Wade on Birmingham

The aftermath of the Langford administration


What happens to Jefferson County and Birmingham after a leader is convicted of bribery?

The boarded-up windows,
The hustlers and thieves,
While my brother’s down on his knees.

My city of ruins.
My city of ruins.

Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up!

— “My City of Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen

Like most Southern places, Birmingham has seen its fair share of colorful officials. And former mayor Larry Langford never failed to make waves with his unapologetic brand of leadership during his 32 years as a politician.

Larry LangfordBut Wednesday, his career ended not with a triumphant exit from office but the bang of a judge’s gavel. Langford was convicted in federal court in Tuscaloosa for bribery, money laundering, fraud and conspiracy, facing up to 805 years in prison for his crimes.

His dwindling base of supporters no doubt found the decision questionable. His vocal opposition cheered at the demise of the reign and the man.

But what is there to cheer?

• Langford’s misdeeds as Jefferson County Commission president all but destroyed what little trust residents had in that body of governance to spend judiciously and to fix the ailing sewer system. The county is billions of dollars in debt in a virtual bankruptcy, and no one has stepped forward with a clear solution on how to stop the bleeding, start the repayments.

• Birmingham must elect a new mayor in just 45 days. Given that voter turnout has dropped to 20 percent or less, given that candidates qualify with very few requirements, it’s easy to see how another problematic pol could end up at the reins.

• The city budget is a mess, requiring acting mayor Carole Smitherman to audit the books thoroughly. Langford did indeed meet his promise to push through ideas to better Birmingham, ideas both simple (paving streets, cleaning up neighborhoods) and outrageous (recruiting the 2020 Olympics, hiring a 13-year-old contractor for $10,000). (Full list of Langford’s initiatives from Bhamwiki.) But he showed little regard for answering questions on proper budget management even in a struggling economy.

Hubris propelled Langford far in his career, and hubris ultimately brought him down. He acted as if other opinions, especially contradictory ones, had zero merit. He bullied when he could have collaborated. He preached humility before God, then proceeded to use his office (then and now) as though anointed with divine power.

Langford alone wasn’t responsible for these tragic results. Who else can we blame?

• Voters, sadly, got the government they deserved. In 2007, Langford’s woes — legal and financial — were publicized during the mayoral election, yet he still won on the first ballot beating nine opponents, including the incumbent.

• His elected colleagues. The Birmingham city council rarely challenged the soundness of his math or his ideas during the last 2 years. His fellow county commissioners ended up entangling themselves in similar criminal activities only to find themselves convicted as well.

• The media. Did the Birmingham News fail in its mission to hold City Hall accountable? Were its editors scared that Langford would play the race card? How did a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper flinch before the mayor had even been sworn in?

Oddly enough, Langford railed against the media after the verdict. Yet when his lawyers asked for a change of venue to get away from Birmingham and possible media contamination of the jury, Langford got his wish. The jury selected was mostly unaware of Langford’s arrest and media attention. Judge Scott Coogler reminded jurors to stay away from newspapers, TV reports and even blogs and tweets regarding the case.

In short, Langford got the trial he wanted, just not the verdict.

He’ll be in jail by early 2010. But the rest of us will remain in a prison of Langford’s misguided design.

Jefferson County, free of Langford’s grip for 2 years, will spend the next 10 years trying to undo the whole sordid mess. The bankruptcy will be the largest in U.S. history, and each one of us will pay dearly for his crimes. Fundamentally, the commission itself remains an odd body, one without a county manager or incentive to fix itself. It just sits there, waiting for a solution to fall from the sky. No such solution is coming, though.

And the City of Birmingham started anew today, with Smitherman meeting with employees and charting a course for her short tenure as mayor. But who will come forward to run this time? The names include Smitherman, runner-up from 2007 attorney Patrick Cooper, previous mayor Bernard Kincaid, county commissioner (and previous mayoral candidate) William Bell and even former four-term mayor Richard Arrington.

The city desperately needs a rare combination of sober stewardship and passionate drive at the helm. We need someone who works with the council, who plays nice with other elected officials, who works on behalf of merchants and residents. That next mayor must make extremely difficult decisions about how to keep crime on the decline, economic development on the rise and the quality of life as an imperative — all with a soon-to-be-revealed accurate budget.

Birmingham has seen its share of dark days, and make no mistake, Wednesday was among its darkest. The fall of a leader reflects not only on him but the good people who put him there and the city he helped divide.

Only together can push Birmingham from the city of perpetual promise to one of real hope and accomplishment and unity.

• • •


Complete coverage: The trial of Larry Langford from Wade on Birmingham.

Meet more of Birmingham’s Biggest Crooks.

Your thoughts on who should lead Birmingham and what happens next are welcome below.

12 Yips for “The aftermath of the Langford administration”

  1. Jeff Vreeland
    Friday, October 30, 2009, 11:03 am

    Great Round up as always Wade.

  2. Wade
    Friday, October 30, 2009, 3:39 pm

    Thanks, Jeff!

  3. Marie
    Monday, November 2, 2009, 12:18 am

    I don’t know how any one person can come in and clean up this mess.

  4. Wade
    Monday, November 2, 2009, 9:47 am

    You’re right, Marie. It will take all of us, including those in the metro area not in Birmingham proper, to move us forward.

  5. Rachel @ Grasping for Objectivity
    Monday, November 2, 2009, 12:44 pm

    So none of those Mayoral candidates are exciting me… are you going to run? 😉

    Not that I can vote… I live in Unincorporated Jefferson County, so only in ONE municipality destroyed by LL, instead of two.

    Great review!

  6. Wade
    Monday, November 2, 2009, 4:23 pm

    I would run, but I don’t want to move to Fairfield.

  7. Stan
    Tuesday, November 3, 2009, 9:59 am

    I would LIKE for Patrick Cooper to have a shot at it – he is not what I’d call part of the crowd that has gotten Jefferson County and Birmingham in the mess in which we find ourselves. But I guess we’ll see who the voters pick; like you said in your post, WE bear some of the blame for this, since we have not borne our responsibility to stay informed and vote with insight using that knowledge.

  8. Wade
    Tuesday, November 3, 2009, 11:00 pm

    We bear the blame, but we can also fix this over time. Eagerly awaiting who’ll run for the office.

  9. Jamie B
    Wednesday, November 4, 2009, 5:09 pm

    Excellent summary of the issue facing our dear city.

  10. Wade
    Wednesday, November 4, 2009, 6:23 pm

    Thanks, Jamie. You should also check out Kyle Whitmire’s latest column in the Birmingham Weekly.

  11. Rachel @ Grasping for Objectivity
    Saturday, November 7, 2009, 9:43 pm

    Tee hee – just read your response to me.

  12. Wade on Birmingham » Larry Langford: the final words
    Monday, November 16, 2009, 9:15 pm

    […] The aftermath of the Langford administration Rachel @ Grasping for Objectivity | Tee hee… […]

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