As I walked back around a corner, this is what I saw. Then-Commissioner Larry Langford was still yelling and cussing at a woman who worked for the county. She was tearing up, but that didn’t deter Langford. There were three television photographers standing right there, all of them with their cameras on their shoulders but none of them were filming. The broadcast media were toeing the cracks in the floor, looking for stains in the ceiling. All were ignoring the soon-to-be mayor having a full-blown conniption fit right in front of them. Something very indicative of a mayoral candidate’s character was happening right there for the world to see, and the media looked the other way.
As Langford continued to tear into the woman, I asked one of the photographers what was going on. With anxious facial expressions, whispers and hand signals, he tried to deter me off of it. With Langford making a scene in front of them, none of the other media wanted to make a scene.
Finally, one of Langford’s assistants took the woman aside and calmed her down, and Langford turned back to the television cameras.
I asked Langford what had happened.
“How is that any of your damn business?” he asked.
I told him that when I hear commissioners yelling at the top of their lungs, it makes me curious.
“Well, it’s none of your damn business,” he said.
I learned later that the woman had interrupted Langford to ask him to sign something while he was talking to the media.
Almost a year later, in March 2008, Langford attended a closed-door meeting with Birmingham business leaders. Many of them were upset because they thought Langford had misled them on his sales tax and business license increase. When Langford pitched the plan, it was supposed to pay for things the so-called business community liked. Things like a domed stadium or streetcars and major transit improvements. Because of this, the business community supported it. Instead, though, the numbers kept shifting and Langford had proposed using the money instead for other projects.
When Russell Cunningham, President of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, confronted Langford about it, Langford exploded into a rage. It was the same sort of tirade I’d seen at the courthouse a year before, only this time it nearly got physical.
After the meeting, Cunningham refused to comment, but Langford went on the offensive. He accused the Chamber of being a racist organization because it used the word “regional” in its name. He said he’d defended Birmingham. Folks in the room, however, just thought he’d made an ass out of himself.
And then there’s last week.
Langford attended a meeting of the Five Points Merchants association at Birmingham Festival Theatre. It wasn’t the first time Langford had ever been to this meeting. In fact, in one of his first acts as mayor after his election, he came to meet the same people.
Unfortunately, though, the group allows members to ask questions, and Langford doesn’t always like those.
Jerry Hartley, the owner of the J. Clyde, a restaurant and bar in Five Points, asked Langford what could be done about “brain drain” in Birmingham, the civic planning term for losing talented and educated residents to more competitive and amenable cities.
Accounts of what happened next vary. Some say Hartley’s question was legitimate and reasonable. Others said he was goading the mayor somewhat, or that his question went on too long, meandering without reaching a point. Regardless, if the latter were true, it’s not something uncommon for a mayor to deal with. It happens every week at City Hall. Speakers in public meetings who are unaccustomed to public speaking frequently go chasing rabbits. It’s something the mayor can and has dealt with in a reasonable way.
But not this time.
Maybe it was Hartley suggesting a regional solution to a regional problem. Maybe it was his tone or maybe, as some have suggested, the mayor is under a lot of stress these days. No matter, Langford went ballistic. On this point every account is the same except the mayor’s. Langford came unhinged. He yelled. He cussed. The argument spilled into the ante area outside the auditorium. Langford took off his coat and pulled off his glasses. He got in Hartley’s face. Langford’s security detail had to restrain him, at which point he exploded on them too, yelling, “Don’t you fucking touch me. Get your hands off of me.”
Leapin’ Larry went off the deep end.
Again, Langford has said he was defending the city, but let’s be clear about something. His defense does as much damage as anyone else’s offense. The real issue here is not regionalism or attitudes about the city. With all the restraint of nitro glycerin, Langford’s temper is no more under control than his other juvenile impulses. He can’t keep his cool anymore than he can pass a car dealership without craning his neck, or put a suit back on the rack because it’s too expensive. His personal habits are his undoing and they are all issues of self-control. The real issue is that Langford doesn’t know how to act like a grown person.
The so-called business community struck a Faustian bargain with Langford because they thought he was something Bernard Kincaid was not, a regional leader. They thought he could make the city move, but instead he’s more likely to make people move from the city.
I’m going to belabor an old point, but the mayor does not live in Birmingham. He still lives in Fairfield. But that business owner he cussed last week? He does live in Birmingham, not that Langford has given him much reason to stay here.
As economic development goes, making small business owners fear for their personal safety works wonders — for any place except Birmingham.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com