By Rick Geiger and photos by Michelle Consuegra
February 11 seems like a long time ago. On that day, COVID-19 deaths surpassed one thousand worldwide. In the U.S. there were just 13 verified cases at that point and no deaths. But all of that was about to change—the world was about to change—and most of us had no idea.
It was during this relative calm before the storm that Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin graciously allowed us to follow him around for the day and sat down with us to talk about himself and what it’s like to be the mayor of Alabama’s largest city. Just a week or two later, and that may have been a very different conversation; it may have been difficult to focus on much of anything but the virus. Instead, there was no talk of the pandemic that day, of social distancing or shelter-in-place orders, just the many other things we all used to concern ourselves with.
So, what follows isn’t about the coronavirus or current events or even politics. But we hope you enjoy it for what it is: a glimpse into the life and work of a compelling public servant in more normal times, the kind we hope return very soon.
7:30 AM – WBRC-TV Studios
The room is large and mostly dark. A handful of desks and backdrops sit idly in the shadows, like a great newsroom graveyard. The only bright spot is to the left: one desk, a backdrop, and two talking heads shining in the darkness.
The mayor is barely audible at this distance. I walk closer. He looks the part, stylish as always: vest and tie sans jacket, fashionably bookish glasses. He’s soft-spoken, cerebral, lawyerly yet earnest. He doesn’t seem too young. If anything, he seems thin. You expect a big city mayor to have more girth, perhaps to offset the weight of his office. This one has to rely on a different kind of heft.
He’s talking about helping high school graduates pay for college. The program is the Birmingham Promise. There are steps to qualify, deadlines to meet. He’s talking to Janice Rogers, but mostly to students and parents tuned in to Good Day Alabama this morning. This is practical stuff, four minute’s worth. When it’s over, Janice thanks her guest, they pose for a quick photo, and he walks this way.
The mayor’s communications man is Rick Journey, who used to host this show. He introduces his charge to the writer and photographer who’ll be shadowing him much of the day. The mayor is friendly, engaging, brief, but not hurried. And then he’s off.
Randall Lee Woodfin was born May 29, 1981 in Birmingham, the third of four children. He grew up in North Birmingham and, after his parents divorced when he was eight, in Crestwood. His mother’s home was always full, but never too full for someone in need. It’s a long list…
“My mama took in her sisters, my aunts, my uncles,” Woodfin recalls, “she took in stepchildren and extended family and cousins and second cousins and folk that weren’t blood, people who had been on drugs before or were on drugs and needed rehab. People out of prison, transitioning. They moved in with us.” Meeting people where they are and helping them wasn’t an ideology or a political platform. It was a way of life. Still is, he says. And it all flows from his mom. “She’s a caregiver.”
9:23 AM – City Council Chamber, City Hall
The mayor is making his way around the chamber shaking hands, bumping fists, and making small talk. He appears at ease and in his element. Eventually he’s back at his assigned seat at the front left, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a witness stand. The small auditorium is a lot like a courtroom, but also a little like a church with the podium facing the wrong way, as if for preaching to the choir.
Later, they’re discussing Item 21, “An Ordinance…for regulating and permitting shared micromobility devise systems.” This is about scooters. You know, the ones popping up in cities all over the country. Some people don’t like that you can just leave them anywhere. Or that they can run you over.
Councilor Valorie Abbott has questions: Who will enforce the new rules? What about liability and insurance? “I want us to be a leading-edge cool city,” she says, “but I have to ask the questions.” From the witness stand the mayor weighs in briefly. Very briefly. His attempt at reassurance is understated and apparently ineffective. The Council votes to not take a vote. For now.
They move on to other items…
Eventually, they’re on scooters again. The mayor comes out of his box and stands at the podium, flanked by two members of his team. He addresses the choir, but mostly Councilor Abbott. He’s polite, deferential even. What follows is approximately ten minutes of the former prosecutor making his case and the esteemed councilor remaining unconvinced.
“This is the answer,” he says at length and more than once. “You may not like it, but this is the answer.”
In the end, Councilor Abbott acquiesces. The bill passes, the scooters win, the mayor wins. Birmingham will be “a leading-edge cool city” after all.
It may come as a surprise, but the student body of Putnam Middle School did not elect young Randall Woodfin Most Likely to Succeed. The future mayor had to be content with Most Courteous and Friendliest. It’s unclear whether his classmates regret their votes now.
What does seem clear is that the same qualities that impressed them then are at work in the mayor’s office now. As a magazine once observed, “Woodfin has made a name for himself by being approachable, relatable, and incredibly likable.”
Though maybe not to everyone.
During one particularly contentious row with the Council last fall, District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt called Woodfin “uncivil” and declared, “I’ve served with a lot of mayors, but none as petty as you.” Such scathing criticism, while harkening back to more contentious times, does seem to be the exception for this mayor.
Woodfin says he’s trying to give the people what they want. “I think that people actually like boring, functional government,” he says. “Because it gives results.”
So, less drama, less fighting, more of what he calls the c-word, the dirty word of politics. “Those who don’t embrace compromise can’t produce anything,” he explains. “You try my-way-or-the-highway , you have total anarchy, and nothing will get done.”
It doesn’t have to be hard, if you’re willing to “eat humble pie,” he says. “And I don’t mind humble pie.” Though Councilor Hoyt may disagree.
11:05 AM – A Hallway, City Hall
The mayor leaves the City Council meeting before it’s over and meets with the media in a hallway near his office. There’s more scooter talk. And some trash talk—literally, as in talk about trash. But what’s really on the mayor’s mind is the monuments bill in the Alabama Senate and the Confederate statue in Linn Park now obscured by four wooden walls.
He addresses the controversial issue head-on. This is personal to him. Yet he remains professional, ever the soft-spoken lawyer. “Birmingham is 74 percent black, the fourth blackest city in America,” he points out. And the statue and others like it are deeply offensive to much of the city, a city which didn’t even exist at the time the statue commemorates, he adds.
Woodfin graduated from Shades Valley High School in 1999 and enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he developed a taste for politics.
The summer following his freshman year he worked for his congressman on Capitol Hill and then in the district traveling throughout Birmingham and parts of rural Alabama learning how government works—and doesn’t work—for people. That’s when the bug really bit him, when he became convinced: “If done right, government can actually make a difference in people’s lives.”
His senior year at Morehouse he was elected president of the Student Government Association. Ebony Magazine interviewed the twenty-one-year-old rising star and asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His answer? “No hesitation: Mayor of my hometown.”
Fifteen years later, it happened.
11:30 AM – 3:00 PM – Meetings
So, you say you want to be mayor…
Much of the day is spent in meetings: catching up with department heads, discussing the monuments issue with his communications team, meeting with his scheduler.
The highlight is an offsite meeting with public, private and non-profit organizations to discuss ways to collaborate on neighborhood revitalization and transportation. Alabama Power is there, UAB, Altec, community activists, and others.
“This is cool, this is cool,” the mayor will say later about the meeting. He loves this stuff.
You simply can’t write about Randall Woodfin without talking about his age. Apparently, it’s a law or something. So, yes, he’s the youngest Birmingham mayor since 1893. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. But maybe a burden too, though he doesn’t admit to it. He claims his age as a strength, and there’s something to that. Energy, style, thinking outside the box—all strengths of youth. And of this mayor.
It certainly didn’t hurt him at the ballot box, where his eye-popping 19-point victory over a 7-year incumbent was fueled by a massive wave of young, new voters.
Yet, that was more than two years ago. Perhaps it’s time to put the age thing to rest. He’s thirty-eight now. No gray hairs are visible, but can they be far behind? Especially given the weight of the big city resting on his shoulders.
3:00 PM – Mayor’s Office, City Hall
The mayor unlocks the door, turns on the lights, and leads his 3 o’clock appointment into his inner sanctum. It’s the first time he’s been here all day and he seems tired.
He begins answering questions. Dutifully, at first. It has a definite you’re-just-the-next-thing-on-my-schedule feel to it. But as the discussion evolves, he warms up.
His phone rings. He apologizes. “My sisters and mom are on emergency override,” he explains. “They’re the only ones who can actually bug us.”
For nearly an hour no one bugs us. He’s relaxed and engaged. When it’s over, he returns the call, then sits for photos, now in a noticeably better mood.
In 2007, Woodfin graduated from Samford’s Cumberland Law School and took a job with the City of Birmingham Division of Youth Services. Later that year he was professionally trained as a field organizer in D.C. and began working full-time for various campaigns at the state and local level, all while watching from a distance as a new rock star emerged in the Democratic Party.
It was special. He never worked for the Obama campaign, but he was a part of it. When asked what Barak Obama means to him, the mayor’s answer starts with one word. “Everything.”
6:06 PM – Town Hall Meeting, Wenonah High School
PowerPoint slides are projected on a screen high above the stage. There’s a lot of detail. Statistics are broken down for Birmingham and for District 7, everything from how much violent crime is down to how many abandoned structures have been demolished to weed abatement, pothole repair, and updates on specific construction projects. This is practical stuff, part of the mayor’s focus on customer service.
The Town Hall is well-attended, though the crowd is dwarfed by the auditorium. Everyone is given a card to submit questions, which are read by Rick Journey and answered by the mayor or one of his people. At one point, Woodfin wades into the audience to give one constituent a more detailed answer while everyone else waits.
They do this until every question is answered.
In 2008, Woodfin moved downtown into the loft where he still lives today. Downtown was different then, he says. “It was a ghost town on the weekends. But let me tell you who was down here…”
One of the first people he met was a homeless man he knew as Hustleman, who became a friend and introduced him to many in the homeless community.
Soon after, when Woodfin became a prosecutor for the City trying trespass cases, disorderly cases, vagrancy, begging, he had a unique perspective on the problem. It’s what inspired his enthusiasm for Firehouse Ministries, which—with his and the City’s help—recently opened a new $7 million facility. They used to draw cards to see who would get to sleep in one of the fifty beds in the old firehouse. Now, they have more than twice that many.
Unfortunately, Hustleman won’t be getting one of those beds. Four years ago, he was murdered. Like the mayor’s older brother eight years ago. Like his nephew three years ago.
To say such a deeply personal experience of loss provides a unique perspective on another problem in one sense seems like the worst kind of understatement. But it’s true.
It’s why to Mayor Woodfin violent crime isn’t just numbers on a slide. It’s personal. It’s why homelessness is personal. Improving neighborhoods like the one he grew up in is personal. This job is personal. Not only is it the only one he’s ever really wanted. And it’s his hometown. But he knows, if done right, this dream job of his can make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.
Just like his mom back in that crowded house in Crestwood.
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