On Tuesday night, Randall Woodfin scored an upset of the two-term Democratic mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, to become the youngest mayor (he’s 36) in the Magic City in more than 100 years. Woodfin’s campaign became something of a cause celebre among national liberal activists aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Nina Turner, the head of Our Revolution, the organization Sanders formed post-2016, was an active presence for Woodfin in the race. Sanders recorded a robo-call that went out Monday saying that Woodfin would fight for racial justice, sanctuary city status for Birmingham and his own “Medicare for All” plan, and sent out a tweet urging people to go to the polls and one congratulating Woodfin on his victory.
Interestingly, Woodfin was a Hillary Clinton supporter during the 2016 campaign, serving as her state director in Alabama.
To learn more about Woodfin and the role the Sanders brigade played in his victory, I reached out to Erin Edgemon, who covered the race for the Birmingham News. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: How unexpected (or not) was Woodfin’s win?
Edgemon: Woodfin’s campaign had a lot of momentum leading up to Tuesday’s runoff, making his eventual win less surprising than it was six weeks ago at the primary election.
Social media was abuzz with Woodfin supporters. Woodfin, who had only served one term on the city school board, received hundreds of donations from across the country. His progressive campaign became a focus of national media.
We knew Tuesday’s turnout would tell us a lot, even before results began to trickle in that night. It appeared turnout would be low, lower than the general election, which only attracted 26% of registered voters. Turnout came in, though, at 35%.
Cillizza: Bernie Sanders and other national liberals are claiming this as a big victory for them. Is it?
Edgemon: Woodfin’s win wasn’t a big victory for Bernie Sanders, but more a reflection of Birmingham voters wanting a change from long-time politicians. Our Revolution’s involvement did likely bring more young voters to the polls, though.
There’s often a misconception of Birmingham on the national level. Birmingham is a more progressive city that cares about human rights.
Cillizza: How much influence did local factors have on all of this?
Edgemon: Birmingham voters said loud and clear on Tuesday night that they want change. It didn’t matter that the incumbent during his seven-year tenure revitalized downtown, spearheaded the building of a minor league baseball stadium and an award-winning park (which) led to the building of thousands of new apartments and upscale restaurants.
The race was all about local factors. Woodfin spent a year knocking on doors in every neighborhood in the city; there are 99 of them. Every Woodfin supporter I spoke to said the same thing: The city’s neighborhoods need attention. They need basic services like street paving and abandoned houses demolished. And they want to feel safer in their homes.
Cillizza: Explain the significance of Woodfin’s win for Birmingham and Alabama more generally.
Edgemon: In terms of Alabama politics, Woodfin’s win isn’t very significant. For decades, Birmingham has been the blue city in a red state. At 36, Woodfin is one of the youngest politicians in the state so it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, that will have on state politics.
The win isn’t likely to change Alabama’s red political landscape – where ultra-conservative and biblical Roy Moore is aiming to win election to Alabama’s Senate.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: In 10 years, Randall Woodfin will be ____________.” Now, explain.
Edgemon: “On to bigger things.”
If you ask Woodfin, he would say he will be out of an elected office in 10 years. He said he believes in cultivating young talent. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if he sets his sights on a state or even national office.