Birmingham Mayoral candidate Randall Woodfin called Mayor William Bell’s criticisms of his out-of-state fundraising “false and misleading.”
Bell has called out Woodfin for getting money from out-of-state donors and being supported by a national liberal agenda. Woodfin says some of that is true, but he had to go farther afield for some of his contributors because Bell during his long government career has had the backing of virtually every corporate interest. He also said there’s a fear of retribution that has to be overcome when the opponent is a long-serving, influential official.
Bell in an Aug. 28 meeting at City Hall discussed campaign strategy with city employees, including mention of Woodfin’s campaign donors. “They’ve got money coming in,” Bell said, according to a recording of that meeting. “If you look at my opponent’s financial sheet, it may not look like he has much money, but take my word. There’s money flowing into Birmingham to help his candidacy. While I’ve been running a local race, he’s been running a national race, and it’s put me somewhat at a disadvantage.”
The ethics of that Aug. 28 meeting have been the subject of some controversy. One community activist has filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, and Woodfin has asked the state attorney general to investigate.
A large portion of Woodfin’s fundraising since the Aug. 22 election has come from outside of Birmingham; 48 percent of his donors are from outside of the city. Of the $42,356 in donations Woodfin has reported receiving during his runoff campaign, $5,763 has come from outside Alabama.
A spokesman for Woodfin’s campaign said that approximately 37 percent of Woodfin’s total fundraising for the mayoral campaign, from before the Aug. 22 election and for the runoff race, has come from out-of-state.
Battling an Entrenched Incumbent
In a Sept. 11 email to BirminghamWatch, Woodfin said that outside funds were necessary to win against Bell. “As an incumbent who has taken money from virtually every corporate interest in Alabama for nearly 40 years, William Bell unsurprisingly has a local fundraising advantage,” Woodfin said. “It is difficult to run against an incumbent like William Bell and rely solely on local donations, so any campaign that seeks to unseat him has to pursue contributions elsewhere in order to raise the funds to run an effective campaign…. The only way you beat a well-funded incumbent like William Bell is to cultivate a local, state, and national donor base, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Woodfin also described Bell’s campaign as “being funded by the same insiders and corporate interests that have had strangle holds on Birmingham and Alabama politics for far too long.”
Bell’s campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment. An analysis of his campaign contributions since Aug. 22 show that most of his donors are from Alabama, though nearly one-fifth of his contributions come from Montgomery-based PACs.
An “underappreciated” aspect of local political fundraising against an opponent, Woodfin said, “is the fear of retribution from City Hall for publicly supporting me which has forced us to raise funds from outside of Alabama. I have lots (of) supporters who have voted for me and will vote for me on October 3rd but who were afraid of donating to me and being listed on financial disclosures for fear of retribution either personally or financially.”
This is not the only incident in which Bell has been accused of “retribution” against dissenters. In May, a member of the City Council suggested that District 9 Councilor Marcus Lundy was intimidated out of running for re-election following his December 2015 altercation with the mayor.
In his email, Woodfin also addressed Bell’s comments that “this race is not against William Bell and Randall Woodfin. This race is against Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party.” During the meeting with city employees, Bell argued that Woodfin’s campaign was being supported by a nationwide progressive movement with plans of “restructuring the Democratic political dynamics.”
“The last race they were very active in was Jackson, Mississippi,” Bell said, referring to the election of progressive candidate Chokwe Lumumba as that city’s mayor earlier this year. Lumumba beat out incumbent Democratic candidate Tony Yarber by a considerable margin.
“They gradually built a coalition of people that changed the mayoral outlook in Jackson, Mississippi,” Bell said during the Aug. 28 meeting. “Now, they’re running the same tactics here in Birmingham, Alabama.”
Bell was “absolutely right” about Jackson, Woodfin said, “because like him, there … was an incumbent mired in scandal while the good people of Jackson suffered. Voters in Jackson made it clear if they wanted bold change, and they supported Mayor Lumumba. William Bell is looking for explanations for an embarrassing loss, and he has no one to blame other than himself, his behavior, and his record.”
Woodfin did not deny Bell’s claims of outside political operatives working on the campaign, though he maintained that every member of his campaign’s senior leadership team lives in Birmingham. Instead, he deflected the claims back on Bell. “William Bell has paid his Montgomery-based consultants over $230,000 for their services for this race,” he said. “And based on my understanding they played a central, decision-making role in his campaign in ways that no one outside of Birmingham plays in my campaign.… I think the question of outside political operatives is best answered by William Bell. … The focus of outside interests has been focused on the wrong candidate.”
According to pre-election reports, Bell has spent $237,735.38 with Montgomery-based political consulting firm Matrix, LLC. Woodfin’s campaign, meanwhile, has spent close to $34,000 for out-of-state consulting — including $14,400 to the Washington, D.C.-based Pine Street Consulting, $10,850 to the Baltimore-based Invia Group, and $2,550 to the Jackson, Mississippi-based Chism Strategies, which had previously served as an analyst during that city’s mayoral election.
The runoff election between Bell and Woodfin will take place Tuesday, Oct. 3.