Incumbent Mayor William Bell was joined by challengers Patricia Bell, Ronaldo Davis, Erwin Hill II, Lanny Jackson, Frank Matthews, Brother Fernandez Sims, Randall Woodfin and Chris Woods. Not present were Angela Hunter, Carl Jackson and Donald Lomax.
The diverse crowd, which spilled over onto the basketball court located in the rear of the large church auditorium, was a good sign of voter enthusiasm ahead of the Aug. 22 municipal elections.
The forum was moderated by members of the online organization, I Believe in Birmingham.
The evening gave Mayor Bell an opportunity to tout what the others couldn’t: a record. The mayor was elected to a full term in 2011 and re-elected in 2013.
He talked about developing a 100 gigabyte network so the city can offer free Wi-Fi that will help with educational opportunities. He also talked about investment west of I-65 and the outlying areas and his determination to convert the Ramsay-McCormack building in Ensley into a new municipal court building that will also house the Birmingham Police Department as well as the Birmingham Fire Department.
But having a record also gives opponents something to critique. And that’s what happened on Friday.
With the exception of Lanny Jackson, who said he didn’t believe Mayor Bell was “doing that bad,” the others found something to go after.
Woodfin questioned Bell’s proposed renovation of the Ramsay-McCormack building at a time when the Birmingham Public Library is in need of funding for repairs. “You got a library where the escalators and elevators don’t work…If you want to invest in Ensley, put $40 million into the whole neighborhood, not one building,” Woodfin said.
Patricia Bell took issue with the number of guns on the streets. “Guns were made to protect four-year-olds. Guns were made to protect the innocent,” she said. “If a man doesn’t know what to do with a gun I want to be the mayor to get a group of people to teach a man what to do with a gun.”
Sims said, “the violence at city hall needs to stop first,” referring to a 2015 incident in which Mayor Bell and Councilor Marcus Lundy got into a high-profile altercation.
Mayor Bell initially declined to discuss the incident but responded when a young boy asked: “why should people vote for a mayor who got in a fist fight with a councilor?”
Bell responded, “You make a very good point. The mayor is supposed to set the standard. I promise you this: I’ve never attacked anyone at city hall. I never laid a hand on anyone at city hall … if that councilor were standing here in front of us, he would not rebut what I say.”