A day in the life of Birmingham’s most powerful mayor
By Barnett Wright
Times staff writer
Mayor William Bell is hobbled.
Birmingham’s top elected official is walking with a noticeable limp, the result of an aching knee. He has just finished an early-morning speech at a Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service graduation and promotion ceremony, where he spoke about the challenges of tough jobs.
“The new hires have gone through a lot to get to this day,” Bell told the graduates. “It’s not easy becoming a fireman. It is one of the most difficult jobs not just in the city, not just in the government. It is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. We thank you for your service.”
The mayor shook hands with each graduate. Afterward, he headed in search of a brace for his knee and then back to City Hall. If firemen have one of the most difficult jobs in the city—and they do—then the mayor can definitely relate.
Not only does the 66-year-old have to handle the responsibilities of being the mayor of Alabama’s largest city and tend to the pain in his knee, but he also has to endure the myriad problems of politics.
Bell, who some say is already laying the groundwork for another term in 2017, was able to convince state lawmakers that he needed more authority to move the city forward, while an equal number of people felt he was making a power grab that would take the city backward.
The Alabama legislature this month amended the Mayor-Council Act, which arguably makes him—intended or not—the most powerful mayor in the history of Birmingham.
Revered and Despised
This is a mayor who has helped generate more than a billion of dollars in capital investment for the region but has still struggled to demolish abandoned homes in neighborhoods, a mayor who has traveled the globe but gets criticized for not attending neighborhood meetings 20 minutes from City Hall.
Bell is as revered as he is despised.
Among his supporters is Brian Hilson, president and chief executive officer of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA). “Mayor Bell continues to provide strong leadership in economic development for Birmingham,” Hilson said. “He has a clear vision and high expectations for both expanding business opportunities and attracting new employers to Birmingham—and he is an active participant in the process.”
Among the mayor’s detractors: Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin. “He flat-out refuses to sign off on legislation and contracts that the council approves regarding council business,” Austin said. “This continues to hurt our neighborhoods.”
This next year may be one of the mayor’s most challenging politically—some are already raising money to make sure he doesn’t serve another term—as he begins to govern with newfound legislative power and with a majority of council members who say he refuses to communicate.
“I communicate very clearly,” Bell said. “What I don’t do is play games with people. Sometimes people think when I say stuff I mean something different. I mean exactly what I say.”
To spend a day with Bell means every second is accounted for. There is no down time, no breaks. Some days, there is no breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Other days, there are breakfast, lunch, and dinner speeches—all in the same day. It depends.
Bell begins this particular early-April day with the firemen’s graduation at Birmingham Southern College. He makes a quick stop to get a brace for his nagging knee. Then he heads back to City Hall in a black Chevrolet Suburban with his security detail, all sworn Birmingham police officers.
The mayor’s day is mapped out by a retinue of schedulers, security and administrative staff, all of whom know his whereabouts to the second.
Today, he has agreed to sit down for a series of interviews on topics ranging from his fights—physical and political—with Birmingham City Council members, to the perception that he neglects the neighborhoods in favor of downtown Birmingham, to the inflammatory racial rhetoric now echoing throughout the city, to the loss of his mother earlier this year.
Before Bell heads to one of three private meetings, he responds to questions about growth in the city.
“We took on the task of building the downtown entertainment district with the Westin Hotel to bring more people to the city for conferences and conventions. As a result, by bringing more conventions, our lodging tax is up 12 to 14 percent,” Bell said. “That means we have more revenue for our general fund budget, which can be used to address issues in our neighborhoods and communities.”
The rebirth of Birmingham’s City Center has helped generate more than $1 billion in capital investment over the past year, according to local business figures.
Hilson said the mayor “has consistently made the right first impression on prospective Birmingham companies or to close the deal . . . Mayor Bell is as gifted at understanding a company’s plans and needs as any elected leader I have ever worked with, which is why we call on him so often to meet with companies.”
Some neighborhood leaders are not happy, though. Danny Robinson, president of the Hooper City Neighborhood Association, said Bell has done a terrible job when it comes to neighborhoods.
“I understood what he was doing early on with Regions Fields and Railroad Park, keeping downtown beautified,” Robinson said. “Downtown has been revitalized and is standing on its own. So now it’s time to go outside of downtown and deal with the neighborhoods. We have been neglected for years.”
Robinson said grass and vacant lots are cut only once a year in his community, and he feels the mayor makes promises he does not keep.
“I’ve had to cut that grass myself,” Robinson said. “We are always the last to get anything. I can’t say that about the Avondale neighborhood. The mayor pays more attention to Avondale than Hooper City.”
Bell said he hears that constantly.
“What I try to tell people is that we are all in this together. We’re trying to develop this city so all of our neighborhoods are safe, so all of our neighborhoods are places where people can spend their senior years in peace and quiet or raise their children,” he said. “The truth is we’re working in all of those areas, but some areas catch fire quicker than others.”
(Sensitive to the criticism, Bell last week presented the city council with a $420 million fiscal 2017 budget that emphasizes public safety and neighborhoods.)
Here at City Hall, the mayor holds most of his private meetings in a small conference room just outside of his third-floor office. In his first closed-door meeting of the morning, he listens intently to his visitors. He takes no notes—an aide with a laptop does that—and he allows his guests time to make their case for the city’s help on an issue to reduce homelessness.
The mayor is impressed that the parties have done their homework and have checked city’s website for how money is being allocated. He then assigns a member of his administration to address the concerns and follow up.
The mayor’s next stop of the day reveals his combative relationship with the city council. It’s the Alethia House ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Tuxedo Park Apartments—and not one council member is present. The mayor notices.
Keeping with his theme of neighborhood revitalization, his speech focuses not on the council but on what his administration is doing for residents.
“Ground-breakings and ribbon-cuttings are the easy part,” Bell tells residents and other dignitaries at the event. “Oftentimes people say, ‘Why doesn’t the city do this? Why doesn’t the city do that?’ The city can’t do these things by itself. Some folks in the community have to say, ‘We’ll step up. We’ll do the hard work up front to try to pull everybody together so we can change the quality of life for people, so they don’t have to live in unsafe, dilapidated housing but have a decent place to live in their twilight years.’”
Afterward, the mayor notes that no one from the council has attended. The relationship between the two branches of the city’s government has been antagonistic and shows no signs of improving.
Levers of Power
“If there is anything [Bell] needs to learn, it’s how to work with the council,” said former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington. “Under our form of government, the mayor must have a good working relationship with the council. That apparently has not happened or it’s broken down.”
Bell, who will turn 67 on June 1, began his first full four-year term as mayor in 2013. He won in a special election in late-2009 to replace former Mayor Larry Langford following Langford’s federal conviction. Then he won a shortened two-year term in 2011 that was abbreviated to align with the mayor and council elections.
“He has not had the strength to hold on to [a majority of] council members,” Arrington said. “They started off doing pretty good. When I was in office, I worked awfully hard to line up folks during their campaigns. I don’t know if Bell wants to do that. So when he builds unity with council members, it doesn’t last long.”
Council President Austin said, “the mayor is not interested in talking; he’s not interested in communicating; he’s interested in what he wants, which is total power and domination over this city and that is a dangerous thing.”
Bell does not deny that he was instrumental in getting lawmakers to make changes to the Mayor-Council Act to give him more authority.
“I did not get to be mayor by not having the ability to work with legislators and people who I know can have an impact, both positively and negatively, on the direction of the city,” he said. “A person who sits in the office of mayor must know where the levers of power are in order to make things happen or to stop things from happening. And when I see that the city is in jeopardy of losing momentum, then it’s incumbent upon me to make sure that those levers of power are accessed.”
Circle of Life
The day is winding down. The mayor is about to go behind closed doors again, but he takes a few moments to discuss his role as a black mayor in a city with a population that is nearly 75 percent African-American.
His most vocal detractors are black people, and he is especially sensitive to the criticism because he grew up in Titusville.
“That’s where my roots are,” he said. “I grew up in an African-American community that had professionals like doctors and teachers, as well as janitors and bus drivers, so I understand the struggles of predominantly black neighborhoods.
“I feel a commitment not just to Titusville but to every neighborhood like it because I know there are good people there,” he said. “I can’t just do for one neighborhood. I have to be the mayor for all the neighborhoods.”
The conversation then turns to his family.
Bell is married to the former Sharon Carson and has two children, William Jr. and Jillian, both graduates of Ramsay High School and the University of Alabama.
For the first time all day, the mayor becomes emotional. He’s talking about his mother Luvenia Little, who died earlier this year at age 91, and his son William A. “Tony” Bell Jr., who won the Democratic nomination for a district court judgeship in the March 1 primary.
“My mom was an inspiration for me from a standpoint of keeping me grounded and letting me know that I am still that little nappy-headed boy that came out of Titusville, that she and my dad gave me an opportunity through education to rise above and beyond where they had been,” the mayor said.
“Since my son threw his hat into the ring to be a judge—he’s already a municipal judge in Irondale—and won the Democratic primary [with 75 percent of the vote], he thinks he’s the big politician in the family now,” Bell said.
“It’s all part of the circle of life,” the mayor said. “Yes, we lost my mom, my children’s grandmother, but life goes on. But there’s the joy that my son has brought, not only because he won an election but also because he has two beautiful sons that my mother loved dearly, as she did all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Though we still mourn my mother’s passing, there’s joy because she gave me a chance so I could give my son a chance so he can give his children a chance.”
Bell said he has no real hobbies or activities in his spare time. “My favorite thing to do is spend time with my grandsons (ages 5 and 1 ½). They are my motivation to keep going and always try harder,” the mayor said.
The day comes to a close, but not really. The day never really ends for the mayor of Alabama’s largest city.
Bell is alerted about an emergency at the Salvation Army in the 1400 block of Fred Shuttlesworth Drive. The building has been evacuated after a loaded gun and suspicious device were found in the pockets of a coat in the donation box.
In minutes, the mayor is on the scene. He speaks privately with Police Lt. Sean Edwards, a Birmingham police spokesman, and then makes brief remarks to the media.
As quickly as the mayor arrived, as the reddened sun begins a slow fade, he hops back into his black Chevrolet Suburban and is gone.