Several years ago, I called Richard Arrington to ask him about the pending retirement of Shelley Stewart. At the time, Arrington was only a couple years into retirement himself. Stewart had been a cornerstone of black talk radio in Birmingham and he had a reputation for crossing swords with Arrington. He once told one of my cohorts, Mark Kelly, that the boot was still on Birmingham’s neck; the only thing that had changed was the color of the foot in the boot. Strong words, and when I called Arrington, I expected him to reciprocate.
Instead, he said, “Again?”
I had been on the job less than a year. I didn’t yet get the nuances of mayoral humor. I thought, perhaps Arrington hadn’t understood me. I repeated the question: Had he heard that Shelley Stewart was retiring?
“I heard you the first time,” he said. “And I said, ‘Again?’”
The point Arrington was making was that this wasn’t the first time Stewart had “retired.” Like the Godfather of Soul, he had made his own shtick out of not being able to set that last foot off the stage. He would announce his retirement, and then jump back front and center, compelled there by an invisible force.
All this came back to me last week when a friend called. He asked me if I’d read the article in The Birmingham Times.
I told him I hadn’t. What did it say?
Arrington’s getting back into politics, he said. I couldn’t help myself.
On my desk next to me as I write this is an eight-year-old copy of Birmingham Weekly. It’s from August 2001. Old newspapers show how hopes and history diverge, and they warn political soothsayers like me about peering too far ahead. On the cover of the paper is a caricature of Richard Arrington playing poker.
The cover reads, “Arrington’s big gamble. Two years after retirement, Richard Arrington says he’s running for mayor again. Can his return to politics help save his aging political machine?”
It was the first story I wrote for Birmingham Weekly.
Open it and you’ll see a pull-quote from Mark Kelly in his former role as Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s spokesperson.
“I think if the Coalition doesn’t come back from October with a majority on the council, you’re going to see a new day in Birmingham,” he said then.
See what I mean about newspapers and soothsayers?
The Jefferson County Citizens Coalition had been Arrington’s machine. While he was mayor, the Coalition held a council majority.
However, as political machines are wont to do, the Coalition began to die of old age. There was little new blood, and the old hands were often distrustful of newer members. After Arrington’s retirement, its reason for being seemed gone. In the 2001 city council race, voters replaced eight of the nine sitting councilors, including all of the Coalition candidates.
It was supposed to be a new day. It was, I suppose, but it wasn’t the new day so many people had hoped for. Kincaid turned out to be a caretaker mayor. He was transitional but not revolutionary. The new council quickly turned into a circus of neophytes and things have not improved with time. They got worse.
In its collapse the Coalition left a vacuum. The Progressive Democrats, the so-called anti-Coalition coalition, withered in absence of its foil. Would-be civic movements such as Catalyst have proved little more than political naiveté-on-display. That generational shift, the new order replacing the old, all that feel-good business about the cycle of life and politics — it never happened.
And then came Larry Paul Langford, emerging from the void and chaos like the destroyer god from a forgotten religion. Thirty years ago, Birmingham rejected Langford outright in the 1979 mayoral election. In the interim he didn’t change. The city did.
The only thing missing is the sandwich board prophet and his prediction of doom: The End Is Near.
Or is it?
The old mayor with some old political allies is starting a new coalition, and he brings the promise of turning the clock back — giving Birmingham a do-over.
The question is, though, is he for real this time?
Arrington is proof that things look better at a distance, especially in politics. Compared to Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush couldn’t win the voters’ favor. But during eight years of Dubya, many of those Clinton voters would have traded the son for the father. In retrospect, Kincaid made Arrington look like a man of action. Langford has made Arrington look honest. Many voters would settle for somebody sane.
Like the pangs of an old romance, this too could wear off. It’s worth remembering what Arrington has been doing the last several years. The business of being a political consultant for bankers and such is on the decline. Just ask Al LaPierre.
Arrington’s rumblings signal dissatisfaction from the black political establishment about the way things are going in Birmingham. He says he’s not setting himself up to replace Langford in the event the mayor is convicted of corruption in federal court next fall, but …
Arrington could come back to establish a second legacy. He could be the man who returned Birmingham to normalcy. He could be the man who saved the city from itself.
But if he returned to that office, he’d still have one political problem — the same one he left unsolved the first time. There’s no new leadership in Birmingham to replace the old. This city is becoming a childless generation.
A few words in that brittle newspaper from eight years ago have proven prescient, though.
“Every time we’ve lost an election, people have said, ‘They’re dead,’” Arrington said about his political machine. “Well, we’re still here.”
They were then, and they are now.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com.