Meet Randall Woodfin, the Mayoral Challenger Bringing the Political Revolution to Birmingham

The 36-year-old city attorney is proposing debt-free community college and reinvestment in Black neighborhoods.

Katherine Webb-Hehn August 21, 2017

Randall Woodfin listens to Birmingham resident Mike Hamilton. (Katherine Webb-Hehn)

UPDATE: Ran­dall Woodfin led a 12-can­di­date field in Tues­day’s elec­tion, win­ning 41 per­cent of the vote. Two-term incum­bent William Bell cap­tured 37 per­cent. Since nei­ther can­di­date reached the 50 per­cent required to win, the two men will face off in an Octo­ber 3 runoff.

Woodfin has gotten a lot of attention for being a soft-spoken, bearded bachelor with a hyper progressive platform. But he’s also comfortable being himself with people. It’s a contagious trait. Woodfin says it’s his method: “Nobody lies at their own house.”

Mike Hamil­ton opens his door in a sleeve­less Harley David­son shirt. He’s got a shag­gy goa­tee and a big grin. Ran­dall Woodfin!” the 63-year-old web devel­op­er says before any introductions.

It’s a Wednes­day after­noon in Glen Iris, a diverse­ly pop­u­lat­ed his­toric neigh­bor­hood south of down­town Birm­ing­ham, and I won­der if I’m being duped. Woodfin is smil­ing, too. He swears the day’s can­vass isn’t staged.

Woodfin, the 36-year-old city pros­e­cu­tor and for­mer Birm­ing­ham board of edu­ca­tion pres­i­dent, is in his first run for may­or, and he’s got sup­port from orga­ni­za­tions like Col­lec­tive PAC and Our Rev­o­lu­tion.

Our Rev­o­lu­tion pres­i­dent and for­mer Ohio state Sen. Nina Turn­er told me over the phone that Woodfin under­stands rev­o­lu­tion hap­pens one neigh­bor­hood, one com­mu­ni­ty, one city, one street” at a time. Birm­ing­ham is one of two dozen cities — sev­er­al of them in red states — where Our Rev­o­lu­tion, an out­growth of the Bernie Sanders cam­paign, has endorsed can­di­dates for upcom­ing local elec­tions. On Sat­ur­day, Turn­er flew in for a get-out-the-vote ral­ly in Birmingham. 

The back­ing of nation­al pro­gres­sive groups, plus Woodfin’s impres­sive ground game, could be enough to pull off an upset against two-term incum­bent William Bell in Birmingham’s elec­tion on Tues­day. Hamil­ton is the third die-hard sup­port­er we’ve met in an hour.

If Woodfin weren’t run­ning, Hamil­ton says he’d vote for Bell, who he thinks has done a good job down­town, incen­tiviz­ing award-win­ning parks, restau­rants and com­merce cen­ters. But Hamil­ton says he’s wor­ried about Birmingham’s more dis­tressed neighborhoods.

Like so many U.S. cities, Birm­ing­ham is expe­ri­enc­ing reverse white flight and what Woodfin calls pock­et growth” lim­it­ed to the city’s cen­ter. In a city where 72.9 per­cent of 212,000 res­i­dents are Black, Woodfin and Bell, both Black Democ­rats, are lead­ing a 12-can­di­date, non­par­ti­san race. Ten­sion has been high in debates as Woodfin accus­es Bell of focus­ing on down­town and abus­ing tax dol­lars at the expense of most res­i­dents. In the most recent debate, as Woodfin and Bell blamed one anoth­er for fail­ing schools, Woodfin point­ed out Bell only allot­ted $1.8 mil­lion of the $428 mil­lion city bud­get to edu­ca­tion. Check your pri­or­i­ties. The cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion has nev­er been com­mit­ted to edu­ca­tion in this city, peri­od,” Woodfin told the audience.

The city of Birm­ing­ham is only defined by its low­est qual­i­ty of life neigh­bor­hood,” Woodfin says as we walk through the neigh­bor­hood again, sweat­ing through his jeans and T‑shirt, clip­board in hand.

Of Birmingham’s 99 neigh­bor­hoods, he says 88 are expe­ri­enc­ing low qual­i­ty of life issues: unsafe streets, low-per­form­ing schools, no access to gro­ceries. Woodfin crit­i­cizes Bell for ignor­ing increas­ing pover­ty and crime rates. The may­or denies these cri­tiques in debates, stand­ing by his goal to increase rev­enue through down­town investment.

Woodfin has oth­er plans for tax dol­lars. His plat­form is being laud­ed by pro­gres­sives for address­ing crime and pover­ty by advo­cat­ing debt-free com­mu­ni­ty col­lege tuition and a youth sum­mer jobs pro­gram inspired by the late Mar­i­on Bar­ry, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia may­or whose own fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed jobs pro­gram is as old as Woodfin. He also wants to re-open com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters closed dur­ing Bell’s tenure and invest in minor­i­ty and woman-owned busi­ness­es. Woodfin tells me his pro­grams are a reflec­tion of what he’s heard from vot­ers at their doors.

Since Feb­ru­ary, Woodfin says his team has knocked on 40,000 doors, mak­ing con­tact with 15,000 people.

If we couldn’t raise one dol­lar, we’re still free to go knock on doors.” He’s raised more than $310,000 with near­ly 3,000 indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions and the help of 600 vol­un­teers, says polit­i­cal strate­gist Calvin Har­ris via email. As we walk toward Green Springs Ave., there’s proof of past vis­its: Woodfin yard signs and fad­ed door hangers.

We meet a mid­dle-aged woman with a foy­er full of tail-wag­ging dogs. She’s unde­cid­ed and asks Woodfin about his plat­form. Are you gonna fight for LGBT rights?” (Because of where she works, she isn’t com­fort­able going on the record about LGBT issues.) Woodfin tells her his plans to hire a liai­son at city hall for the LGBT com­mu­ni­ty to address what he sees as human rights issues.

She asks what he plans to do about the city’s blight, the thou­sands of over­grown lots and dilap­i­dat­ed hous­es, and he tells her the city has to stop being a slum­lord.” (In a cam­paign video, you can watch Woodfin vis­it his dev­as­tat­ed child­hood neigh­bor­hood, where res­i­dents live in an envi­ron­men­tal night­mare because of their expo­sure to near­by indus­tri­al waste.)

Once he’s sat­is­fied her ques­tions, the talk turns to what her dogs’ names are, what she does for a liv­ing, the admi­ra­tion of a mutu­al acquain­tance. They talk briefly about Char­lottesville and Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments. After a few min­utes, she’s rec­om­mend­ing he read The Pol­i­tics of Rage, about George Wallace’s impact on new con­ser­vatism, and Woodfin is giv­ing her a high-five good-bye.

Woodfin has got­ten a lot of atten­tion for being a soft-spo­ken, beard­ed bach­e­lor with a hyper pro­gres­sive plat­form. But he’s also com­fort­able being him­self with peo­ple. It’s a con­ta­gious trait. Woodfin says it’s his method: Nobody lies at their own house.”

Some of the oth­er vol­un­teers give us an address to go see a 92-year-old they met ear­ly in the after­noon. We’re in my car, and Woodfin apol­o­gizes for hav­ing to take a call. He’s help­ing with funer­al arrange­ments for his 17-year-old nephew, who was shot and killed ear­li­er in the week. The boy’s father, Woodfin’s old­er broth­er, was shot and killed five years ago. Woodfin doesn’t shy away from his family’s grief, nor does he claim to be the only one suf­fer­ing. In that last debate, he told the audi­ence, there are too many griev­ing fam­i­lies in our city.”

When we arrive at the woman’s house, her son is chang­ing the oil of his Corol­la in the front yard. Nine­ty-two-year-old Rose Anto­nio comes onto her porch in a night­gown and takes Woodfin’s face into her hands. She’s read about his nephew in the news­pa­per and offers her condolences.

We set­tle in as the sun sets over kudzu-cov­ered hills to lis­ten to Anto­nio, the daugh­ter of an Ital­ian immi­grant, tell us sto­ries. She and her hus­band ran a gro­cery store in the Titusville neigh­bor­hood, where every­one was allowed to shop on cred­it. The store, she says, was burned by the KKK in the same string of attacks as the 16th Street Bap­tist Church in 1963. I see a lot of our cus­tomers from back then, and hon­ey, they see me and we hug and kiss.”

On the way back to cam­paign head­quar­ters, Woodfin tells me it’s peo­ple like Rose Anto­nio who keep him going. Her ener­gy? It’s contagious.”

Kather­ine Webb-Hehn is a Birm­ing­ham-based writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bit­ter South­ern­er, PANK, Arts & Letters,and else­where. Cur­rent­ly, she’s the Alaba­ma Polit­i­cal Reporter for Scalawag Mag­a­zine. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @KAWebb_
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