BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Randall Woodfin is not going to talk about “change.” The 36-year old Democrat, a candidate for mayor of Birmingham, is running to unseat a two-term incumbent — and he is selling a vision of how his city, which had lost one-third of its population since the 1960s, could be economically transformed.
It just feels dangerous to boil that down to “change.”
“That word will trip you up,” said Woodfin, sitting in a campaign office covered in maps and volunteer walk lists. “This is not about that. Change for change’s sake is what got us Trump. This is about progress for everybody.”
Woodfin, a soft-spoken attorney and former school board member, has spent a whole year on his bid for mayor. In that time, Democrats have been locked out of national power, further diminished in state legislatures and wiped out in rural America. That has left the increasingly blue cities and suburbs as the obvious places for Democrats to attempt to rebuild.
In May, Philadelphia’s progressives helped civil rights attorney Larry Klasner win the Democratic primary for district attorney; if he wins a full term this November, the city’s top legal job will be held by a lawyer who defended members of Black Lives Matter and will refuse to seek the death penalty. In Jackson, Miss., progressive-backed candidate Chokwe Antar Lumumba won the mayor’s office, promising to make Mississippi’s capital “the most radical city on the planet.”
The trend is continuing. Birmingham’s August 22 primary is one of dozens of 2017 races where progressive candidates are trying to climb into power, knitting together community organizers, new activists and the remnants of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential bid to form new left-wing majorities.
“I think Donald Trump’s win changed the way we thought about elections,” Woodfin said. “I tell people, ‘Listen: Whatever you want in 2020, from a new president, you’re not going to get it if you just think about 2020.’ We know people who work two jobs, and have to take two buses to get to them. We know people who just finished high school and don’t have jobs. We’re talking to them right now, about a decision they can make right now.”
In recent years, the off-year municipal races that follow presidential elections have seen turnout plummet to the teens or single digits. Just 11.5 percent of eligible voters in Los Angeles voted this past March to re-elect Mayor Eric Garcetti; fewer than 65,000 Detroiters voted in this month’s mayoral primary, which incumbent Mike Duggan won in a landslide.
That low level of voter interest has given progressives an opportunity. In both Philadelphia and Jackson, turnout was low — but higher than in elections four years earlier. Some of the boost came from Our Revolution, the group Sanders founded after his primary campaign ended, which has made under-the-radar endorsements in urban elections, directing money and clout toward left-wing candidates.
“The folks at Our Revolution had not done as good a job as they should at touting these things,” Sanders said in an interview. “I believe when we talk about revitalizing American democracy, we start with local offices and grass roots campaigns. The media will talk about congressional races, sure; but I think what we are seeing is a revolution at the local level, in the cities.”
Sanders’s focus on municipal races comes from experience. In the 1970s, he waged four quixotic bids for statewide office in Vermont. In 1981, supporters in Burlington realized that, while losing everywhere else, he had been over-performing in the city’s working class wards — a revelation that led to his first mayoral run, which he won.
The paths for the new progressive urban candidates are not quite as clear. In 2016, most cities went solidly for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries; Woodfin himself was a Clinton supporter. Democrats, firmly in control of most big and diverse cities before the election, gained ground with Clinton on the ballot.
But the new progressive campaigns aim to replace the current Democratic regimes, with their comfortable business community relations, with progressives who want to use what powers they have to redistribute wealth. In Atlanta, State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Ga.) is running to replace Mayor Kasim Reed by energizing the left. His platform is Sanders on a local scale — a $15 minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization and two years of free tuition at college within the city.
In an interview at this month’s Netroots Nation conference, where “May the Fort Be With You” merchandise was more visible than anything pitching a national candidate, Fort emphasized that he was one of the only black politicians in the South who backed Sanders, and was doing best where Sanders had performed well against Clinton. He was adding to that support with a campaign about redirecting the city’s growth, to the people who needed it.
“Twenty years ago, Atlanta, depending on what study you look at, was 20 percent gentrified,” said Fort. “Now we’re 70 percent gentrified. If we don’t start talking about income inequality and affordable housing in a real honest way, we’re going to have a city that’s made of the very wealthy and the very poor, and the middle class is going to get screwed.”
Woodfin’s campaign platform is not quite so radical, but it shares a narrative — that “downtown” has gobbled up money and attention while most of the city’s black and poor residents have suffered or jogged in place. Free community college is packaged with a “school-to-startup pipeline.” The plan for combating crime would divert “high-risk, repeat offenders” into a different court than one-time offenders who could be rehabilitated.
Woodfin has been more responsive than his rivals — including the incumbent mayor, William Bell — to a growing community of activists. Richard Rice, 35, who wore a Woodfin for Mayor shirt to the city’s August 13 vigil in solidarity with anti-racism protesters, said he got on board after his group, the Grassroots Coalition of Birmingham, submitted a Black Agenda to every candidate. Woodfin was the first to sign on, committing to everything from rehabilitation of ex-convicts to the end of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods.
“Most of our elected officials are black, but we’re still falling behind,” said Rice. “We had 120 homicides this year. The poverty rate is 30 percent. And he’s talking about the issues we put in front of him.”
That, for activists, was the difference between “change” and “progress.” Woodfin would not be the only change candidate on the ballot. Bell’s bid for a third term, after decades in city government, was being challenged by an array of candidates. In pure name recognition, the strongest challenger was a former Auburn University wide receiver named Chris Woods, who’d plowed his own money into the race. At an August 14 candidate forum attended by only Woods and Woodfin, Woods frequently answered questions about urban policy with anecdotes about his football career; Woodfin gave low-key, multipart answers quoting from his agenda.
But by the final days of the race, the forums have almost become a distraction from the on-the-ground organizing. Just 27,435 ballots were cast in 2013, the last time Birmingham elected its city government; over the long campaign, Woodfin’s volunteers have talked to thousands more voters than that.
On Saturday, they got one more boost from the national progressive network when Nina Turner, the new president of Our Revolution, flew in for a get-out-the-vote rally. The former Ohio state senator cast Woodfin as “the public servant of public servants,” the savior of his city, if people “put sweat equity” into electing him.
“We can’t ask other folks to do more for us than we will do for ourselves,” she said.
Woodfin took the microphone, apologizing for having to follow a tub-thumping speech from Turner. Quietly, he ran his volunteers back through his platform, pointing to the neighborhood around them to give it some grounding.
“We want to be able to walk down a walkable sidewalk,” he said. “We want the swings to work in the playgrounds our kids play in. People want to feel safe on their own porch, y’all.”
He paused to tie it all together.
“This is not about change for change’s sake,” he said. “This is about progress.”