The fact that a man is newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.
— Lyndon B. Johnson
“You give the Mayor an awfully hard time.”
“Do I?” I chuckled, but that was partly to mask the fact that the statement — and it very definitely was a statement, as opposed to a mere venturing of opinion or a light-hearted jab at my proverbial ribs — took me slightly off-guard. The person who made it had my full attention.
After all, this was not some factotum of Mayor Bell’s, nor any of the several other surrogates who work very hard in his behalf, tagging folks who raise legitimate questions about the priorities and proclivities of the Bell Administration as “haters,” opposed somehow to the ideals of progress and prosperity for Birmingham. I’m not talking about myself or other local journalists here — not that we haven’t been called that, but that’s part of the job description for writing about politics and government — but of bloggers, social media commenters and plain old citizens who reasonably exercise the right to ask questions and express opinions relating to matters of public interest.
Parenthetically, while I’m at it, would it be asking too much to propose that we agree to a ban on the term hater, as applied to people who happen to disagree with or oppose us (or our employer), either in general or regarding specific points of discussion or dispute? Hitler was a hater. Pol Pot was a hater. For that matter, the United States Government was a hater, at least when it came to things like getting around to abolishing black slavery, or clearing all that free land of all those pesky red and brown natives.
None of those examples can be equated with the simple expression of honest differences of opinion — or perceived reasons for concern or action — about parochial political matters. Unless we lack the courage of our respective convictions, we should welcome such opportunities for discussion and reasoned disagreement; in fact, we should view them as an integral component of our local democracy. If we’re going to be adversaries — especially when that’s not always the case — let’s do so in a way that honors the right of opposition, rather than resort to a weak-kneed, intellectually dishonest attempt to claim a non-existent moral high ground.
As I’ve said, though, that’s not what was happening. To get back to the story I started, I was sitting with someone for whom I have tremendous respect, and who I also happen to like personally. I don’t know about you, but it’s usually enough to turn my head when someone who meets both of those highly subjective criteria — a number of people, I should add, that is increasingly and encouragingly substantial at this critical and definitive time in the life of our community — asks me, in effect, What is your problem, Brother?
“Come on,” this person said. “Look at everything that’s happening in the city right now. When has it ever been like this? When have you heard people so optimistic about Birmingham?”
How could I answer — and why would I? — other than honestly?
“Never.” And then, “But….”
To be sure, I have some strong opinions and beliefs about Mayor Bell. These have been formulated and recalibrated — and, occasionally, revised — over roughly the past 30 years of close observation of the ups and down of Bell’s political career. Being brutally honest, not much has happened during that time to radically alter my initial impression that he is more interested in the trappings and perquisites of political power than in leveraging that power to the optimal benefit of the people from whom it presumably flows.
That would be the citizens of Birmingham, the percentage of whom live in poverty that has only increased since Bell took office as mayor in 2009 — and, indeed, since his near-continuous run in local elective office began in 1979. It is we, the taxpayers, who foot the bill for the unprecedented spending on travel, entertainment, staff, security, professional services contracts and other blandishments of high municipal office to which our mayor — along with the Birmingham City Council — seems to feel royally entitled.
That culture of unearned entitlement has become embedded at City Hall over most of the past two decades. That is due primarily to actions Bell has taken as mayor, and, before that, as president of the city council.
To all of that, add my disagreement with the mayor’s actions on specific matters of policy — economic and community development, for example, or mass transit and highway planning — and questions such as the relative benefits and costs of using public dollars to fund the construction of a domed stadium. Do that, and I’ll admit that perhaps you’re bound to come to the conclusion that I don’t care much for Mayor Bell.
Maybe I don’t. But my assessment of his career to date — of the cumulative impact of his many years as a public servant, and the balance of his substantive accomplishments against the liabilities accrued by his failures of vision and leadership — does not prevent me from wishing for his success as the mayor of my city.
I wrote about my hopes for Bell in this space, shortly after he won re-election in 2011, in a column with the headline “Mayor Bell’s opportunity for greatness.” People who were looking to become engaged in Birmingham’s civic life, I wrote, “are interested much less in Bell’s political past as in whether he will articulate a vision for the future and then fulfill it by demonstrating the kind of dynamic leadership that even the better of our previous mayors never provided.”
Then I went a step farther:
William Bell has the opportunity to be remembered as Birmingham’s greatest mayor. The crises of the past several years…have, remarkably, presented the chance for our community to remake and define itself. The mayor of Birmingham can, and should, be the person to lead that process.
If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is. Of course, Mayor Bell and his supporters would argue that he has fulfilled those hopes, that he has moved the city in a positive direction and put it on the national — and global — map in ways that it never has been before.
There is some justification in this argument. The mayor can take credit — honestly, in most cases — for some high-profile accomplishments during his time in office, and for their contribution to the sense of civic momentum that continues to build. But even amidst some of those high points, small details are an irritant to the curious mind (one hears, for example, that cost overruns on the construction of Regions Park have not been paid for, or that the city still owes the Dalai Lama something like $30,000 for his appearance here last summer).
But this gets to the crux of my point, of my response to the esteemed individual who thinks I’m too hard on Mayor Bell, which is this: My personal — and published — approval or disapproval of the mayor is irrelevant in the context of my obligation to be watchful of his accountability to the public trust. When he serves us well, I am obligated to say so; when he does not, I have the same obligation.
In trying to carry out that obligation, the overarching question in my mind returns to that notion of balance. Some years ago, I asked the inimitable Shelley Stewart to assess the administration of Mayor Richard Arrington. After cataloguing what he viewed as Arrington’s faults and failures, Stewart finished his response in a way that has stuck with me.
“I don’t agree with anyone who says [Arrington’s] disappointments are not outweighed by the good,” Stewart said. “Even if it balances out 51 percent good to 49 percent bad, I’ll take that 51 percent. Birmingham was better off when Dick left office than when he came in.”
It is with that thought in mind that I’m waiting to see where the scale balances on William Bell. In the meantime, I don’t have to like the mayor and he certainly doesn’t have to like me. I’m forthcoming enough to tell you where I fear the balance will come to rest, but I’m also fair enough to give credit where I believe it is due, and to cheer substantive successes when they happen.
That’s my job.