Birmingham Mayor Hobbled By Kickback Charges

Since Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Larry Langford took office late last year, he's been a man on a mission. His city has an annual budget of about $430 million, yet he's proposed more than a billion dollars in new projects. But Langford's ambitious agenda has been hobbled by charges that he accepted kickbacks in the past.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. The mayor of Birmingham, Alabama is a man on fire and under fire. In his first six months on the job, Larry Langford has proposed nearly $1 billion in new projects, including a bid for the 2020 Olympics, but his can-do fervor has some residents bristling, and then there's the federal investigation into his financial dealings.

From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Tanya Ott has the story.

TANYA OTT: 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.

Ms. VALERIE ABBOTT (City Councilwoman, Birmingham, Alabama): 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.

OTT: City Councilwoman Valerie Abbott says Langford has set a feverish pace of proposals: tax increases, free life insurance for parents of school kids, a dome stadium for Birmingham's non-existent pro sports team.

He made national news when he implemented a four-day work week to combat high prices. Kyle Whitmire covers politics for Birmingham Weekly newspaper.

Mr. KYLE WHITMIRE (Reporter, Birmingham Weekly): He can have very good ideas. He's not very good at war-gaming those ideas out, looking for the kinks and, you know, ironing out the wrinkles.

OTT: In his finely pressed Italian suits, Langford is quick with a soundbite. He is, after all, a former television news reporter, but critics accuse him of being impetuous, like the time he awakened at 3:00 in the morning with the idea to offer free public transit. He announced the plan six hours later.

Larry Langford like action and doesn't like critics. When Councilwoman Abbott questioned another council member's private use of a city car, Langford said she couldn't be trusted and quashed a development deal in her district.

Ms. ABBOTT: Things like that happen when you're a kid. You know, people are always like I'm going to get him. You don't expect it with adults.

Mayor LARRY LANGFORD (Birmingham, Alabama): He's a bully for trying to push what I campaigned on.

OTT: Mayor Larry Langford.

Mayor 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 are unhappy when nothing was being done, and now they're unhappy with something being done, so I just ignore them and go right on.

OTT: 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.

Mayor LANGFORD: This is America. You can indict a ham sandwich in this country. You take of the lettuce, 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.

OTT: And the Birmingham mayor says God is on his side.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mayor LANGFORD: Come on, give God thanks to this house, (unintelligible).

OTT: 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.

(Soundbite of shofar)

OTT: 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.

Mr. WHITMIRE: When you have, you know, respected minister 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 devil's work?

OTT: 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(ph), a regular at weekly city hall Bible sessions.

Mr. SANDY PATTERSON (Resident, Birmingham, Alabama): 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.

OTT: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham.

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