Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Tale of Hubris: The Larry Langford Story

Though I have been up here in Washington, DC, receiving treatment I have still been monitoring the news from home via the internet. Yesterday I read that Birmingham mayor Larry Langford had been arrested and charged as part of an expansive 101 count indictment. Rumblings that the hammer was about to fall had been heard for months, but even I was surprised to see such an extensive prosecutorial case against Mayor Langford. I do not doubt his guilt, but my hope is that justice will be served and not obscured if, like so many other corruption trials, the introduction of race as spectacle comes to the forefront during the trial.

So it is that my main gripe with Langford is that he stoked a history of racial conflict to win his office. In Birmingham, where even forty-five years after fire dogs, hoses, and church bombings almost every substantive political debate becomes painted in Black versus White terms, during his election campaign the soon-to-be mayor exploited every established fault line to his own advantage, even smearing his closest rival as too white to rule over a city, which, like many cities in the country, is comprised primarily of African-Americans. When race becomes an extenuating factor, one can be sure that both whites and blacks lose, since it fosters the election of demigods and ideologues when all would be much better served by elected officials wielding tact and competence rather than bluster and conflict.

In his term in office he proceeded to ramrod a variety of initiatives through the Birmingham City Council, from the controversial (an increased sales tax to ostensibly fix up the urban decay), to the grandiose (tax revenue earmarked to construct a domed stadium), to the delusional (paying the money to officially apply for consideration to hold the 2016 Olympics, despite not having enough hotel rooms to house it). This was typical idea-a-day Larry Langford, causing many to whisper that the mayor was mentally ill. He may be, but if he is, he has no business running a city, or running a city into the ground, for that matter.

In his previous role as Mayor of Fairfield, a nearby city, he destroyed the city's finances through reckless spending and unwise decision making. Before being elected Birmingham mayor, Langford was perhaps best known for being the driving force pushing to build an amusement park called Visionland. Visionland, poorly designed and badly funded, hemorrhaged money from the beginning and never caught on with the public. What had been meant to compete with Six Flags over Georgia in Atlanta very nearly went bankrupt within a few years of opening, was sold, its name changed, and is only now barely sustained by the presence of an outlet mall that was built adjacent to the park.

To avoid the Larry Langfords of the world what must be discarded first and foremost is the politics of distraction. Birmingham is a good example of what happens when racial conflict becomes a zero sum game. As Barack Obama talked about in his well-received speech on race earlier this year, we can continue this endless strife in the same tried-and-true fashion by which it has always existed, but nothing will change if we do. We can choose our elected officials based on ancient resentment rather than competence or vote reactively rather than proactively, but nothing will change. Let's use the example of Larry Langford as a cautionary tale and an instructive lesson that being stuck in the past will always hold us in shackles.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your post for taking the mayor's disgrace seriously, as a problem for the city. It's disappointing to see adults gloat over the event the way most local online writers did yesterday.

Langford showed his usual lack of discretion in playing the race card during the election, but I don't think that explains his victory, which swept a crowded field of candidates, and was not at all confined to black voters. (He didn't get my vote.) His energy was contagious and raised people's hopes. I think many people wonder, for all of Langford's faults, whether anyone else is more capable of leading the city. We're often pessimists about our local talent.

My two cents.

Utah Savage said...

I know nothing about Alabama politics, other than what I read at Dcup's place.

I'm now curious about how a politician racks up so many counts on an indictment. What took them so long to bust this guy? And when in the hell is the South going to get over the race hating?