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Johnathan Austin considering run for Birmingham mayor

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Council President Johnathan F. Austin asks a question about a proposed rental contract during August's Budget and Finance committee hearing. (Frank Couch photos, The Birmingham Times)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

Council President Johnathan F. Austin asks a question about a proposed rental contract during the Budget and Finance committee hearing. (Frank Couch photos, The Birmingham Times)
Council President Johnathan F. Austin asks a question about a proposed rental contract during the Budget and Finance committee hearing. (Frank Couch photos, The Birmingham Times)

Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said he has not ruled out running for mayor in August 2017.

“No, I have not announced. No, that is not my intention. But if we don’t have someone good to run for mayor, I will,” said Austin, who received a bachelor’s degree from Miles College in May and has been accepted into Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.

“I don’t have anything to lose,” he said. “I have a lot of other things on my plate. Voters need options—certainly, more than what we currently have.”

The relationship between Mayor William Bell and the majority of the nine-member City Council is as strained and tense as any in Birmingham’s political history. And Austin is one of the mayor’s most vocal critics.

Bell, who is likely to run for another four-year term next year, said the criticism is “par for the course.”

“It has been my experience that the closer we get to the election, the more you will have various councilors wanting to be mayor, hoping to run for mayor, or just pushing back at the mayor,” he said. “That is par for the course. We have seen unprecedented growth in our tax base. It takes that growth to be able to make the critical improvements needed to our streets and parks, and to improve the daily life of each person in Birmingham. My hope is that the council president will work with me to do the job the citizens put us here to do. The rest is a pointless discussion of he-said-she-said.”

Given the current hostility between the mayor and council, next year’s election could be quite contentious—but it won’t be the first time, given Birmingham’s combative political history.

Former Mayor Bernard Kincaid, who held the office from 1999 to 2007, had epic battles with the council. One memorable confrontation was with then–council member Sandra Little Brown who said to Kincaid, “You are a little, little man.”

“Even when Kincaid was mayor, we tried to find some common ground,” said Brown, now a Jefferson County commissioner. “He held up some projects. I had a spat with the mayor, but I never stood in the way of moving projects forward. I didn’t always agree with him, but just because I didn’t get my way, government still had to continue. I didn’t take anything personal.”

Some previous Birmingham mayors—such as Richard Arrington, in office from 1979 to 1999, and Larry Langford, who held the position from 2007 to 2009—didn’t have to deal with much friction from the council, said Birmingham lawyer Emory Anthony, a familiar face in city governance who closely follows local politics.

“They [council members] all feared that Arrington and Langford had enough support that if they went against them they wouldn’t be re-elected,” Anthony said.

“Everything is about re-election,” he continued. “The reason people [didn’t challenge Arrington and Langford] is because they feared that Arrington could get them out of office and they felt that Langford had the support to get them out. They don’t fear that with [Bell].”