Incumbent Democratic Party Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, is facing a tough re-election race, having placed second in an election on August 22 behind challenger Randall Woodfin, setting up a run-off election for October 3. Woodfin is running as a progressive, having received the endorsement of Bernie Sanders’s political organization, Our Revolution. The run-off will likely be a close election, and is already causing political drama in the Alabama area after recent reports surfaced on September 6 that the incumbent Mayor, William Bell, was trying to exploit his office to maintain political power.
During a mandatory city meeting on August 29 that was recorded, Bell told city employees that their jobs were on the line if he lost re-election:
The political survival of my administration is at stake. And if you think that is just about William Bell, no it is about everyone in this room. It is about each of us in this room. Because I guarantee you while some may survive, the vast majority of you will not. OK. I’m not trying to put fear I’m just trying to tell you the realities of the situation.
The meeting has raised legal ethical questions, as it is in violation of Alabama law for any person to use their authority to influence the vote or political action of another individual, as Bell appears to do in the meeting by suggesting that his employees campaign for him. It is also illegal for city time or resources to be used for political activities.
Bell added in the meeting:
Now, what do I need from you? It is improper for you to campaign during working hours. I am not asking you to do that, but what I am asking you to do when you are at work – do your job professionally. Reach out to citizens. Whatever they need try to meet them as immediately as possible. Don’t get into any arguments with people, but try to satisfy whatever their needs are. That’s the best thing you can do to help me while you are on duty.
He implored his employees to correct any disinformation or criticisms against him that they may come across during the course of the election, including through social media. “Tell the real story, and do it online. That is the battle front right now,” Bell said.
He then went on to further discuss the dynamics of the elections, claiming that the race isn’t between him and Woodfin, but “this race is against Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party.” He then complained that groups like Our Revolution have boosted Woodfin’s campaign, putting him at a disadvantage. Bell cited that Our Revolution helped boost Jackson, Mississippi Mayoral Candidate Chokwe Lumumba to victory in his election earlier this year. “Now, they’re running the same tactics here in Birmingham, Alabama.”
He then encouraged his employees to take a “vacation day” to help him if they wanted and pitched a call for donations, “It could be a dime. It could be a dollar.” He also suggested that his employees could say good things about him at their church services.
Several instances of political corruption have marred Bell’s office in the past few years. In 2015, a contractor told the Birmingham City Council that Bell’s brother tried to politically bribe him, telling him, “I need to pay them in order to play.” The contractor was awarded $2.5 million from the city in a lawsuit for wrongful termination. In 2011, Bell was embroiled in controversy for his lack of action over several companies, namely Walter Energy, contaminating neighborhoods in north Birmingham for decades, with 2010 EPA tests showing toxic chemicals and carcinogens present in the soil. Bell’s donors to his 2011 election were cited as local corporate interests. Bell was first elected in 2009 to complete the term of his predecessor, Larry Langford, a Democrat who was convicted on federal corruption charges, but endorsed Bell to replace him. Bell traveled to the White House in 2016 to personally ask Obama to have Langford released, in addition to former Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman’s release, who was convicted on bribery charges.
Bell embodies several incumbent Democrats across the country who have abandoned the interests of voters in favor of special interests and wealthy influences, keeping them happy to maintain political power while the issues facing their constituents are ignored.
Bell’s comments in the meeting signal how frustrated the Democratic Party establishment has become with Bernie Sanders’s popularity, and the enthusiasm he has generated in local elections across the country. Hillary Clinton wrote in her new memoir a criticism toward Sanders, complaining that he isn’t a Democrat and ran to disrupt the party, a criticism only “vote blue no matter who” Democratic Party sycophants care about, a sentiment steeped in a sense of moral superiority over the idea of being a Democrat rather than focusing on policy substance. Bernie Sanders’ book on the 2016 election, Our Revolution, focuses on outlining ways people can get engaged and involved on a variety of policy issues to make a difference and improve the country for all Americans. This engagement calls for disrupting the status quo that has enabled many Democrats across the country to exploit political office for their own benefit and those of their wealthy and corporate donors at the expense of working, middle class, and low-income voters.