90.3 WBHM Birmingham--Voters in Birmingham head to the polls tomorrow to pick who'll represent them on the city council for the next four years. But with all that's been happening in Birmingham area politics, from a financial crisis in Jefferson County to a mayor set to go on trial for corruption, it can be difficult to cut through and figure out what's going on with the city council races. WBHM's Andrew Yeager spoke to a number of political observers to gauge what might happen at the polls.

To start, let's take a drive.

"So I'm turning onto Green Springs, toward UAB, downtown Birmingham. You know it's election time when the political signs are in bloom."

And bloomed they have. Given 46 people are vying for a seat on the Birmingham City Council, that means lots of signs.

"9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14...20, 21. There [are] a couple there across the street."

It's so many people...it's almost hard to know where to start.

"Oh, great. I lost count."

But a crowded field is not unusual. Birmingham News editorial writer Joey Kennedy says city elections typically have lots of contenders.

"Four years ago there were 43 candidates. This year there are 46. So there are always a lot of candidates and if you look and compare, a lot of them are some of the same candidates. They run again and again."

Part of that may be because it's fairly easy to throw your hat into the ring. Fill out some paperwork, pay a $50 fee and you're on the ballot. A crowded field generally means good news for incumbents, says former Jefferson County Commissioner and attorney Chriss Doss. That's because as incumbents they have greater...

"Name recognition and I would think that the incumbent will have been able to put together a more muscular campaign organization than generally someone starting from scratch as a candidate."

So a crowded field means good news for incumbents, expect when it doesn't. Here's what I mean. If the public is so disgusted with the way things are going generally, incumbency can turn into a target. Around Birmingham there's been bad news for months from the county financial crisis to Mayor Larry Langford's corruption trial. None of that has direct bearing on the city council. But Chriss Doss says the public may not make any distinction and some of those waves may make their way into the race.

"It's hard to be in the swimming pool with a lot of folks without getting wet like the rest of the folks."

Birmingham Weekly contributing editor Mark Kelly says conventional wisdom right now is that the public is in an anti-incumbent mood. For clues, he points to the New Jefferson County Citizen's Coalition, a group lead by former Mayor Richard Arrington. They endorsed just two incumbents.

"So I guess you're at a, to use an overused phrase, a tipping point where we can look at this as either that it's hopeless to worry about who's in government, that it doesn't matter, that they're all crooks or become crooks. Or you can say this is a real opportunity to start remaking city government."

Joey Kennedy of the Birmingham News expects some new faces on the city council. But instead of trying to read the tea leaves of public sentiment through the size of the field or endorsements, Kennedy says voter turnout will be a much better judge.

"High voter turnout is always bad news for an incumbent."

There seems to be general agreement though. There will be runoffs. Mark Kelly says runoffs are dangerous for the remaining candidates. He says when you have multiple opponents, it's about promoting yourself. But when it's just two...

"It gets to be about what's wrong with my opponent. Why do you want to vote against this person?"

So despite the polls closing tomorrow, it seems the battle over city council seats isn't over. Leaving the signs to bloom for another six weeks.


~ Andrew Yeager, August 24, 2009