Race for City Hall

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With a record-setting number of candidates … 18 in all … many Birmingham voters say they’re having a hard time telling the players, even with a program. WBHM invited two local journalists who are covering the race to give us a perspective on what’s at stake for those seeking the mayor’s office and on the decision faced by voters. Valorie Carter is a television reporter for ABC 33/40 and Kyle Whitmire writes about politics for the alternative newspaper Birmingham Weekly.

Carter: The issues are just universal: clean neighborhoods, transportation, and you’ll also hear them talk about education.

Whitmire: City services are always a priority. I think there is some misconception out there’ many voters feel that City Hall is hoarding all this money, spending it elsewhere, or putting it into their own pockets instead of putting it into the neighborhoods, the residential areas. One thing Birmingham has to come to terms with, sooner or later, is that it is a city with limited resources. The mayor, when he first took office, asked his engineers and his advisors to make a best guess as to how much it would cost to end flooding, period, in Birmingham. And their estimate was upwards of 600 million dollars. (laughs) The bond issue that we passed recently would only scratch the surface, if you dedicated all of it to ending flooding.

With 18 people wanting to be mayor, is there strength in numbers or just confusion?

Whitmire: The only exposure that many voters have had so far has been through what they’ve read in the newspaper, or what they’ve seen in candidate forums. The problem with these forums, especially, is that with 18 candidates out there, they get as most four, five minutes, tops, to get their message across. And they have to explain their position on very, very complicated issues.

Carter: It has even been funny at times. Because people are using humor to get their message across. Some people have used it as a serious stage. So you get a mixed bag. With that many candidates, and I’ve talked to each and every one of them, each and every person feels that they can win this race. And when you have that kind of zeal, that kind of passion for the city of Birmingham, you can’t take anything for granted.

Whitmire: What’s been interesting watching this campaign is now some of the traditional political borders, so to speak, have begun to erode. They’re obscured now. For example, we’ve seen Richard Arrington saying very nice things about Bernard Kincaid. Donald Watkins’ group, VNN, of which Arrington is the political director, gave a split endorsement to Bernard Kincaid and William Bell and two other candidates. I think that has confused a lot of voters.

Why the lack of interest in such a lively race?

Whitmire: I don’t think it would be fair to compare the turnout of this election, whatever it will be, to the turnout four years ago, for one very simple reason: we had the lottery on the ballot at that same time, and that brought out a lot of people who might not have voted in the mayoral election otherwise. Plus, it was sort of a turning point in recent Birmingham political history, with the defeat of the coalition machine.

Carter: I’ve talked to a lot of people on the street, and when I asked them, ‘Who would you vote for, for mayor?’ the first thing they would say is, ‘Well, my mind has been on the tax package,’ or ‘The big issue right now is Judge Roy Moore.’ So we’re getting a lot of information on this race from the press at a later date, and that’s pushing it of course closer to the race. So I think in a way, people are probably a little overwhelmed. That’s a lot to swallow, so close to the race.

Does a vote split 18 ways automatically mean a runoff?

Carter: I think it does. I don’t think anyone is going to win this race outright. The latest polls show that 20 percent of the voters out there are undecided, which is very interesting when the lead person has just over 20 percent of the vote.

Whitmire: Finally, we’ll have two people! And it’s much easier to have a debate when you have two people speaking instead of 18. Finally, we’ll have two candidates who are able to address issues at length. What worries me is that a few good candidates may have gotten lost in the mix, because of such a wide field.

Carter: Even though those other candidates didn’t make it to the runoff, their support will be key for the other candidates. So it’s not over. It’s not over.