Birmingham Mayor William Bell may be in for the fight of his political life.
Bell failed to win a majority of votes cast in the Aug. 22 mayoral election — in fact, he wasn’t even the leading vote-getter — and now will go head-to-head against Birmingham Board of Education member Randall Woodfin in a runoff Oct. 3.
Woodfin took the top spot in the returns with 15,656 votes; at 40.84 percent, he was well short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Bell trailed Woodfin by a wide margin in early returns but closed the gap as the night wore on and finished with 14,011 votes, or 36.55 percent.
Both Woodfin and Bell were well ahead of the rest of a 12-candidate field. Chris Woods, a contractor and former football wide receiver for the Auburn Tigers and various teams in the NFL and the Canadian Football League, placed third with 6,957 votes, which was 18.15 percent of the vote. Activist and talk-show host Frank Matthews was a distant fourth with 531 votes, 1.39 percent. No other candidates won more than 0.7 percent of the vote.
Woodfin attracted a diverse following in his campaign, which was reflected in his post-election party at Haven in the Lakeview neighborhood. The crowd included young and old, black and white, political veterans and neophytes. Many said they were particularly attracted to Woodfin’s policies, which skew to the left of the political spectrum, drawing comparisons to former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
“In six weeks, we’ll have a transparency in government,” Woodfin told supporters at his party. “In six weeks, we’ll have a mayor who wants to work with the City Council.”
Woodfin has hammered Bell during the campaign about those two issues, as well as staffing in the mayor’s office, spending on local education and continuing crime. The latter hits close to home for Woodfin, who lost a brother in 2012 and a nephew earlier this year in shooting deaths.
Austin Noble, who lives in Montevallo and was a Sanders supporter in the Democratic presidential primary, was attracted to Woodfin by a friend. “He stands up for true progressive values, and he’s a grass-roots candidate who doesn’t really stand for the big-money interests in Birmingham,” Noble said.
Lily Elmore was a volunteer for the Woodfin campaign, even though she doesn’t yet live in Birmingham but is trying to enter a graduate program at UAB. “I saw this as an investment in my own future,” Elmore said.
Woodfin, 36, has attracted national attention, especially from media outlets reflecting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In a story in The Huffington Post in July, Woodfin said he wants to be on “the frontline resistance to (President) Trump policies.” The same story noted that Woodfin had done considerable fundraising in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Memphis, Houston and New York.
Bell is no stranger to runoff elections. After placing well behind top vote-getter Patrick Cooper in 2009, Bell came back in the runoff to earn his first elected term by 7 percentage points. But in his last two races, in 2011 and 2013, he was the runaway winner.
Bell told supporters at the Four Seasons Bar and Grill to get ready for another six weeks of campaigning, according to the Birmingham Times.
“We’re going to focus on what the real issues are … . Let’s get rested, let’s get ready and we’re going to rock and roll to victory,” he said.
He reiterated that theme in an interview with NBC 13. “In this runoff, we’re gonna work our behinds off to make sure the people know what the real issues are in this race,” he said. “What we’re gonna do is look at where our votes came from, try to magnify those votes and increase the turnout.”
Overall, 38,448 votes were cast in Tuesday’s election, which included races for mayor, all nine seats on the Birmingham City Council and all nine seats on the Birmingham Board of Education. Turnout was 26.9 percent, topping voter turnout for city races since at least 2009.