With sights on federal millions, Birmingham leaders woo Alabama Republicans at Black Caucus event

This is an opinion column.

Many will certainly see it as a bridge to nowhere. Especially these days. Democrat and Republican politicians shaking hands, sitting, getting to know each other. What would that accomplish? Especially in this state – where the divide between the parties is cavernous, and the efforts to entrench and reinforce it are so overt, so blatant, so rooted in our harrowing past that the Supreme Court of the United States is now fully implicated.

Democratic and Republican politicians in Alabama talk to each other, share ideas and desires. Listening to others. Who do this ?

They did it: A contingent of staunchly Democratic political leaders from Birmingham and several members of the state’s Republican-majority federal congressional delegation did it – last week in Washington, D.C., at the 51st Annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference, aka, the Super Bowl of black politics.

The Birmingham group included Mayor Randall Woodfin, City Council Speaker Wardine Alexander, Pro Tem Council Crystal Smitherman and Councilors LaTonya Tate, Clinton Woods, JT Moore and Darrell O’Quinn. They have various ties to Republicans: Senator Richard Shelby (the outgoing patriarch of the delegation), Cong. Robert Aderholt, cong. Jerry Carl, and even Senator Tommy Tuberville, as well as members of Rep. Gary Palmer’s staff.

Talk about weird classmates. God knows the meetings could have gone left (and right) had someone brought up, oh, CRT, women’s reproductive rights, gun reform, voting rights or any other issue the two parts diverge so widely. By all accounts, however, the cause was common: money.

Bridge construction. To the money — to the billions of federal dollars distributed each year to states and cities across the country — regardless of which party sits in the White House. To the “strong list of federal grants that we will be pursuing over the next year,” Woodfin shared after his return, “with the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars of federal investment in Birmingham in the years to come.”

This was the first CBC experience for most advisers, their initiation, so to speak, to navigating the whirlwind of dawn-to-dawn Capitol Hill quick meetings (no more than 30 minutes), run-ins in the corridors, cocktail receptions, meetings, seminars and thematic workshops, formal dinners, parties, break-ins, afterparties. You had the idea.

“You have to have, like, backup batteries,” O’Quinn, one of the towers, said.

Radio-Canada is a matter of access. Access and parties. He clashes with high-profile political, business, and entertainment figures you may never meet. It’s making contacts. To do business. And parties.

Of course, the Birmingham team met with Rep. Terri Sewell, the only African American representing Alabamians in the nation’s capital. And only Democrat. Both in her office and at a reception she hosted. They also met, mixed and mingled with other luminaries and advocates in politics, business and entertainment.

Tate, another rookie, called CBC a “revolutionary experience.” She met Ashley Biden, President Biden’s daughter, who advocates for women who have been incarcerated before, a group near and dear to the heart of the council’s public safety committee. “It gave me hope to learn that the President has allocated millions of dollars for community safety and mental health treatment.”

Smitherman attended a panel spotlighting black storytellers in the entertainment industry, moderated by Symone Sanders, former spokesperson for Vice President Kamala Harris, and featuring actors and writers from shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Empire; and a discussion among black women celebrating 50 years of leadership since Cong. Shirly Chisholm’s historic 1972 presidential run as the first black candidate to pursue a major party nomination.

The first panel was “super valuable,” coming just after the council approved funding to support black creatives in the city. “The panel on black women speaks for itself for me as a young black female politician.”

They were just appetizers; the main course was in the meet-n-greets.

Since Woodfin took office in 2017, the city has taken in more than $433 million in federal money “above baseline,” according to his office. These are funds beyond basic perennial allowances and increases in the cost of living. Here is the breakdown: American Rescue Plan Homelessness support ($5.1 million), Cares Act ($9 million), Good Jobs grant ($10.8 million), BJCTA public transit ($13.6 million) , Emergency Rental Assistance ($25 million), Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport ($30 million), ARP ($140 million), Birmingham Public Schools COVID-19 Assistance ($199 million).

Much of the bounty is driven by Woodfin’s close relationship with the White House and Cong. Sewell, who has represented House District 7 since 2011 and sits on the House Committee on Ways and Means. Its area includes Birmingham, a city still plagued by poverty and the draining economic effects of history, parts (the black parts) of Montgomery and Tuscaloosa; and rural areas with dire needs that grew desperate decades ago. Sewell, according to her office, has helped secure more than $11.5 billion in federal grants to entities throughout the district and, as she happily reminds us, is the only member of the Alabama delegation to vote. for large bills passed under Biden. (However, they gladly accept the money and spend it in their district.)

Birmingham political leaders meet with US Representative Terri Sewell at the 2022 Congressional Black Caucus conference.

The Birmingham brigade traveled to DC to ensure that future funds are not left behind because of partisanship, regardless of which party sits in the White House.

“Most of our credits come from Congresswoman Sewell, but we’d like to build relationships on the Senate side so we can get some,” Alexander said. “[CBC] was an opportunity to knock on doors and make yourself visible. It starts to create relationships, to let them know: don’t forget Birmingham, we are here. »

She specifically noted funds related to transport, broadband, roads and funds allocated by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. “We’re just looking for a way to get good credit coming to us. It was the construction of a federal bridge.

“There are some high profile programs that we’re going to seek out for funding,” O’Quinn says. He looks at the provisions offered in the little discussed CHIPS and scientific law, signed by Biden in August who awarded $280 billion to expand semiconductor manufacturing, invest in research and development, and create regional high-tech hubs. “There is $10 billion to establish twenty new innovation centers in mid-tier cities across the United States, or $500 million per city. Birmingham is very well placed to secure some of this funding.

Said Woodfin: ‘With guidance from our internal government affairs team and our external federal lobbying team, these conversations enable us to set out our shared agenda for growing Birmingham’s economy for all its residents, expanding affordable homeownership opportunities, improving public safety efforts, and exploring options to strengthen our schools.

Tuberville, unsurprisingly, was particularly interested in the city’s police force and the future of Legion Field. Later, spokesman Cody Sargent said, “The senator is committed to representing all Alabamians, and his primary duty as a United States Senator is to serve the people of Alabama. As such, our office will meet with any voter and assess whether we may be able to assist at the federal level – regardless of their political affiliation.

Crystal Smitherman, representing Terri Sewell

Birmingham City Councilor Crystal Smitherman meets with US Representative Terri Sewell at the 2022 Congressional Black Caucus conference,

With Shelby’s departure, Tuberville will become the state’s top U.S. senator, with only one term on his resume. During this time, he has taken a very Republican hard line on spending, which may not serve the state best and worries O’Quinn.

“The thing Tuberville has to understand is that Alabama is a state that is very dependent on federal support,” he said. “We can’t have senators who don’t ask for appropriations. It’s one thing to say you’re a fiscal conservative during the election campaign, but when you sit down with municipal representatives: we’re looking for help. We expect you to advocate for us and help us meet our needs.

O’Quinn was preoccupied with navigating the phalanx of humanity occupying the nation’s capital for the CBC, so he arrived early for the meeting with Shelby. “I went to Shelby’s office and sat and waited for the mayor’s team to arrive,” he recalled. Just outside the office, alas, Woodfin grabbed the senator, who had to be on the floor for a critical vote to avoid a government shutdown.

“Apparently,” O’Quinn said, “as the mayor walked in, they met Shelby in the lobby and talked for a few minutes. So I missed him.

Maybe he’ll cross that bridge next time.

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Roy S. Johnson is a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and winner of the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Prize for Podcasts: “Unjustifiable,” co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Join it at [email protected]follow him on twitter.com/roysjor on Instagram @roysj.

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