For Bell, the fourth time was the charm.
His political career is a lesson in persistence if nothing else. And people used to call Bernard Kincaid stubborn. (To the T.C. Cannons of the world, hope lives — put your name on the ballot long enough, and the people will elect you.)
This election was a strange one. The general election six weeks ago, triggered by Larry Langford's corruption conviction, was peculiar. With such an abbreviated schedule, it was a brutal sprint for all. The six-week run-off, in comparison, didn't seem like a marathon so much as a wholly different sport — like professional wrestling, except real.
Mayor Kincaid used to say that Bell would throw a rock at you and then hide his hand. Early on, Bell insinuated Patrick Cooper came from a family of slave traders, but when pushed to say which candidate he was smearing, Bell wouldn't call Cooper out by name.
At the same time, Cooper couldn't resist that old jab below the belt, all but asking Bell, Are you still beating your wife?
On the debate stage, both men tried to act civilly toward each other, while in the cold outside, their surrogates stuff shameful smear sheets beneath windshield wipers.
On the air waves, the radio warrior Frank Matthews blasted Cooper with homophobic vitriol. In mailboxes, Cooper's bogus political action committees reanimated forgotten scandals involving Bell.
Throw rock, hide hand.
Bell and Cooper may have pushed the one woman candidate, Carole Smitherman, out of the race in the general election, but in the six weeks since, neither of them has proven he could be a man.
And the campaign got weirder.
Outside the Highland Park Golf Course precinct, the Jefferson County Citizen's Coalition handed out its "blue ballot," the flier that for decades signaled to voters the endorsements of Mayor Richard Arrington's machine.
Arrington's endorsement this time? Patrick Cooper.
When the Coalition endorses the darling of Southside and passes out blue ballots in white neighborhoods, you know the world has turned on its ear. Up is down, white is black and yellow is white.
It was time for this to end.
The tally moved back and forth a couple of times. Early in the night, Cooper made a strong move as the Southside boxes came in. But the shift only gave Cooper's camp a false victory. (While watching the tallies at City Hall, a colleague mocked the doe-eyed and naive Cooper supporters: "This is it! I can feel the change happening!") Cooper's few strong boxes put him ahead, but it didn't last. Box-by-box, Bell inched into the lead again. This time it was permanent.
In a few days, William Bell will be mayor, for real this time.
The choice before Birmingham voters had been significant but unclear. The difference between sending Bell or Cooper to City Hall was equivalent to taking a dog to a chicken fight versus taking a chicken to a dog fight. Either is amusing only if you love brutality and have no compassion for the combatants.
Bell will return to Birmingham City Hall from the Jefferson County Commission where he —
Well, if anyone can explain what Bell did at the commission, let me know. At the least, he beat the curve by being one of the recent few to stay out of jail. Mostly, he lurked in the background while Bettye Fine Collins took heat for the unpopular decisions.
Bell can't hide anymore.
There are two components of politics — campaigning and governing. The campaign is over. Now Bell must govern. He faces huge challenges.
Bell has the unprecedented problem of having to tackle two budgets at the same time, and he must staunch hemorrhaging cash in both.
The city now has another month's worth of financial data, and it shows the continuation of the same trends for the 2010 fiscal year. If nothing changes, Birmingham could end the fiscal year in June with a $60 million deficit, if not larger. The city's financial projections in the 2010 budget are so far off target that they constitute fraud.
The city council first learned the magnitude of these problems last fall, but for Councilor Valerie Abbott, none have shown any urgency for solving the problem. As interim mayor, Roderick Royal has buried his head under a blanket of his own arrogance. He has bragged that the 2009 audit revealed no smoking gun, while anyone paying attention could see he was sitting on a bomb. He boasts on the POA (plan of action) he's leaving for the incoming mayor, but if it's anything like his short tenure, Royal's POA is a POS.
With five months left in the fiscal year, Bell can't close the gaping hole in the city's budget. The best to hope for is mitigation. Bell wants to move some of Langford's big-ticket capital projects, such as the renovation of Fair Park, from the operating budget to the capital budget. That's a good idea, but it will involve going to the bond market for more debt. After the Jefferson County disaster, residents and lenders alike might be too nervous for that to work.
But that's only half of Bell's fiscal problem. Typically, the budget process begins in February. The 2011 budget cycle could begin before Bell has fixed 2010.
And once that's over? Again, there are two components to politics — governing and campaigning. The special election this week was to finish the rest of Langford's term. The next mayoral election is less than two years away, and Bell will face reelection, if he seeks it, before the city council does.
The campaign for mayor is over. Let the campaign for mayor begin.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org