Larry Langford, Longtime Politician and Birmingham’s Idea Man, Dies at 72

Larry Langford, 2008. (Source: André Natta under CC 2.0

Larry Langford, former mayor of Birmingham and Fairfield and commissioner for Jefferson County, a prominent and controversial figure in Jefferson County politics for the past four decades, died Tuesday at the age of 72.

Langford was perhaps best known as a man of ideas, some ambitious and others just off-the-wall. He proposed holding the 2020 Olympics in Birmingham and restoring streetcars to downtown. He’s credited with spreading the seeds of ideas that became some of the city’s most popular attractions, including Railroad Park, the Birmingham CrossPlex and Uptown entertainment district.

While mayor of Fairfield, Langford persuaded 11 area cities — in an area well known for its lack of intergovernmental cooperation — to work together to build the VisionLand amusement park, which opened in 1998 and went bankrupt in 2002.

“There is no doubt, Langford was a pioneer and visionary who was well ahead of his time,” said Commissioner Lashunda Scales, who now represents Larry Langford’s former county commission district.

But in the end, Langford almost died in prison, winning compassionate release and returning to Princeton Baptist Medical Center just 10 days before his death.

Langford had suffered from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, emphysema, pulmonary hypertension and right heart failure, among other ailments.

Langford spent most of the last decade of his life in federal prison after being convicted in 2009 on charges of corruption and bribery for actions that occurred during his time as Jefferson County Commission president. During his nearly nine years in prison, Langford maintained his innocence — and much of his popularity at home — while repeatedly campaigning for an early release due to his declining health.

After efforts by community leaders — including U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and the Birmingham City Council — Langford was released from prison in late December 2018, eight years and eight months into his 15-year sentence.

“Mayor Langford had an unmatched love for his community — a love he expressed through his boldness and creativity,” Woodfin said in a statement announcing Langford’s death. “During all of our interactions, one thing was always clear — Mayor Langford was an unabashed advocate for the city he served. His fire for change and passion for people will be a lasting part of his legacy.”

Langford Got His Start in News

Langford entered Birmingham politics after a stint as a reporter for local television news station WBRC. As an at-large city councilor, before the city moved to district representation in 1989, Langford became known for his ability to engage with local news media, a result of his reporting background. A 1979 article in the Birmingham News described him as “by far the liveliest and most outspoken of the nine City Council members” and “a master when it comes to manipulating the media.”

He left his council seat to run for mayor in 1979, placing fifth among seven candidates. Richard Arrington won the race that year, becoming the city’s first black mayor.

Langford moved to neighboring Fairfield and quickly came to dominate that city’s politics. He became the city’s first black mayor in 1988, an office he held until 2002. During his tenure, he increased the power of the mayor’s office, lobbying the Legislature to give him more power over the City Council and exercising more control over Fairfield’s failing public schools.

It was while Langford was mayor of Fairfield that he won backing to build the $60 million amusement park VisionLand in west Jefferson County. The park was built in 1998 and struggled financially before declaring Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2002. It later was sold several times and currently operates as the privately owned Alabama Splash Adventure.

Some, including Arrington, saw VisionLand’s failure as one part of the nearly bankrupt Fairfield’s financial problems. The city took on sizeable debt during Langford’s tenure, the impact of which was compounded by loss of the tax base as businesses left the city.

Michael Johnson, who was elected mayor of Fairfield in 2004, said that Langford’s administration had left the city in recovery mode. “There were a lot of things that were done short term that affected us in the long term,” he said.

In a 2016 interview, Langford argued, instead, that the city had been the victim of nationwide trends. “Could this have been avoided? Not really,” he said. “Downsizing by stores like Walmart or any major business in a small city is just a game of Russian roulette. It’s just a question of who’s next.”

Among Fairfield residents, Langford’s popularity — in 1998, the Birmingham News reported he had an 86 percent approval rating, the highest of any Alabama mayor at the time — endures.

Fairfield City Councilor Herman Carnes Jr. has lauded Langford’s “vision,” arguing that VisionLand’s failure was the fault of those who came after Langford. “If you wash a car for someone else, and then they go drive it and get it dirty, they can’t blame you for that,” Carnes said in 2016. “That’s on them.”

Carnes isn’t alone among his fellow citizens; many Fairfield residents gathered at a vigil in November 2018 to pray for Langford’s release from prison.

Langford eventually turned his ambitions toward the Jefferson County Commission and was elected in 2002, beating out incumbent Jeff Germany. Upon taking office, he was quickly named commission president. Within his first two years, Langford had led the charge to increase the county’s sales tax by a penny, to 10 cents. The increase generated $80 million in additional revenue for the county per year, to pay for bonds for school construction.

He also served as commissioner of health and human services, and in 2003 he created the Jefferson Metropolitan Health Care Authority to oversee the county’s health operations and assets, though that authority folded when Langford lost the commission presidency to Bettye Fine Collins in 2007. In recent months, the commission has moved toward once again establishing a countywide healthcare authority.

During his time as president, Langford steered the commission toward variable rate, auction and bond swaps to generate revenue for improving the county’s sewer system. It was during that period, prosecutors later argued, that he received $235,000 in bribes from investment banker William Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre. Langford arranged for Blount to serve as consultant for a variety of institutions — for which Blount collected fees of about $7 million — in exchange for those bribes, which were paid in designer clothing, jewelry and cash, prosecutors alleged

“Let’s Do Something”

Langford would not be arrested on those charges until December 2008, along with three other commissioners. In the meantime, he had announced that he would once again run for Birmingham mayor, challenging incumbent Bernard Kincaid. Though he had moved to Fairfield decades before, Langford controversially leased a Birmingham loft to establish residency so that he could qualify for the election.

His campaign slogan was simple: “Let’s Do Something.”

That proactive attitude was reflected in his campaign platform, which included ambitious projects such as building a domed stadium, bringing Heritage streetcars to downtown Birmingham and funding scholarships for students in Birmingham City Schools.

Langford won the election with just more than 50 percent of the vote. Early on in his two years as mayor, he replicated one of his County Commission initiatives, persuading the Birmingham City Council to raise the city’s sales tax by 1 percent, which, along with doubled business license fees, was intended to generate revenue to pay for some of his campaign promises.

The domed stadium never came to fruition, nor did the streetcars come to downtown Birmingham. But Langford was never short on proposals, which ranged from demolishing Legion Field to lobbying for Birmingham to host the 2020 Olympics (“Why not Birmingham?” he famously asked).

Some of Langford’s proposals as mayor, such as construction of a Civil Rights Trail and renaming the city’s airport to honor civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth, were realized during his lifetime. But other ideas would be picked up or transformed by others after Langford left office.

Last year, the City Council approved construction on an open-air stadium at the BJCC. Both his successors, Bell and Woodfin, have echoed Langford’s call for dramatic demolition of dilapidated structures throughout the city; his plans to redevelop 82 city-owned acres in Five Points West eventually became the Birmingham CrossPlex Village. There were even echoes of his quixotic “Why not Birmingham?” mantra in the campaign to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to the city in 2017.

“(Langford was) the greatest mayor to ever serve the city of Birmingham,” wrote former Birmingham City Councilor Johnathan Austin in a Facebook post this month. Austin was appointed to the council during Langford’s final year as mayor.

“His vision and impact to our city and state will be felt for generations … . A true leader and visionary.”

Langford’s term as mayor was cut short in December 2008, when he was arrested and jailed on federal charges stemming from his dealings with Blount and LaPierre. After an eight-day trial, a jury found Langford guilty. The verdict removed him from office and ended his political career.

He took the conviction with a measure of defiance, maintaining his innocence and characterizing himself as “the victim of my own government.”

His attorney, Michael Rasmussen, requested a short sentence for his client because, as he put it, “the offenses of the conviction… serious as they are, they are but a small part of the whole. They should not swallow up the whole, and they should not swallow up the remainder of his life as the government wants.” But U.S. District Court Judge Scott Coogler, unmoved, sentenced Langford to 15 years in prison.

Many, including Langford, saw 15 years as equivalent to a life sentence. “Let Langford come out before he’s 70 and overcome by health problems,” he said then.

“Just pretend that I’m dead now,” he told his family before reporting to prison. “I don’t think I’ll ever get out of prison alive.”

Langford began telling the public he was terminally ill in 2013, after his request for compassionate release was rejected by the U.S. Justice Department. He said he simply wanted “to go home to die,” though at the time he did not reveal specifics about his illness.

In the waning months of Barack Obama’s presidency, Birmingham’s then-Mayor William Bell unsuccessfully petitioned the president to commute Langford’s sentence. Bell’s petition eventually garnered 436 supporters of its 500-person goal.

The final push for Langford’s release began in December, as Sewell urged President Donald Trump to be “merciful” to Langford after the U.S. Bureau of Prisons denied his release. The bureau said releasing him would “minimize the severity of his offense and pose a danger to the safety of the community.”

Sewell’s calls to release Langford were quickly echoed by the Birmingham City Council.

“Holding him in custody while he suffers through his last days will do nothing to further the interest of justice,” the council said in a statement. “Releasing him will show not that our laws are weak, but that our conscience is strong.”

Langford finally was released on Dec. 29, after Coogler, the judge who sentenced him in 2010, reduced his sentence to time served. Coogler’s order made clear the variety of illnesses from which Langford was suffering: “end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, pulmonary hypertension, right heart failure, sickle-cell trait, plantar fascial fibromatosis, bursitis, esophageal reflux with esophagitis, dysphagia secondary to a cricopharyngeal bar and esophageal stenosis, sensorineural hearing loss, pterygium, and anemia.”

Langford’s life expectancy, the order read, was 18 months or less.

Remembering Langford

Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens offered his condolences to Langford’s family. He also offered a nugget from the former commissioner’s legacy.

“I would like to remind people that each time they look at these new schools that were constructed within Jefferson County, that was because of Larry Langford’s initiative to better the education system of our county,” Stephens said.

“Though unconventional in his approach,” said commissioner Scales, “when you think of the renaming of Birmingham’s International Airport to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, Birmingham’s Intermodal facility, the Birmingham Crossplex, Uptown entertainment district, Railroad Park, Grandview Hospital on U.S.  280 in addition to Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons, we must recognize and cannot deny that those projects were ‘seeds’ planted by Langford.”

Shelia Smoot had the unique perspective of having followed Langford onto the airwaves of Birmingham TV journalism and then onto the dais of the Jefferson County Commission. She recalled his favorite song when he did great was the 1970s hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” by McFadden and Whitehead.

In the gospel genre, he favored, “I Won’t Complain.”

“I never saw Larry Langford complain about himself,” Smoot said. “I saw him complain about the conditions of others and municipalities and things that people needed and communities, but I never ever heard him complain about his health. I never saw him complain about his situation. I never ever witnessed that and if he did complain, I wasn’t privy to it.”

Always present was his vision for helping people, Smoot said. “It was there when I covered him. It was there when I sat next to him … (on the county commission). He was just so far ahead of his time, it was completely scary.”

The news director of Summit Media recalled sometimes being in awe of some things that Langford would come up with and in the intriguing way that he would do it.

“But he could always figure it out,” she said.

A longtime friend credited the Rev. Vernon Huguley, then pastor of Our Lady Queen of the Universe and Sacred Heart of Jesus, with converting Langford to Catholicism, but the priest wouldn’t accept all the credit for that.

“I would say the Holy Spirit converted him,” Huguley laughed. “I just instructed him on the ways of the church.”

The priest called Langford a good man.

“He was a man that loved his Lord,” Huguley said. “He loved people and he was very kind and generous with people. He had great goals, great visions, great dreams. But he was one who studied God’s word constantly.”

The current pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Adamsville and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Wylam recalled arriving at church 20 to 30 minutes before mass and finding Langford already there.

“He would be sitting there scribbling through his Bible and he would always give me little pamphlets on where he had reflected on God’s word, different passages from the scripture,” he said.

Huguley recounted a recent visit with his former parishioner.

“When I talked with him, he said, ‘Father I’m not afraid.’ I said, ‘I don’t expect you to be afraid because you’re a man of faith.”