By Ed Reynolds
Hailed by local political observers as the greatest revolution in Birmingham politics since Bull Connor and his oppressive pals were chased out of City Hall 38 years ago, voters finished the job they started October 9 by eliminating almost every incumbent from the City Council during the October 30 runoff election. Only Councilor Lee Loder, an easy victor in the general election, was unaffected. A happy Mayor Bernard Kincaid bragged more than once during runoff night that he had been seeking a “council that would work with me.” Kincaid has been preaching public revolt for two years, ever since the council assumed many of the Mayor’s powers in order to bolster its control over city government.
Like most revolutions, it all started at the top. Elias Hendricks defeated Council President William Bell in a District Five landslide, lauding the “quality and caliber” of campaign workers that secured his victory. “My people were dedicated. They cared about what we were doing, and they also could articulate how I felt about certain issues because they took the time to listen,” Hendricks gushed. He defined his campaign as “the way politics really should be. It doesn’t have to be cutthroat, it does not have to be name-calling. It can be issue-driven. It can be conducted like ladies and gentlemen.”
When asked if he anticipated any butting of heads with Mayor Kincaid, Hendricks replied, “I hope we’re all dancing to the same page. I’m hoping that all the butting heads can happen in pre-council when people can explain their position and we can all come out with a goal that is for the greater good of the city.”
As expected, Hendricks side-stepped queries on his interest in replacing Bell as council president. “I think it’s a little premature for that. I think that what we should be concerned about is not necessarily who’s the head of it, but who’s going to be over Street and Sanitation, who’s going to be over the parks. That’s the work that has to be done. Who ends up being the person that conducts the meeting is kind of showboating,” he explained. “How do we work through those kind of things as a council, the real meat and potatoes of government. Who gets to be in Hollywood every Tuesday night [laughs] is not as important as who gets the real work done.”
At Jake’s Pit Bar-B-Q, where Carol Reynolds celebrated her lopsided runoff victory over District Two incumbent Bill Johnson, homemade paper signs touted reynolds’ attributes: “Honor,” “Integrity,” “Very Smart,” and “Trustworthy.” “We went out there with a vision about Birmingham: Returning accountability to government,” said Reynolds. “We talked it the whole time, and we never strayed off of it. We committed to a vision to rebuild Birmingham, to restore pride. We stuck to it. We never did any negative campaigning. We’re very excited.” Reynolds laughed as she admitted her main concern, now that the runoff results were in, was that the Yankees win the World Series.
Responding to a question about her interest in being council president, Reynolds explained, “We’re going to have four female councilors. Women look at things differently than men do. We want the basic services and the basic dignity returned to Birmingham. I’m not jockeying for any position. We just have to see when we all sit down and start talking about who needs to be where. At that time we’ll make the decision. I want the very best person, male or female, as council president. We have an all new council. This truly is the beginning of the millennium. It truly is.”
A funeral pall loomed over the headquarters of ousted Council President William Bell. A subdued, defeated Bell searched for a silver lining as he admitted that he could relax now that the council runoff was over. “I’ll get a chance to sleep a little bit later,” he said with resignation. Standing next to a pair of “Vote William Bell” vans plastered with signs that offered free rides to the polls, Bell recalled the lesson learned after 22 years in office: “The human spirit will always rise. I really believe that.” When asked if former mayor Richard Arrington’s failure to include him in a list of Jefferson County Citizens Coalition incumbents that Arrington wanted to see re-elected had prompted his defeat, Bell replied, “I don’t speculate on what helps or what hurt. This is fate, this is God’s will. We gave it our all, but the people of Birmingham decided something different, and I’m at peace with that.”
Apparently, Bell was not the only councilor God wanted removed from office. Councilor Sandra Little told local television newscameras, “Some things are gonna happen now, and God don’t [sic] want me to be a part of that.” Little went on to explain that serving her constituents “is like a ministry, and you’re always more concerned about other people than yourself. So now I don’t have to have the weight of the city on my shoulders.”
Bert Miller, who defeated Little in the District Seven bid, flashed across television screens later that evening with some subtle but funky dance moves as he entered his campaign headquarters on runoff night. When asked by Channel 33/40 News reporter Kevyn Stewart if there is any credibility to Sandra Little’s claims that Mayor Kincaid is hard to work with, Miller adamantly declined to respond. “I don’t even wanna discuss that. That’s her thing. That campaign is over!” Miller promised that there’s “a new Birmingham coming up in November.”
At Gwen Sykes’ Boutwell Auditorium headquarters, supporters surrounded her as they lined up to dance in unison, pausing long enough to allow Sykes to lead them as they simultaneously turned their backwards campaign caps to the front, chanting, “Since we have straightened it out, then we’ll turn our hats around!” Sykes promised Channel 33/40′s Pam Huff that there will be no more bickering between the Mayor and City Council.
District Nine councilor-elect Roderick Royal told Fox 6 News reporter Cynthia Gould that everything in his district needs to be addressed. “The district is in such a mess that anywhere is a good place to start.” District One’s Joel Montgomery minced few words expressing what is owed the people of Birmingham. “The people deserve to have a city council that people don’t laugh at — and that people don’t consider a circus act,” Montgomery told Fox 6 News. “We’re gonna do the taxpayers’ business and we’re gonna do it in a respectful manner.”
Inside Councilor Aldrich Gunn’s East Lake headquarters, the hum of a tiny space heater interrupted the silence while the defeated councilor, standing near a painting of Christ, reflected on his future after 12 years of council service. “I got a little bitty Aldrich Gunn that high (gesturing two feet off the floor). And to be as old as I am and to have a little grandson like that, two years old, named Aldrich — cause I never thought I would have someone to carry my name on . . .” Gunn still believes that the weakened Jefferson County Citizens Coalition that voted him into office in three council elections is a viable entity. “I think it’s wise to have a coalition,” he noted as he elaborated on the importance of political alignment. “Playing ping-pong or yo-yo are the only things you can play by yourself.”
When told that his malapropisms had added an irresistible charm to council meetings, Gunn recited a poem, as he frequently did during sessions. “‘A wise old owl lives in the oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t you be like that wise old bird?’ Now that applies to me,” smiled Gunn. “I can say that. That’s called colloquialism. People talk about me splitting a verb. You do that for psyche things. You say something and they say, ‘Oh, he split a verb,’ or you say ‘peoples.’ Put an ‘s’ on ‘people’ and they get all excited, but you be done got what you want back there, and they be focusing on that!” laughed Gunn. “Just to be able to serve on that council means a lot to me.” When asked to comment on possible reasons for defeat, Gunn sighed, “I still believe if I had my old district, I would have prevailed. That just cut me down, the way they drew the lines. But I have no complaint. I’m content.”
Former mayor Richard Arrington sat down with Fox 6 News anchor Scott Richards in the days after the runoff election to offer opinions about the three main figures on the Birmingham political scene for the past two years. Admitting that he and William Bell fought out of the public eye over the years, Arrington said it was Bell’s idea to take over as interim mayor four months before Arrington’s 20-year tenure ended. “I felt I owed it to him,” the former mayor said of his agreement to step down early so that Bell could run against Kincaid as a semi-incumbent mayor. “Quite frankly, the corporate community was really pressuring me. And while they weren’t all that excited about William, I couldn’t give them anybody better than William that I thought could be elected. I still don’t know today how he lost that race. I have never been able to forgive him for losing that race to Bernard Kincaid,” Arrington laughed.
Arrington said that Kincaid was “a disciple of mine” when Arrington was a dean at Miles College. Arrington said he invited Kincaid to work on his team, but Kincaid felt that some members of Arrington’s organization were “incompetent,” even to the extent of “not liking the way they express themselves.” The former mayor called Kincaid a “bright guy, but he’s a nitpicker.”
Finally, Arrington offered an assessment of Councilor Jimmy Blake, who kept a promise eight years ago not to seek his council seat after two terms. “I consider Jimmy to be the most controversial, most dishonest individual I ever met. Jimmy brought a style of politics to City Hall that nobody was accustomed to,” said Arrington. “My perception of Jimmy Blake is a politician who’s a demagogue, who is very, very bright. He’s very good at handling people and winning them over, and Jimmy is always there. I grew old being very proud of the fact that I never met a person that I didn’t like, and then I met Jimmy Blake.” &