A crowded race to run scandal-hit Birmingham, Alabama
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Plagued by scandal and the struggle to stave off bankruptcy, the race to become mayor of this former industrial city in America’s Deep South includes the interim mayor and an attorney who styles himself as being in the mold of President Obama.
“I am a fresh face for a new beginning in Birmingham,” said Patrick Cooper, who came in second to Larry Langford in 2007. “I like to think of myself as part of a new generation of African American leaders that include Barack Obama.”
“While every other city in the South has been moving forward, we have been stuck standing where we are,” he added, speaking at his campaign headquarters where staff were preparing campaign banners. “We may as well have been in reverse.”
Langford was found guilty late last month of charges ranging from bribery to criminal conspiracy. The growing field in the race to serve out the rest of his two year term has several figures who have tried before and lost.
Apart from Cooper, that includes interim mayor Carole Smitherman – who has had two unsuccessful bids – Jefferson County commissioner William Bell – three previous attempts – Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, and councilman Steven Hoyt.
The special election will take place on December 8.
The race takes place against a backdrop of Langford’s trial and the ongoing struggle by Jefferson to avert what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history over a multibillion dollar sewer debt. Birmingham also faces a $20 million shortfall in its 2010 budget.
When we arrived to meet the interim mayor, instead of the interview we expected we stumbled upon a press conference where she announced she was cutting 7 appointed jobs from the mayor’s office to save $500,000.
“I understand these are tough economic times and I could not in good conscious ask each department to tighten their belt if the Mayor’s office didn’t tighten first,” she said.
Afterward Smitherman told us that she had asked city department heads to come up with possible budget cuts, but added that the city would just have to provide the same level of service with less money.
“Everybody has to put their shoulder to the wheel,” she said.
“I don’t want another 30 years to go by and have us facing the same issues,” he said.
Cooper said he wants to follow the lead of the Obama administration and institute a local stimulus package paid for by existing taxes that would hire the unemployed to clean up the city.
Whoever wins next month would appear to have their work cut out in trying to persuade local voters that corruption is endemic and deep-rooted here.
“All those politicians want is to make money, they don’t care about us,” said Ernest Blair, 45, an unemployed construction worker.
And Alyce Tyler, 32, who works at a fast food restaurant, said that she doubted that things would change, whoever won the election.
“People used to run for office to serve the voters,” she said. “Now it’s all about personal gain. I’m sick of it.”
Photos by Carlos Barria