If He’s Found Guilty, Who Succeeds Langford?

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Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s trial is underway. As Langford’s fate hangs in the balance at the Tuscaloosa federal courthouse, many in Birmingham wonder what will happen to his job as mayor if he’s convicted.

First off, let’s make one thing absolutely clear. Larry Langford hasn’t been convicted of anything. He’s innocent until proven guilty. But the possibility of Langford’s conviction has many of the city’s political observers peering into the looking glass.

According to the Mayor-Council Act, if the mayor is convicted of a felony, he’s removed from office. Then the city council president takes over as interim mayor. A special election for a new mayor would be held shortly after that. Sounds simple enough, right? If only…

‘This really is a kind of strange duck.’

Birmingham-Southern political scientist Natalie Davis says the succession part of the Mayor-Council Act was written with the possible death of a mayor in mind, not so much a criminal conviction.

‘To the extent that there might be these little tripwires along the way, as far as the timing of this stuff happens, I doubt anybody gave that any thought.

The biggest hang up has to do with a possible verdict in Langford’s trial. Attorneys expect the trial to last about two weeks–meaning the Tuscaloosa jury could reach a verdict sometime in early November. If he’s guilty, Langford would be removed from office and city council president Carole Smitherman becomes mayor. But election lawyer Ed Still says Smitherman won’t have much time to get comfy in the mayor’s seat.

‘The president of the council only serves until the new people take office.’

The ‘new people’ would be the two new council members elected this year. They take office the end of November. The new council could decide to keep Smitherman as president, or they could pick someone else. If that’s the case, the new council president becomes Birmingham’s THIRD mayor of 2009. Oh and here’s the other thing about the City Council president becoming mayor. Ed Still says their council seat goes into a kind of suspended animation. The seat is vacant as long as the council president serves as mayor.

‘Her seat can’t be filled because she’s going to come back to it. If she says immediately, ‘I’m going to run for mayor’, her seat can’t be filled because theoretically she can come back to it because if she doesn’t win the special mayor’s election.’

That special election would happen within 90 days of Langford’s removal from office. Whoever wins that election would serve out the two remaining years of Langford’s term. Birmingham-Southern’s Natalie Davis says jockeying among potential mayoral candidates has already started.

‘There are people lining up today, figuring out how they’re going to organize, how much money they need to raise. Making some calls here and there, saying ‘listen, if this happens, are you going to be with me?’ So, they’ve got their lists and they’re playing these things out. It may not be visible to television yet, but don’t for a minute think people are having breakfast and lunch talking about this.’

Davis says potential candidates include Carole Smitherman and Patrick Cooper, who came in second in the 2007 mayoral election. There’s also former mayor Richard Arrington. Of all the rumored candidates, he’s been the most vocal about a potential special election. Arrington’s New Jefferson County Citizen’s Coalition backed a number of candidates in this year’s elections for City Council and Board of Education. He sent a letter to voters, saying he might run in a special mayor’s election. In an interview with WBHM’s Andrew Yeager, Arrington says it all depends on who else decides to run.

‘I guess it’s an analogy, you know, like a ball game. Let’s see if we can find a starting pitcher and just think of me as being in the bullpen. I can do two years, if I can get elected. So you think of me as an old pitcher you’ve got in the bullpen. In the meantime, we’re looking for a starter.’

But it’s a bullpen that might not ever reach the mound, if Larry Langford hits a home run at his trial and is found not guilty. For WBHM, I’m Bradley George.