UPDATE: Read War on Dumb in the March 29 issue of the Birmingham Weekly.
This morning The Birmingham News reported that Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott is considering running for mayor. At City Hall this has been common knowledge for the last six months, but the News article is the first time Abbott has spoken about the prospect in a public way. She is officially and unofficial candidate.
Nevertheless, her indecision remains. She is considering it, still, which might be the biggest obstacle between her and the mayor’s office. While she’s a candidate for the job, it’s not yet clear whether she wants the job.
Abbott seemed only flattered by the idea until late last year when the Drummond Co. Executive Vice President Walter Johnsey invited her to lunch. A former president of Alabama Power, Johnsey has been for decades one of the political kingmakers in Birmingham. With a legion of political action committees and Drummond Co.’s deep pockets at his disposal, he might be the most politically influential man in Birmingham that the public has never heard of. There are very few successful candidates who Johnsey doesn’t pay a visit and usually a campaign donation.
What’s interesting here, though, is that Johnsey and Drummond, and Abbott have run crossways before. On one occasion Abbott demonstrated that she was the one councilor Johnsey couldn’t buy. In 2002, when Drummond wanted to develop the Grants Mill Estates in the ecologically delicate Cahaba River Watershed, Abbott fought vigorously against the project.
At a Chamber of Commerce cocktail party two years ago, Johnsey called Abbott an “environmental extremist” in step with the Cahaba River Society, which he sees as the next best thing to al Qaeda. At the time, Abbott was running for reelection to her council seat. Johnsey said he would have sponsored a candidate against Abbott but that none of her opponents stood a chance against her. He would have been in a position to know, having commissioned more polls than anybody except the Alabama Education Association.
Johnsey is, if nothing else, a pragmatist, and that’s why the visit he paid to Abbott last year may have piqued her interest in running for mayor. It’s not that he had bought her vote already. She has all but called him the devil before. Rather, if Johnsey were interested in her intentions, that meant there was likely polling data somewhere showing that voters were interested, too.
Abbott’s husband Rod and her would-be campaign manager Richard Dickerson have been prodding her to run. Other close confidants have encouraged her to use this election as a stalking-horse campaign for another more serious bid four years from now. In the tradition of politicians going back to George Wallace, it is common in Alabama for candidates to run twice before voters take them seriously.
This first run would likely be very issues driven, a set-up for 2011, but if Abbott saw a surge in support between now and next October, the campaign could shift to a higher gear.
When asked about her intentions, Abbott has been coy in her answers, but in the last six weeks she has been telling potential donors that she intends to run and she had drafted a letter to her past supporters asking for their support again.
However, her equivocation and indecision might be her Achilles’ heal. Even as of this very public coming-out, she hasn’t said for certain whether she is, in fact, a candidate.
Ask Mario Cuomo or Colin Powell: No one wins elections by playing hard-to-get.
When handicapping Abbott’s chances, the obvious factor is her skin color. Of the likely and credible candidates, she is the only one who is white. That might not be as great a factor as some would suspect.
In 2001, Abbott won her seat on the City Council, replacing the libertarian firebrand and self-professed “smart-ass white boy” Jimmy Blake. It was Abbott’s third attempt at the office, and some say that she would have beaten Blake that time if he had run for reelection against her.
Even before she won election, Abbott showed a preternatural understanding of the neighborhood association system and its significance in Birmingham politics. She attends neighborhood fun days, meetings, groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings, even in neighborhoods outside her district. While this has enamored her with neighborhood leaders, some of her colleagues on the council loathe her for it, as she upstages them in front of their own constituents. The resent her for being an overachiever.
In fact, Abbott has always had testy relationships with many of her fellow councilors. She does not suffer fools lightly, which is virtually a job requirement at city hall. Abbott has had an especially difficult time making friends with some of the freshmen councilors elected in 2005.
While Abbott clashes with other councilors, what’s interesting is how often she agrees with Mayor Bernard Kincaid on contentious issues, even as she blasts the mayor’s recalcitrance in the press. Of all the councilors, Abbott communicates and cooperates with the mayor best, and they share a character type for being studious, prudent and logical.
The most recent example is the police and fire raise the council forced last fall. While saying she supported police officers and fire fighters, Abbott insisted that the council identify the funding source for the raise before passing it. They ignored her, and now the mayor is taking the council to court.
With Abbott officially an unofficial candidate, this election could have a wide field of credentialed contenders, including Mayor Kincaid, Commissioner Larry Langford, Council President Carole Smitherman, Councilor Mayor William Bell. So many credible candidates could mean that a small percentage of the vote could get a candidate into a runoff — maybe as little as 15 percent.
Abbott is be capable of drawing that many votes, and her candidacy would cut into the presumed constituency of at least two other candidates — Smitherman and the new-comer Cooper. Both of those candidates have targeted their campaigns at liberal-to-independent black voters as well as white voters who have resisted an exodus to the suburbs.
Even if she doesn’t make a runoff, next fall Abbott might be the real kingmaker.