Birmingham-- Mayor Larry Langford thinks big. Real big. Like here, on this busy Birmingham street corner, where he wants to build a new police and fire headquarters modeled after the Pentagon.
"He is a master at talking people into things. You know I say he could sell ice to Eskimos and he could. You know, he sold me some!"
City councilwoman Valerie Abbott says Langford has set a feverish pace of proposals. Tax increases, free life insurance for parents of schoolkids, a dome stadium for Birmingham's non-existent pro sports team. He made national news when he implemented a four day workweek to combat high gas prices. Kyle Whitmire covers politics for Birmingham Weekly newspaper.
"He can have very good ideas. He's not very good at war-gaming those ideas out. You know looking for the kinks and ironing out the wrinkles."
In his finely pressed Italian suits, Langford is quick with a soundbite. He is, afterall, a former television news reporter. But critics accuse him of being impetuous. Like the time he awakened at 3 in the morning with the idea to offer free public transit. He announced the plan 6 hours later. Larry Langford likes action and doesn't like critics. When councilwoman Abbott questioned another councilmember's private use of a city car, Langford said she couldn't be trusted and quashed a development deal in her district.
"Things like that happen when you're a kid. You know, people are always, you know I'm gonna get him. You don't expect it with adults." (Abbott)
"He is a bully for trying to push what I campaigned on?"(Langford)
Mayor Larry Langford.
"Nothing I'm doing has come as a secret to anybody. I never walked in and said, 'well, I'm not for taxes.' Those people aren't happy when nothing's being done and now they're unhappy when something being done, so I just ignore them and go right on."
He goes on, despite growing legal problems including a lawsuit by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC alleges that while Langford was a county commissioner he accepted money in exchange for funneling millions of dollars in contracts to a friend. There's speculation a federal grand jury is considering criminal charges.
"This is America. You can indict a ham sandwich in this country. You take off the lettuce and tomato, anything can go to jail. The government is going to do what it's going to do and when it does whatever it's going to do, then I'm prepared to fight it."
And the Birmingham mayor says God is on his side.
At a city-sponsored Day of Prayer, hundreds of people packed a large auditorium to hear Mayor Langford beseech them to drop to their knees for God's mercy. Behind him a shofar sounds. Ancient Jews used the ram's horn to announce war, and newspaper columnist Kyle Whitmire says Larry Langford is waging a battle for public opinion.
"When you have respected ministers from the city of Birmingham up on stage, laying on hands, saying 'god put this man in the mayor's office' - What does that mean about the people who voted for other candidates last fall? Does that mean they're doing the devils work?"
Langford's mix of religion and politics is not new in the south. It was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. The message resonates with residents like Sandy Patterson, a regular at weekly city hall bible sessions.
"The fact that he does pray puts his feet on the ground a little bit better. I would much rather have Mayor Langford down here being questioned about separation of church and state than see what we've got in New York and some other places."
Larry Langford governs under a cloud, as the federal grand jury continues taking testimony, and observers say that may, in part, be driving his frenetic pace. He's working hard to leave a legacy like the civil rights activists he so admires.
-- Tanya Ott, July 21, 2008