Randall Woodfin defeats Incumbent William Bell to become Birmingham Mayor

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

 

Randall Woodfin speaks during his election night watch party in Birmingham, Ala., Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. ( Mark Almond, For The Birmingham Times.)

Randall Woodfin, the first candidate to declare for mayor of Birmingham last summer, on Tuesday saw his 14-month journey to the city’s highest elected office pay off when voters elected him to a four-year term.

According to unofficial results from Tuesday’s election, Woodfin received 24,910 votes, 58 percent, and incumbent William A. Bell Sr. received, 17,353, 41 percent.

“Birmingham, this is our moment,” Woodfin told a cheering crowd at his watch party at Haven in Lakeview. “For the last year and six weeks we have been on a journey, not for what’s in my interest, but for what’s in our interest. This is a ‘we, us and our’ moment. Our city, our 23 communities, our 99 neighborhoods, you all have spoken very clearly. We deserved better.”

In another major change in City Hall, challenger Darrell O’Quinn unseated City Council President Johnathan Austin in the District 5 runoff race. O’Quinn won with 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Austin.

In the mayor’s runoff race, Bell and Woodfin were the two remaining candidates from a field of 12 who were on the ballot for mayor in the Aug. 22 municipal election. Woodfin knocked on tens of thousands of doors since announcing his candidacy in late August of 2016.

He took the momentum from his first-place finish in the municipal election through the runoff campaign to become the 34th mayor of Alabama’s largest city. He will begin a four year term on the fourth Tuesday in November.

Time For Change

The 36-year-old Woodfin assembled a diverse coalition of supporters to defeat an incumbent many felt had been in office too long. A number of voters said Woodfin represents change.

“I’ve looked at eight years of what has been done in the past and I’m not totally pleased. So I want to see if something different can come of it,” said Cheryl Fitts, a lifetime resident who lives in District 8 on 4th Ave. West.

The biggest change she’d like to see has to do with dilapidated structures in the community, she said. “I want to see some of these raggedy houses torn down out of this neighborhood. Even if they could take some of those areas, those plots and build new houses, put up affordable home for the low-income people.”

Michael Chatman, an older resident, who voted for Woodfin, said “the city has been under Bell’s leadership for a while. He’s part of the old guard . . . there has not been enough effort to get federal funds to do some sort of urban renewal. Birmingham desperately needs it,” he said, adding that he believes Bell’s staff could have done more. He cited the way the city cleans up near Legion Field when expecting large crowds for the Magic City Classic. If cosmetic improvements are possible then – they’re always possible, he said.

“These low-income people should be getting more bang for the buck,” Chatman said. “I fault Bell for that – and he’s my frat brother. But I fault him for that.”

At North Avondale Library, Elizabeth Blackwell, of Forest Park, who described herself as “aged” said she had “several reasons” to vote for Woodfin including “we don’t have enough police. We don’t have enough firemen . . .”

Bailey Davis, a young mom carrying her toddler, said she was voting for Woodfin “just to see the progression of the city. I like his position on environmental issues and everything. Yeah, just to see some good change, some positive change.”

Woodfin’s age was not particularly influential for her, Davis said. “Just his overall views on things,” she said. One thing that did impress her was that Woodfin knows what it’s like to have family members victimized by crime, she said. “From his family, stuff that he’s gone through, just to see that change with crime … I think he just has a closer relation with family members being affected by that. He wants to see a positive change and just fighting for that. When it hits close to home that’s a big thing that you want to fight for.”

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Bell’s Reaction

Bell, 68, has served the city of Birmingham as city councilor and council president for over 25 years. He was elected to a full term as mayor of Birmingham, the largest city in the state of Alabama, in 2011. He was re-elected mayor again in 2013.

Voters who supported Bell said they did so because of his experience.

“I have nothing against Woodfin. In fact, I like him. But it’s not his time. Maybe we can groom him and he’ll be ready,” said Jean Farley, sitting outside at Legion Field.

Early returns showed that Bell was losing at the Legion Field box, his home precinct, which set the tone for the rest of the evening.

“The sun will shine tomorrow,” Bell told supporters at Sky Castle in Lakeview, where his watch party was held. “I know that the Bell family will have many, many years of joy and blessings and we will do everything we can to help make this city the best city that it can be.”

Woodfin will work with a council that returns with three new members including O’Quinn, John Hilliard who defeated former City Council President Roderick Royal in District 9 and Hunter Williams who defeated Kim Rafferty in District 2. Hilliard will fill the seat vacated by Marcus Lundy who decided not to seek a second term.

‘Too Much Blight’

During the campaign, the mayor-elect repeatedly told voters that Bell failed to address “real problems in the city” in the last seven years and residents could not afford “an additional four more years of the same thing.” He acknowledged “some pocket growth,” but also referred to “west of 65 and north of Uptown,” a reference to the regions of the city separated from downtown by interstate highways and the recent, popular, Uptown entertainment district.

“Too much blight. Too many unpaved streets. Too many overgrown lots. Too much poverty. Too much crime, and too many people don’t feel safe on their own porch,” Woodfin said.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Woodfin is a product of Birmingham City Schools (K-8), Shades Valley High School, and Morehouse College, where he majored in political science and served as president of the Student Government Association. Woodfin went on to earn his law degree from Samford University, Cumberland School of Law.  In 2013, Woodfin secured a seat on the school board and was also elected president, a role he served in from 2013-2015.

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Times staff writer Nick Patterson contributed to this post.