any other city other than Birmingham.”
Last Thursday, Langford (who lives in Fairfield) and Chamber President Russell Cunningham had a heated discussion during a closed-door meeting of area business leaders. The regular meeting has been something of a tradition in Birmingham politics — a venue in which business leaders discuss issues with the mayor under a veil of secrecy.
However, since the meeting last week, that veil of secrecy has been pierced. Rumors have spread that Cunningham and Langford (who lives in Fairfield) even had to be physically restrained from fighting each other. In an interview Tuesday, Cunningham would not comment about the meeting, but that didn’t stop Langford from breaking the business clique’s omerta.
“The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce President made a statement in front of a lot of witnesses that the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce was not the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce,” Langford (who lives in Fairfield) said Tuesday. “Maybe they have taken to the position that calling themselves — they have adopted the title Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce — that they don't represent the largest city in the state of Alabama.”
The name Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce isn’t anything new. The Chamber added the extra word to its name five years ago. In that time, Langford (who lives in Fairfield) has been on at least two Chamber trips to visit other cities. On at least one Chamber trip, Langford (who lives in Fairfield) flew on a plane.
Maybe Langford (who lives in Fairfield) is upset at the Chamber for changing its name, but the Chamber has better reasons to be upset at Langford (who lives in Fairfield).
The story begins last year, when Mayor Langford (who lives in Fairfield) was soliciting support for his economic and community revitalization ordinance. The proposed ordinance was to double business license fees and increase sales taxes in Birmingham by one penny on the dollar.
The Chamber learned of the proposed tax increase the way everyone else did outside City Hall — they learned it from the news. Hastily, the Chamber executive committee met, but instead of fighting the increase, the Chamber endorsed the tax plan.
Typically chambers of commerce oppose tax increases on businesses, but this time something different happened. For years the Birmingham Chamber had supported efforts to build a domed stadium in Birmingham. Also, the Chamber had been an outspoken advocate for an adequate, fully funded mass transit system.
Langford’s plan included money for both, but no one bothered to ask more questions such as how much and where.
While some business leaders were unhappy with the Chamber’s decision to endorse the project, Cunningham wrote letters to all the Birmingham City Council members encouraging them to approve the tax increase. Other business heavies wrote letters as well, including Alabama Power CEO Charles McCrary and UAB President Carol Garrison.
However, Birmingham’s business elite made one crucial mistake. They assumed they could trust Langford (who lives in Fairfield).
Initially Langford’s tax proposal promised an additional $19 million per year to fund a domed stadium and $17 million a year more for mass transit funding.
A domed stadium was appealing to the Chamber, but with that $17 million for mass transit, the Chamber could possibly draw down as much $68 million in federal funding to bolster those same projects.
However, when few people noticed, Langford (who lives in Fairfield) changed the numbers. Instead of $17 million for mass transit, the city would appropriate only $9 million. Birmingham Weekly reported this in November of 2007, but neither transit director David Hill nor the Chamber seemed to notice the change until a week ago.
So that was one problem.
But even before that problem became apparent, Langford (who lives in Fairfield) double-crossed the Chamber previously.
That domed stadium? Langford (who lives in Fairfield) decided that the best location was the Birmingham Race Course, rather than at the BJCC.
Of course, Alabama gambling magnate Milton McGregor owns the dog track, which has been suffering from changes in the gambling industry in recent years. As it turns out, Langford’s biggest individual campaign contributor was none other than McGregor.
Langford (who lives in Fairfield) was happy to have the business elite’s backing for his tax hike, but when that same elite began to complain, his attitude changed.
Now Langford (who lives in Fairfield) is playing a familiar trick — he’s drawing attention to the word “regional” in the Chamber’s name. Langford (who lives in Fairfield) has known for years about the name change, but now he’s using it to play the race card. He knows that in Birmingham “regional” has become a fearmonger’s race-baiting code word for “white.” He is trying to do the same thing to the Chamber that he did to The Birmingham News.
Like many others before them, Birmingham’s business elite learned a hard lesson last week. Whether its household pocket book issues or billion-dollar bond deals, it’s not good business sense to trust Mayor Langford (who lives in Fairfield).
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com