Kincaid, Bernard 1945–
Bernard Kincaid 1945–
As African American power in urban politics entered its second generation, any illusion that black constituencies formed some kind of political monolith was entirely dispelled. Conflicts, differences of perspective, and plain, unvarnished power struggles erupted between competing political factions in various American cities where sheer numerical dominance assured African American political representation. One of the most spectacular conflicts erupted in Birmingham, Alabama, with the election of mayor Bernard Kincaid in 1999.
Bernard Kincaid was a native of Birmingham, born on June 5, 1945, and raised by a coal miner father and a housewife mother. He completed his basic education in Birmingham’s public school system just as the desegregation mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954Brown v. Board of Education decision was beginning to sweep across the South, and, at age 17, the armed services seemed to offer him the best way out of the prevailing apartheid of his home state. Kincaid served in the U.S. Air Force from 1962 to 1966, leaving the force with an honorable discharge.
By the time he returned home to Birmingham, the changes wrought by the civil rights movement were in the air, and new career opportunities for African Americans had opened up. He attended Birmingham’s historically black Miles College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree, and then went north to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, for a master’s degree. Returning to Alabama, he completed the arduous courses of study for not one but two advanced degrees, receiving his Ph.D. in education administration from the University of Alabama in nearby Tuscaloosa and earning a J.D. law degree from the Birmingham school of law.
Married to Alfreda Harris, a special education teacher (the couple has one daughter, Amy), Kincaid embarked on an educational career himself. He became an assistant professor in the School of Health Related Professions at the University of Alabama’s huge Birmingham campus, and then rose to the post of Assistant to the Dean for Cultural Diversity and Minority Affairs. The entire trajectory of Kincaid’s pre-political career resembled that of the man who, in 1979, became Birmingham’s first African-American mayor, Richard Arrington; Arrington had also attended Miles College, gone north for graduate study, and then returned to Birmingham to an administrative career in the scientific field. The resemblance was ironic, for the two men would become bitter adversaries.
Arrington had assembled a powerful grassroots organization, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition, and by dint of hard work in the political trenches during his eight years on Birmingham’s city council had amassed a formidable network of associates and acquaintances. His administration relied on a careful combination of civil rights activism with judicious cultivation of Birmingham’s business community, which supported him to an increasingly greater degree over his five terms in office. Once the excitement over the transfer of power to Birmingham’s back majority had abated, some observers began to question whether the nexus of machine politics and business-friendly networking that kept Arrington in power might in fact be fostering an
Born June 5, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama; son of a coal miner and a housewife; married Alfreda Harris, a special education teacher; children; Amy. Education: Miles College, B.A.; Miami University, M.A.; University of Alabama, Ph.D.; Birmingham School of Law, J.D. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1962-66. Religion: Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Assistant professor and later assistant to the Dean for Cultural Diversity and Minority Affairs, School of Health-Related Professions, University of Alabama at Birmingham; elected to Birmingham City Council, 1997; elected mayor of Birmingham, 1999.
Addresses: Office —Office of the Mayor, City of Birmingham, 710 20th St N., Birmingham, AL 35203.
atmosphere in which corruption could flourish. Chief among those critics was Kincaid, who in 1997 won the eighth district seat on Birmingham’s city council.
“For years,” noted the New York Times, “Bernard Kincaid was the wrench in the political machine that controlled Alabama’s largest city, the outsider who denounced the vast powers of its 20-year mayor, Richard Arrington, and tried to assemble a biracial coalition of rebellion.” Kincaid cast a particularly skeptical eye on the awarding of city contracts, in which Arrington exercised discretion largely unchecked by the city council or any other regulatory agency. Arrington was never officially charged with wrongdoing, but a series of allegations over the years, including a kickback claim that resulted in a federal investigation, gave ammunition to Kincaid and other critics.
Their chance came in 1999, when Arrington stepped down from the mayoralty, several months shy of completing his fifth term. His intent was to anoint with the power of incumbency his handpicked successor William Bell, the city council president. Kincaid, along with several other candidates, jumped into the 1999 mayor’s race. At first the plan seemed to be working, as Bell trounced Kincaid and his other challengers in the October primary. He failed to reach the required 50 percent of the vote, however, and Kincaid, emboldened by a land-payment scandal that had erupted in the waning days of Arrington’s administration, began to close the gap.
On Election Day, Kincaid won by a margin of 51 to 49 percent. “I’m humbled, a little frightened and in awe,” he told the Associated Press. His mood of exultation was not allowed to last long, however, for the city council was still in the hands of Arrington loyalists, and the atmosphere in city government was tense from the start. Arrington waited three weeks before congratulating Kincaid on his victory, and the former mayor’s supporters wasted no time in using against Kincaid the very powers of oversight that he had promoted while Arrington was mayor.
“This is what happens when a machine dies,” noted local political scientist Natalie Davis, said in the New York Times. “When all the power is inside the African-American community, you’re going to have black-against-black competition. And now all those voters who never got contracts, who watched everything from unethical behavior to outright stealing, are going to turn every Council meeting into a weekly slugfest.” A slugfest was indeed what ensued. The first confrontation flared when the council enacted a measure forbidding the mayor to award city contracts of more than $10, 000 without gaining the council’s approval.
Kincaid, within weeks of his inauguration, first took the council to court to try to overturn the measure and then abruptly dropped the suit. Claiming that he hoped for compromise, he directed a blizzard of paperwork in the council’s direction, submitting within the space of a week more than 75 requests for contract approvals. Some of them were for contracts valued at as little as seven dollars. At one point Kincaid ordered his office swept for eavesdropping devices.
Kincaid seemed resigned to the conflict.“This will probably cripple my administration for the next 22 months,” he told the New York Times, “but then those individuals on the Council will stand for election. And the public will be left to judge if they like my brand of leadership or theirs.” The first part of his prediction was validated in 2000 and 2001, as controversy flared over the mayor’s use of city money to buy a $33, 000 Lincoln Town Car, over the financing of the city’s water plant, and other issues. With council elections slated for late 2001, Birmingham’s voters faced the task of sorting out the competing claims of their feuding elected officials.
Associated Press, October 31, 1999, BC cycle; November 3, 1999, PM cycle; December 31, 1999, BC cycle; January 17, 2000, BC cycle; February 3, 2000, PM cycle; August 4, 2000, BC cycle; February 10, 2001, BC cycle.
Birmingham Post-Herald, January 22, 2001.
Governing, February 2000, p. 108.
New York Times, December 18, 1999, p. A12.
Additional information was obtained online at http://www.ci.bham.al.us/Mayor/default.htm
—James M. Manheim
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