Today, an all too familiar scene is playing out in Birmingham: another election. This one will determine who the city’s next mayor will be, bringing the total of new executive heads to four in almost as many months. As many residents will be voting during lunch and after work, today will be your final chance to gather information that may help you make a decision, solidify one you’ve already made, or change your support entirely. Below is a brief and general recap of the most recent mayoral debate, which took place last Thursday.
The Roundtable, a networking group consisting of lawyers and other young professionals, hosted this event at the Highland Conference Center in Birmingham’s Five Points South district. The forum was scheduled to include the five candidates who are mainly considered to be the primary contenders in this race for mayor of Birmingham.
They include Emory Anthony, William Bell, Steven Hoyt, Carole Smitherman, and Patrick Cooper. Securing the presence of only the leading candidates was, in my personal opinion, a good decision that would allow voters to learn from and listen to those asking for their support without having to cut through the unnecessary clutter that can come with a field of (now) thirteen candidates.
That said, two of the scheduled participants, Carole Smitherman and Patrick Cooper, did not make the event. However, with good timing on their sides, the two candidates who were planning only to sit in on the event, Harry “Traveling Shoes” Turner and Jody Trautwein, were afforded the opportunity to participate as well.
Despite the absences of two leading candidates, the debate was still a successful and informative event as five mayoral contenders were able to speak and debate in front of a packed and engaged audience.
The debate itself touched on a host of issues and concerns surrounding the city. Much of them focused on crime, urban flight and brain drain, economic development (not only in downtown but also throughout the city), urban renewal, fiscal responsibility, education, and the hot-button topic of the multi-purpose facility, also known simply as “the dome.”
The debate lasted over an hour and, obviously, much was said about each aforementioned concern. However, in the interest of time and clarity, only the main points and highlights of each candidate will be emphasized. It should be noted that Bell arrive approximately 25 minutes after the debate’s start.
Crime and Safety
This was the first issue tackled by the candidates who, at this point, consisted only of Anthony, Turner, and Trautwein. All were fairly unanimous in their desire to retain current police chief, A.C. Roper. There was little deviation from the praise of Roper and acknowledgment of the declines that have been realized under his watch.
Anthony vowed to make available all funds that Roper would need, Turner insisted we to teach kids that “crime is illegal,” and Trautwein expressed his wish to see more police on the ground with a closer relationship to the communities they serve.
Urban Flight and Brain Drain
Next, the candidates were asked about their plans to mitigate urban flight and reverse the current trend of “brain drain,” or — in other words — the outflow of young professionals who leave the city soon after college. Turner responded with “it is what it is” and pointed to a need for “partnerships” to provide the “right tools for young professionals.”
Trautwein identified a “decline in education” and “jobs [that are] leaving” the city as the primary reasons for Birmingham’s battle with urban flight and brain drain. His solution would call for partnerships with schools, recruiting new professionals, and connecting them with business incubators. Anthony identified the topic as a “quality of life” issue which should be addressed by encouraging more young professionals to seek leadership roles.
Economic Development (and Urban Renewal)
In order to attract more businesses such as Fortune 500/1000 companies, Anthony believe we should first work to retain the businesses we have now. Then, work with them to attract new jobs and enterprises. Turner answered with what he said “[was] basically his platform:” credit scores and the need for citizens to improve them. He argued if Birmingham residents had higher credit scores, companies would locate here because citizens would have more disposable income. His response drew many incredulous stares.
Trautwein stated that he would target which industries Birmingham could attract based on research. He also mentioned, lowering taxes and cited Irondale’s coup of Tom Williams as evidence to support his low-tax principles.
On the subtopic of UAB and urban renewal, Anthony and Trautwein agreed that more focus should be placed on working with the school to recreate and build on current successes. Turner, again, answered with the need to increase “credit scores,” which would make urban renewal easier. The incredulity turned to confusion and blank stares.
Many of the answers regarding this topic were similar in nature, as everyone articulated the need to, first, examine the books before any further decision could be made. William Bell, who arrived during this question, stated that the books can be cleaned up without the need to layoff any city employees.
He also cited his experience with Birmingham finances and touted his familiarity with the budgeting process as an example of his qualifications. No mention from Turner about credit scores regarding fiscal responsibility; however, it was mentioned when candidates were asked to chime in about securing stimulus funds.
Steven Hoyt arrives shortly before the topic of education arises — in which case, the candidates were asked about how they would positively impact the school board’s agenda. Anthony stated he would find all necessary funds in the budget to help them execute their plans. Bell would like to see state legislation changed to give the mayor ability to appoint a superintendent.
Hoyt cautioned the audience that there is very little that could be done currently to change their the school board’s agenda, given that it’s a completely separate entity. Turner stated his wish for increased test scores. Trautwein echoed Hoyt’s sentiment but added that he would “talk with, not at” the school board to build a consensus on goals and agenda.
Multi-purpose Facility (Domed Stadium)
One question on the minds of many votes is that of the planned domed stadium and its future. All candidates addressed this concern and most offered similar responses that detailed the need for a new venue, but not completely at Birmingham’s expense. Most candidates offered assurances that they would seek additional support for the project from surrounding municipalities, the corporate community, and the state.
Turner, staying true to his beliefs, closed with another reference to increasing credit scores in the community, since “no dome will come if folks can’t [pay to attend].” The confusion gave way to muffled laughter throughout the room.
Thursday night’s event was a welcome departure from the benign and “softball” nature of debates people have typically witnessed and come to expect. The various topics, in addition to the multiple question formats, made it easy for one to stay engaged and interested throughout the entire program.
The forum gave voters and interested area residents a chance to: listen to individual platforms, witnesses a spirited debate between Anthony and Bell over education-related and qualification issues, and share a few laughs throughout it all.
Go out to vote and exercise your right that was earned and paid for through the sacrifices of so many. With that said, remember: your vote is your voice.