Populists Are on the March in the South: Bernie-Backed Insurgent Randall Woodfin Defeats Birmingham’s Incumbent Mayor

It's not the Old South. The mayors of the largest cities in Mississippi and Alabama have now won on anti-establishment to downright radical platforms. In November, Vincent Fort will try to make in three in a row in Atlanta.
Zaid Jilani
October 3, 2017
Birmingham mayoral candidate Randall Woodfin speaks during a meeting of the Downtown Democrats at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 8, 2017.

BIRMINGHAM’S MAYOR WILLIAM Bell, first elected in 2010, was supposed to have an easy re-election. A poll released in early August found that 57 percent of his city’s residents thought he was doing an “excellent” or “good” job.

But populist challenger Randall Woodfin, a 36-year-old former board of education president endorsed by the Bernie Sanders-backed campaign group Our Revolution, topped Bell in the first round of voting in August. On Tuesday night, Woodfin finished the job in the runoff, stunning Alabama and winning the mayor’s race comfortably — Woodfin defeated Bell with 58 percent of the vote.

“We sent nearly 8,000 get-out-the-vote text messages to supporters and sent over 70 volunteers to his campaign,” Diane May, communications director for Our Revolution, told The Intercept about the group’s support for the candidate leading up to the first round. In advance of the runoff, they made over 1,000 calls and sent 11,000 text messages to voters. Sanders himself phoned in robocalls for Woodfin.

The Woodfin campaign’s director of field operations, activist Daniel Deriso, was an alum of Sanders’s 2016 campaign.

The Working Families Party, a national progressive organization that was founded in New York but has since expanded nationwide, also played a role in Woodfin’s election. One hundred and twenty-five WFP volunteers contacted 22,000 voters by text and phone, helping push Woodfin over the top. “Randall Woodfin ran on the idea that the people of Birmingham have a right to demand a government that truly works for all its people, and that a city can provide opportunity and lift up those who’ve been left behind,” Joe Dinkin, national spokesperson for the WFP, said in a statement. “Woodfin is part of a wave of local candidates around the nation who are running on bold, transformative, progressive visions and winning.”

Woodfin’s platform is, by itself, far from radical in post-2016 Democratic politics. He seeks to make community college free for students who graduate from Birmingham’s high schools. He wants to expand pre-K, and invest in public transit and job training. Woodfin-backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, making the Our Revolution backing something of a wound-healing exercise.

He is also looking to boost the city’s police force; Birmingham has the seventh-highest homicide rate of cities of over 100,000 people. He had his own personal connection to the city’s sky-high crime: His nephew was shot and killed during the course of the campaign. The boy’s father, Woodfin’s older brother, was killed in a shooting five years before that.

But Woodfin’s campaign did not take place in a vacuum. His election comes just months after Jackson, Mississippi — the state’s largest city — elected Chokwe Lumumba Jr., a young populist who has vowed to make it the “most radical city on the planet.”

In November, Atlanta’s voters will go to the polls to choose the next mayor. One of the candidates, former state Senate Democratic whip Vincent Fort — a longtime foe of Wall Street and the city’s Democratic establishment — is also being backed by Our Revolution, as well as Sanders. Although the 12-candidate nonpartisan race makes the results difficult to predict, Fort’s impact on the race can be seen in the changing behavior of the city council — it recently voted to raise the wages of city workers to $15 an hour and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, both causes Fort had worked towards for years.

Should Fort succeed, the largest cities in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia will be run by mayors running from anti-establishment to downright radical — all within the span of six months of elections.

Update: Oct. 4, 2017, 11:25 a.m.
This article was updated with the final election results, as well as a statement from the Working Families Party.

Top photo: Birmingham mayoral candidate Randall Woodfin speaks during a meeting of the Downtown Democrats at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 8, 2017.

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Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. Contact by email, follow on Twitter

 

October 6, 2017