By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
One of the more intriguing today in runoff elections for the Birmingham City Council is challenger Darrell O’Quinn against incumbent Council President Johnathan Austin in District 5.
Two other council races are in runoffs for top contenders who didn’t claim a majority — 50 percent of the votes in their race plus one in their Aug. 22 races:
Polls today open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. in the nonpartisan races. Elected officials begin their four year terms on Oct. 24.
In District 2, incumbent Kim Rafferty will meet challenger Thomas Hunter Williams. In District 9, former city council president Roderick Royal and John Hilliard face off to see who replaces Marcus Lundy who decided not to seek a second term.
However, the winner of the District 5 race could determine the direction of the council. If Austin wins, he could preserve his slim majority as president on the nine-member panel, depending on what happens in the other council races.
If O’Quinn wins, he could become an important swing vote for any majority coalition that could form on the council.
Austin finished with 1,354 votes, 31.5 percent, of the vote in the Aug. 22 municipal election. O’Quinn finished with 1,104 votes, 26.58 percent, to force a runoff in the seven person field.
“I’m thankful that I was able to garner majority of the votes that were cast in this election,” Austin said. “What it does say to me is that what I have been doing as their council representative, they like.”
O’Quinn, who currently serves as president of the Birmingham Citizens Advisory Board, which represents all of the city’s 99 neighborhoods, said, “It makes me feel great to know that so many people went out and participated in the election in general and so many people supported me.”
Austin, who has served on the council since 2008 and president since 2013, said his experience and record with the citizens is what sets him apart.
“[Citizens] have seen me advocate for minimum wage increase. They have seen me time and time again work on their behalf and fight for them,” he said. “I don’t come to anyone with promises on anything that I can’t deliver on. They’ve seen me put almost $20 million over the past several years back into the neighborhoods. The city employees have seen me advocate for them. They see me do all those things.”
Austin said he continued to support a number of initiatives including a Nondiscrimination Ordinance, which came before the council this month to make sure all people are treated equally and fairly.
The ordinance add protections against any act, policy or practice that, regardless of intent has the effect of subjecting any otherwise qualified person to differential treatment and established an eleven-member commission that will be tasked with promoting diversity, inclusion and harmony for all of Birmingham’s residents.
If re-elected, Austin said he wants to continue focusing on neighborhood revitalization and ensuring that every citizen in every neighborhood benefits from every tax dollar and that includes passing the neighborhood economic empowerment zone ordinance and neighborhood stabilization ordinance along with the healthy food tax incentive program, he said.
“We’re making sure the needs of our citizens are addressed through legislation,” he added.
O’Quinn, who has the endorsement of former Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, said the biggest issue facing the city is job opportunity.
“Our city’s really in a crisis right now,” he said. “Nashville, one of our competitor cities, is adding as many jobs a month as what our entire metro region is adding in a year. That’s an existential threat for our region.”
Having a $428 million proposed budget, yet one-third of the population is living in poverty is a problem, he said.
“That’s a contrast that’s confounding, but I think the root issue is that there are simply not enough opportunities out there for folks to make a living,” he said. “We need to focus on workforce training and attracting employers.”
O’Quinn said he is accessible and has been meeting people throughout the campaign.
“Across the district, people want to be able to communicate face-to-face with the person they put on the city council,” he said. “They want to be able to pick up the phone, and call that person. They want that person to respond to their emails and I’ve been doing that for a long time.”
Incumbent Kim Rafferty, finished second with 664 votes, or 17.4 percent of the vote behind Thomas Hunter Williams who finished with 1,122 votes or 29.4 percent.
Rafferty, elected to the council in 2009 and 2013, said having eight candidates in the Aug. 22 municipal election made messaging difficult and with most of the field now cleared she can better reach voters.
“I’m just refocusing my efforts, which means being able to communicate without six other distractions or other candidates extracting attention, so you can actually talk to somebody about the issues, or their problems or your vision for the future,” she said.
“The message we’re going to be working on is correcting the misinformation out there and let people know what we’ve done. I don’t do a very good job at telling people what I’ve done. I’m not a bragger, so it’s hard for me.
Williams, a small business owner who provides medical services to local hospitals and is a deputy sheriff with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, said simply “it’s time for a change.”
“We need to have our streets repaved in Birmingham, in District 2,” he said. “We need look at a way to solve the violent crimes we have in District 2 and in Birmingham and we need the city to pay adequate attention in terms of getting resources in District 2, which is something we have not seen in our district over the past 8 years. A lot of District 2 feels neglected,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot of excitement at the prospect of having a strong advocate for our district downtown.”
Former city council president Roderick Royal, finished with 1,522 votes in the Aug. 22 election or 31 percent of the vote and John Hilliard finished with 1,071 votes or 21.74.
The winner will fill the District 9 seat vacated by Marcus Lundy, who decided not to run for a second term.
“I will run a campaign not about anyone, but about the delivery of city services,” Royal said. “Making our city and each neighborhood where residents don’t feel they have to move and they feel safe.”
Royal, who served on the City Council from 2001-2013, council president, 2009-2013 and interim mayor, November 2009-January 2010, said his message throughout the current campaign has been the same and will remain leading up to the runoff: “The city needs to get back to business.”
“I believe that message has resonated,” he said. “To me, the first thing we need to is clean this city up. We need to address a serious crime issue. We’re going to clear these abandoned lots, institute the inoperable car ordinance. We’re going to look at the policy for abandoned houses again, and we’re going to do a similar road package that was done in 2002.”
Hilliard, who served in the Alabama State Legislature for 10 years, said, “My focus is that I have to get my voters to the poll,” Hilliard said. “In canvassing and talking with the public, they told me they would support me.”
With the eight-person field cleared Hilliard said he thinks he has a chance to see what voters are really thinking.
“I’m a new candidate for the city council, this will be my first time there and it will give them a fresh face,” Hilliard said.