Larry’s Kingdom Come
Mayor Langford starts his tenure with a bang.
November 29, 2007
On inauguration day, it soon became clear that the new mayor wasn’t kidding when he repeatedly opined during his campaign that what Birmingham needs a “crazy man” to run the city. After Alabama Congressman Artur Davis saluted Birmingham because “a city that lives on a hill can never be hidden,” Larry Langford took the microphone to address several hundred people gathered at Boutwell Auditorium on November 13 for his mayoral swearing-in ceremony.
Langford’s theatrics were on display for the constituency that voted him into office without a runoff in a field of nine candidates. (During the inaugural speech he boasted that he could have beaten 40 because “If God be for you, who can be against you?”) As he addressed the crowd, a Hispanic interpreter desperately tried to decipher Langford’s every sentence; the new mayor’s Baptist preacher oratory and the interpreter’s frantic Spanish frequently collided.
Langford choked down sobs as he told the crowd about a woman dying of cancer in Calera whose final requests included meeting the new mayor—a wish Langford was more than happy to oblige. He warned the crowd, “If in the next few minutes I say something you do not like, I want you to know that in my heart I do not care! . . . I’m not coming out to patch your streets. We are coming out to rebuild your community.” He acknowledged that Birmingham is currently losing 5.6 percent of its population yearly. “If we [the city] were a patient in the hospital, they would put us in intensive care,” he said. Regarding crime, Langford urged parents to raise their children with more discipline: “I cannot hire enough police to keep us from killing each other . . . It’s nothing that a good ol’ fashion butt-whipping [won't solve].” A man in the crowd yelled approval: “Larry ain’t playin’!”
Langford derided city residents, asking, “When did we lose our mind? We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” The crowd responded enthusiastically, shouting, “Amen!” Langford was on a roll: “Our children are direct carbon copies of us . . . I don’t want to deal with no 50-year-old teenagers!” He added that he would “not tell the city or council how to set the table without bringing something to the table.” Another supporter loudly sighed, “Larry’s crazy!”
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On November 19, the Birmingham City Council met with the new mayor to dissect his big spending plans for improving the city. Langford has asked for a 100 percent increase in business license fees and another 1 percent boost in sales tax (increasing it to 10 percent) to raise a projected $72 million to finance a domed stadium, the transit system, economic improvement, street and sidewalk refurbishment, police and fire department upgrades, and a student scholarship program. A separately proposed $7 million expenditure would be used for the scholarship program as well as purchasing laptop computers for city schools. It’s the additional $7 million request on which the council was taking an “in-concept, in-theory” advisory vote (as described by Council President Carole Smitherman) on this particular afternoon. The vote was not binding. Councilors Carol Duncan, Steven Hoyt, Miriam Witherspoon, and Maxine Parker spoke enthusiastically in favor of moving ahead with Langford’s ideas.
Langford was more subdued at the November 19 meeting than he was at his inaugural, but not by much. He addressed councilors (all but Joel Montgomery were present): “Just once in this community I want to see somebody say something positive about Birmingham without the ‘buts,’ the ‘ands,’ and the ‘conjunctions’ [added] to it. We keep buying into people who are painting this city with a broad brush. . . . Yes, we have a crime problem in this community and we will address it. Let me just be straight up about it. Black-on-black crime in this community: we have to speak out on it as you have been doing, only with a louder voice. We’ve got to get into our churches and get the faith-based communities involved in this deal. Because if we don’t do this quickly, we are going to run the risk of being the only race of people in the history of civilization to kill itself off.”
Langford believes that scholarships are a first step to avoiding the picture of impending doom he had just painted. “When you put scholarships in these children’s hands, now they’ve got something to say ‘yes’ to. We keep telling them to just say ‘no.’ Give them something to say ‘yes’ to. Now those Mommas and Daddies are gonna have to read and [be] with their children because the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be a train coming to run over them!”
As a sign of support for fighting crime, Langford had already ordered that mayoral staff cars be turned over to the police department. “I have pulled in every car that’s on the mayor’s staff,” Langford said. “I’ve never used a city car, I will never use a city car. I want my own car. I want to be able to go and come as I please without somebody following me and saying, ‘Oh, you stopped off at T’s.’ If I wanna stop at T’s, I’ll stop at T’s.”
Langford was appalled that police officers are riding one per vehicle. “Tell me why you would send a single police officer into a crime hot spot by himself,” he demanded. “We have narrowed these little beats down so small that it requires taking the officers and splitting them apart and buying twice as many cars as you need rather than giving them a defined beat area and put two officers in the car, for the officers’ protection as well as for the protection of the crook.” Langford said that he personally would not drive into some of the crime areas if he were a lone policeman. “That’s why it’s taken 35 or over 40 minutes for them to answer some of these calls,” he observed. “They’re scared!”
Councilor Valerie Abbott said that she needs more information about Langford’s proposals, whereas Councilor Roderick Royal expressed concern that small businesses will not be able to afford the proposed doubling of the business license fee. Councilor Duncan said that she had been talking to residents and independent business owners in her district and has found few objections to Langford’s notions. Duncan added, “Education? The laptops and funding the schools? I’ve been in here six years, I think we’ve given them what, about $40 million trying to keep them from going belly-up! $7 million sounds like a bargain to me.”
“You can’t be against laptops and you can’t be against giving school scholarships,” Councilor Royal said outside the council chambers. “[But] I was in the army and you don’t make major moves in the army, as an army officer, without an op order. It’s a five-paragraph kind of thing. And that’s what’s happening today. You have a mission that you’re going on, but there is no op order. There is no command and control, in my opinion. There is no objective. . . . Yeah, okay, you want to build a dome, those kind of things, yes, you have goals but how do you get there?”
#147;I couldn’t be happier. It made this whole campaign worthwhile,” Langford said of the council’s reaction to his proposals during a press gathering after the meeting. When asked to comment on the morning headlines that Birmingham is now the sixth most dangerous city in America, the mayor replied, “To deny the numbers, you can’t do it. It is what it is. . . . That’s why I was pushing today for scholarships and for improved street lighting and improve the police department and in talking about economic development. You’ve got to give people hope right now. That’s what’s lacking in this community.” Langford elaborated on the computers for schoolchildren. “These are exceptional computers! For those who say, ‘Well, it’s a computer, but . . .’ Where’s your 15,000 computers? If you don’t like this 15,000, give us 15,000. Let’s see if you’ve got something to say other than just lip service.” Langford added that he is sick of critics who offer no help. “We’re gonna go ahead, we’re gonna move forward, we’re gonna help our children, we’re gonna do the things we have to do. And this council is on board and I love it! It is what it is!”
At the next day’s weekly City Council meeting—Langford’s first—he was anointed by the pastor from Council President Smitherman’s church, More Than Conquerors Faith Church. The ceremony took nearly 10 minutes. The council later set up public hearings for the following week to hear citizens’ feedback on the mayor’s proposals. &