By Nick Patterson
The Birmingham Times
When voters go to the polls for the Birmingham elections Aug. 22, they will face a dizzying field of candidates vying for the office of mayor, various city council seats, and school board positions. The number of school board candidates trying to get one of the nine seats available is daunting enough to sort through – there are 32 of them.
Altogether, 88 people are jostling for positions in some part of city government and board of education. The mayor’s race, which includes incumbent Mayor William Bell, has attracted 11 other candidates. Each of the nine city council districts has a race, with only one incumbent, District 9 Councilor Marcus Lundy giving up his seat voluntarily.
The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. The run-off election day is scheduled for Tues. Oct. 3 for top contenders who didn’t claim a majority — 50 percent of the votes in their race plus one. Newly elected City Councilors take office Tues. Oct. 24.
Qualifiers for the mayors’ race were Patricia Bell; William Bell Sr. (I); Ronaldo Davis; Ervin Hill II; Angela-Gertrudis Hunter; Carl Jackson; Lanny Jackson; Donald Lomax; Frank Matthews; Brother Fernando Sims and Randall Woodfin.
Larry Powell, a communication studies professor and political commentator from the University of Alabama at Birmingham said the biggest issue facing city government “is the discord between the mayor’s office and the city council. I don’t know if any of the candidates are going to be able to fix that. After that, it’s a matter of trying to improve things for the city as a whole and the neighborhoods. And crime,” Powell said, “is a major problem.”
Powell noted that the number of contenders for both mayor and city council means that there are those who think the incumbents are vulnerable. “If the incumbent is strong, you don’t get that many opponents,” he said. Even so, based on his observations, Powell expects the mayor’s race to come down to the current mayor and opponent Chris Woods, a contractor and former Auburn football player.
Bell 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.
Woods has no previous political experience.
A recent WBRC FOX6 News poll found 54 percent of voters make Mayor Bell their first choice in the Aug. 22 election, with Woods a distant 2nd at almost 17%. Assistant city attorney and Birmingham Board of Education member Randall Woodfin is close behind in 3rd at 14%, small business owner Patricia Bell at 6%, and law enforcement veteran Randy Davis had 4% in voter support.
Woodfin believes his campaign is within striking distance.
“I think we’re in a competitive race . . . “ Woodfin told WBRC Fox 6. “We’ve put ourselves in a competitive position based on 11 months of working with, listening to, and talking with voters about the importance of this election. 2017 represents a change election where voters are not wanting change for change’s sake but wanting to be a part of progress that parts of the city are experiencing.
Bell told the television station, “I’m grateful that the citizens are seeing the progress we’re making under my administration and leadership. We’re going to continue to work hard and not take anything for granted . . . what that does is give us the opportunity to have discussions with people so the people can have input, and that’s what my administration has been about, the people of this great city.”
Woods disputed the poll numbers and the sample size, but issued the following statement after hearing the poll results:
“We are very encouraged with the feedback we have received from the citizens of Birmingham. We will continue working to earn the trust and votes of every citizen in Birmingham until the close of the polls on election night.”
Other leading candidates continued to push their platforms ahead of the election. On her Facebook page, Pat Bell said, “We’re starting a conversation about reducing violence in Birmingham . . . we must improve economic opportunities. I continue to propose the idea of business incubators throughout the city. The one Innovation Center located in downtown Birmingham is not convenient enough.”
Davis told Bhamnow.com that the top three issues Birmingham faces are “revenue of the city, revitalization of communities and crime.”
Asked how he plans to Birmingham’s crime rate, he said, “starting with the community and working closely with them and implementing new strategies with law enforcement. I have 21 years of law enforcement experience that I feel will be an asset—combining it with other law enforcement officials.”
Community Activist and Founder of The Outcast Voters League, Frank Matthews said during a forum in July that all of the issues in Birmingham can be tied back to the city’s poverty rate. “I’m here tonight because I’m representing all those that don’t have smart phones to make comments, or have cars to be able to sit here in this church,” he said. “I have one enemy and that is poverty.”
Pastor Fernandez Sims, of Charis Community Church and case manager at Impact Family Services, told The Birmingham Times in an interview this year, that his platform is “better schools, better community, and better government . . . the reason we have that platform is because those are the most important things in our city that [are] failing,” he said.”
For the City Council seats, Powell added that some of the challengers believe the current councilors are vulnerable, while others “are just hoping that lightning will strike,” and they can “get lucky and get in.”
Candidates for seats on the city council and the mayor’s office have cited concerns about increased funding for schools, crime and policing, balancing the budget, economic development, including improving job opportunities and the climate for businesses, blight, gentrification, government transparency and increasing citizen participation and input, and investment in neighborhoods, among others.
In the race for the board of education, the election is certain to result in big changes to the school system’s governing body, as noted on election information website Ballotpedia: As only four incumbents (Daagye Hendricks, District 4; Cheri Gardner, 6; Wardine Alexander, 7 and Sandra Brown, 9) chose to run for re-election, the 2017 Birmingham City Schools Board of Education election is guaranteed to add five newcomers to the board. There was an increase in the number of candidates running per seat, from 2.89 candidates per seat in 2013 to 3.56 candidates per seat in 2017.