Six of the eight Birmingham mayoral candidates highlighted neighborhood revitalization and education during a virtual debate Tuesday night.
While all candidates were invited to attend, Napoleon Gonzalez and Chris Woods were unable to participate. This left incumbent mayor Randall Woodfin, former mayor William Bell, Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales, philanthropist Cerissa Brown, activist Ervin Philemon Hill II and activist Darryl Williams to answer questions from a panel of Alabama journalists from AL.com, The Birmingham Times, CBS 42, The Birmingham Association of Black Journalists, WBHM and Summit Media.
The debate was moderated by Janae Pierre of WBHM.
One of the highly debated topics was “The Birmingham Promise,” which Woodfin said he created in 2018 to provide apprenticeships and college tuition for students graduating from Birmingham City Schools.
Scales said the program was merely a voter incentive and photo op.
“We have all of these different initiatives,” Scales said, “but we’ve gotten away from what matters, which is to fund — properly — our school system.”
Bell said The Birmingham Promise is made up of “smoke and mirrors.”
“Don’t take away the resources from our K-12 kids to fund something they can only use after they get out of high school,” Bell said. “We’ve got to do something with them while they’re in school.”
In response, Woodfin said the critiques were a mischaracterization of the program.
“Any of these opponents to have a problem with [The Birmingham Promise] and not offer an alternative to that, then this is not about necessarily supporting children,” he said. “They are just shooting blanks at anything with misinformation.”
The “Bell Plan,” which the former mayor said is responsible for building more schools than any other Birmingham plan, was also up for discussion.
Scales said the program was much like Woodfin’s.
“The Bell Plan,” she said, “came at a cost of selling our water assets, which we will never get again unless there is a public referendum.”
In his closing statement, Bell said the educational benefits of The Bell Plan are often overlooked.
“We made a commitment to make sure that all of our kids had an opportunity to study in a building that could tolerate computers being plugged into the system,” Bell said.
Some of the candidates also said Woodfin’s administration had been lacking in neighborhood revitalization and violent crime reduction.
Scales said much of the city is disenfranchised and most of it hasn’t seen any revitalization.
Weed abatement, blight removal and street pavement, Woodfin said, are all evidence of the improvements his administration has made in Birmingham neighborhoods.
“Before you can build back up, you have to remove the decay. And we’ve removed a considerable amount of decay that has been neglected well more than the last 44 months,” Woodfin said. “What we inherited was a mess, and we’ve laid the groundwork to now build back up, but you first had to get rid of a lot of the things that were not working in our neighborhoods.”
The Birmingham mayoral election will be Aug. 24, 2021. You can read more on how to vote here.