Birmingham gained a new mayor after the often acrimonious race between incumbent Birmingham Mayor William Bell and his opponent Randall Woodfin ended with a resounding win for the former school board president now set to become the Magic City's youngest mayor in more than a century.
Woodfin, a relative political newcomer, led a field of 12 candidates in the Aug. 22 municipal election forcing a runoff with Bell. Bell, 68, has been involved in Birmingham politics for 40 years. He has served as mayor since 2010.
At 36, Woodfin will be the youngest Birmingham mayor since David Fox took office in 1893. He is expected to take office on Nov. 28. 2017.
Support for Mayoral bid
Randall Woodfin, a 36-year-old school board member and city prosecutor, landed on the national progressive radar when he picked up the influential endorsement of Our Revolution ― the political organization created to carry on the legacy of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign ― for his bid to govern the Southern city of 212,000.
"Not only for the win, for the PEOPLE!" tweeted Nina Turner, president of the Sanders-founded group Our Revolution, who flew to Birmingham twice to rev up organizers for Woodfin. In an interview before polls closed, she said Woodfin's race was exactly the sort of cause grass-roots groups needed to get behind. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Turner noted.
The 36-year old Woodfin, who had run Hillary Clinton's campaign in Alabama, declared for the mayor's race shortly after the Democratic primary ended - more than a year ago. He challenged William Bell, a two-term mayor who had been a fixture in city politics since the 1970s, and won the support of local progressive groups as well as national ones, including the Working Families Party. Sanders recorded a robo-call that went out Monday night, telling voters identified as loyal progressives that Woodfin would fight for "Medicare for All" and racial justice.
"We made this campaign 100 percent about the people of Birmingham, focusing on their issues, their struggles, their desires for the direction of the city," Woodfin told supporters after what was expected to be a tight race turned into a landslide.
"Where the revolution starts"
Southern cities, Woodfin said, are “the frontline resistance to Trump policies.” Mayors often have broad authority to improve infrastructure, enact community-friendly policing policies and tackle poverty in ways that offset the federal government’s regressive agenda, he said.
Woodfin sees himself as part of a new generation of liberal leaders sweeping to power in Southern cities. In May, 34-year-old progressive attorney and activist Chokwe Antar Lumumba pulled off a surprise win in the Democratic mayoral primary in Jackson, Mississippi, cruising to victory in the general election the following month.
“In these urban areas of the Southeast ― this is where the revolution starts,” Woodfin said in an interview in Washington earlier this month.
DSA "conditional support"
On the campaign trail
- Mike Hamilton opens his door in a sleeveless Harley Davidson shirt. He’s got a shaggy goatee and a big grin. “Randall Woodfin!” the 63-year-old web developer says before any introductions.
- It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Glen Iris, a diversely populated historic neighborhood south of downtown Birmingham, and I wonder if I’m being duped. Woodfin is smiling, too. He swears the day’s canvass isn’t staged.
- Woodfin, the 36-year-old city prosecutor and former Birmingham board of education president, is in his first run for mayor, and he’s got support from organizations like Collective PAC and Our Revolution.
- Our Revolution president and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner told me over the phone that Woodfin understands revolution happens “one neighborhood, one community, one city, one street” at a time. Birmingham is one of two dozen cities—several of them in red states—where Our Revolution, an outgrowth of the Bernie Sanders campaign, has endorsed candidates for upcoming local elections. On Saturday, Turner flew in for a get-out-the-vote rally in Birmingham.
- The backing of national progressive groups, plus Woodfin's impressive ground game, could be enough to pull off an upset against two-term incumbent William Bell in Birmingham’s election on Tuesday. Hamilton is the third die-hard supporter we’ve met in an hour.
- Like so many U.S. cities, Birmingham is experiencing reverse white flight and what Woodfin calls “pocket growth” limited to the city’s center. In a city where 72.9 percent of 212,000 residents are Black, Woodfin and Bell, both Black Democrats, are leading a 12-candidate, nonpartisan race. Tension has been high in debates as Woodfin accuses Bell of focusing on downtown and abusing tax dollars at the expense of most residents. In the most recent debate, as Woodfin and Bell blamed one another for failing schools, Woodfin pointed out Bell only allotted $1.8 million of the $428 million city budget to education. “Check your priorities. The current administration has never been committed to education in this city, period,” Woodfin told the audience.
- “The city of Birmingham is only defined by its lowest quality of life neighborhood,” Woodfin says as we walk through the neighborhood again, sweating through his jeans and T-shirt, clipboard in hand.
- Of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods, he says 88 are experiencing low quality of life issues: unsafe streets, low-performing schools, no access to groceries. Woodfin criticizes Bell for ignoring increasing poverty and crime rates. The mayor denies these critiques in debates, standing by his goal to increase revenue through downtown investment.
- Woodfin has other plans for tax dollars. His platform is being lauded by progressives for addressing crime and poverty by advocating debt-free community college tuition and a youth summer jobs program inspired by the late Marion Barry, the District of Columbia mayor whose own federally-funded jobs program is as old as Woodfin. He also wants to re-open community centers closed during Bell’s tenure and invest in minority and woman-owned businesses. Woodfin tells me his programs are a reflection of what he’s heard from voters at their doors.
- Since February, Woodfin says his team has knocked on 40,000 doors, making contact with 15,000 people.
- “If we couldn’t raise one dollar, we’re still free to go knock on doors.” He’s raised more than $310,000 with nearly 3,000 individual contributions and the help of 600 volunteers, says political strategist Calvin Harris via email. As we walk toward Green Springs Ave., there’s proof of past visits: Woodfin yard signs and faded door hangers.
- Woodfin has gotten a lot of attention for being a soft-spoken, bearded bachelor with a hyper progressive platform. But he’s also comfortable being himself with people. It’s a contagious trait. Woodfin says it’s his method: “Nobody lies at their own house.”
Supporting Doug Jones
Randall Woodfin supported Doug Jones during the 2017 Senate race.