At 25 years old, Crystal Smitherman might be the youngest member of the Birmingham City Council, but she arguably started the job with the most name recognition. Her father, Rodger Smitherman, has been a member of the Alabama State Senate since 1995; and her mother, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Carole Smitherman, served on the City Council from 2001 to 2013, was council president from 2005 to 2009 and briefly served as acting mayor of Birmingham in 2009 after Larry Langford’s fraud conviction.
Crystal Smitherman was appointed to take over her mother’s old District 6 seat in January, after Sheila Tyson, who held it from 2013 to 2018, was elected to the Jefferson County Commission. Despite still being enrolled in the University of Alabama’s School of Law, Smitherman was considered a noncontroversial appointment by councilors, who voted for her unanimously. She graduates from law school in May.
“No one doubts that you have the capabilities to do this job,” said Council President Valerie Abbott after Smitherman was sworn into office in January.
Since taking office, Smitherman has worked with Council President Pro Tem William Parker to launch a “Let’s Keep Legion Field Green” recycling initiative — a project not without its challenges, she says — and has been appointed as head of the council’s public improvements committee.
Smitherman spoke with BirminghamWatch last week about how growing up in a political family prepared her to be councilor, the shape of ongoing efforts to bring an MLB Youth Academy to Birmingham and what she hopes to make priorities during her time on the council.
BirminghamWatch: Why did you apply to join the City Council?
Crystal Smitherman: I’ve been in politics all of my life. There’s actually a picture in my dad’s law office of me at 2 (years old) licking stamps, licking envelopes. I’ve always been around it and just picked up on little things. So I thought, my city and my district needed a new face and change, and it sounds cliché but I really believe in that, you know? Fresh eyes, fresh ideas.
BirminghamWatch: What were some of those things you picked up on from growing up in politics?
Smitherman: For instance, how to network amongst people, how to delegate, policies, how to read through a contract — which I also learned in law school — just different issues. How to approach people when they talk to you about issues, just those little things that it takes people a while to get.
BirminghamWatch: Almost immediately after taking office, you unveiled the “Let’s Keep Legion Field Green” recycling initiative. Why was that your first priority as councilor?
Smitherman: It actually came really randomly. Councilor Parker and I were at the Birmingham Bowl, and I had a water bottle. I’ve been recycling all my life. I recycled in college, I still recycle now at the law school, and that just brought up an idea to get a little bit more revenue for the city. Bottles and cans, we can just use that for a good and healthy environment instead of just throwing that into landfills, which we spend so much money on. We spend, like, millions of dollars trying to keep landfills up.
BirminghamWatch: Have you run into any challenges while rolling out this initiative?
Smitherman: One of the challenges is, sometimes people can take (cans and bottles) out (of the recycling bins). Like, the homeless can take it out of there, and that’s one issue. And people just really aren’t used to recycling at Legion Field. But I think it’s encouraging people to do it when they see the T-shirts and when they see the recycling bins.
BirminghamWatch: You were recently appointed the chair of the council’s public improvements committee. What are your priorities for that committee?
Smitherman: I think it’s kind of twofold, because I’m on the parks and recreation (committee) as well, which I kind of think goes (with the public improvements committee). To fix up our parks, to change the hours of the parks, to make sure all of our gardens are beautiful, just really bring out the beauty in Birmingham.
BirminghamWatch: When you were sworn in, you addressed the council and decried the high levels of crime in District 6. What do you think are the best ways to address crime in Birmingham?
Smitherman: I think getting people employed would be very (good). Giving people hope, taking down dilapidated houses would be very good, where people wouldn’t have a place to do that in abandoned houses. I think that would be really, really good. And I think educating people and reaching back to our youth and mentoring them.
BirminghamWatch: What do you think about the current crime-fighting strategies offered by the mayor and council?
Smitherman: I think the mayor’s press conference (on Feb. 28) was really good to bring awareness to this and just show actual people who are affected by this, because you hear about it a lot but it’s different when you see faces. I think the Major League Baseball would be really good for our inner-city youth, to give them something to do, increase their education. I think that would be really good. Just reaching back to our youth is really important.
BirminghamWatch: You brought up the controversy around the MLB Youth Academy potentially coming to George Ward Park. You were very vocal in favor of the project during March 5’s council meeting. Has this controversy given you any insights about the racial and political dynamics of the council and Birmingham as a whole?
Smitherman: I came to my conclusion that the baseball academy was a really good idea after I had all of the information, because at first I was like, ‘OK, this is nice, but what is this going on?’ And once I had every question I had answered — they did a tentative schedule so I could see if it clashed with anybody (else’s plans for the park) and it didn’t. I looked up their website and talked to their representative for an hour about the impact.
It just sounds really, really good, and I think if it’s for our youth, that should be one of our main priorities, because they’re our future. They’re the ones who are going to go to college and then come back and bring revenue and jobs. It’d look good for Birmingham because we’d be the first city in the South, if you don’t count New Orleans as the South, to have this. It’d really put us on the mark.
BirminghamWatch: But what about what this controversy showed you about the dynamics of your job?
Smitherman: I think it’s important to stand up for what is right and to stand up for your constituents. So sometimes something is controversial and you may not want to do a conflict, but sometimes it’s best to stand up for those who don’t have a voice, like youth. And it doesn’t matter what race they are. The youth — black, white, brown, blue, green — like, they don’t have anybody to speak up for them. And I think, being the youngest on the council, I really want to give that voice to them and the millennials.
BirminghamWatch: When your mother swore you in as councilor, she told you, “Don’t worry about your age, worry about your duty.” How has your age affected your time as councilor so far, if at all?
Smitherman: Sometimes, when a person’s young, there is ageism. (People) may not think the person will do well, or they won’t have the right experience or may not know what they’re doing or may just let everything go to the wayside. But I think my age is a really positive thing, because I’m coming in with fresh eyes, fresh ideas. I know, because I’m not too far removed from high schoolers and middle schoolers — I have a niece that’s in high school — I know their demands and what they need. I know what’s going on in the world. I can look at something and say, ‘Hey, I know you guys have thought about this, but let’s try a different avenue for this.’ I’m very open-minded and positive and I try to see the good in the world and people.
BirminghamWatch: During the interview process, councilors asked if you would be in favor of rolling back the 2016 changes to the Mayor-Council Act — changes that your father, state Senator Rodger Smitherman, voted for. At the time, you said you were “neutral” about the issue, but in January you voted in favor of a “resolution of concern” calling for a rollback. Where do you stand now?
Smitherman: I’m still pretty neutral. I still think that the council needs more power, but I also think the mayor should have some power. I really think if we got a moderator and tried to come to equal terms together … But I’m pretty neutral about it. I think the mayor has been really, really great, actually. Just making sure that he talks with us and communicates with us … Right now, we’re doing good and trying to increase our teamwork.
BirminghamWatch: What other priorities do you have as councilor?
Smitherman: Job fairs. I really want to help people get employed and give them the resources for that. I’m working on making sure District 6 has (street) lighting. I know there are some pockets of District 6, over by West End Library are really dark. Housing, making sure that all the houses are up-to-date. And then, the parks and recreation (aspect). I know, for instance, Spring Haven, over in Woodland Park, it’s a little pocket park in the community where I live. They’ve had a lot of crime in the area, and people have gotten injured and raped and robbed, and so my thing is to still preserve the park but increase the safety over there by putting a fence over there, changing the hours of the parks — anything the parks need, like rebuilding, or anything like that.
BirminghamWatch: As you mentioned at the beginning of this interview, you come from a political family. Do you think that you would have been appointed if your mother and father weren’t prominent Birmingham politicians?
Smitherman: I think it helped, but I think being in law school helps me out a lot as well, because it’s basically everything we do (on the council). I look at contracts, look at policy, network. I do think I still would have had an interview, definitely.