How Morehouse College Alumni Powered Randall Woodfin's Campaign For Birmingham Mayor (Spring 200
By Erin Edgemon
Randall Woodfin's meteoric rise to Birmingham's top elected office was powered by the alumni of his alma mater.
The strong, close-knit network of alumni of Atlanta's Morehouse College, and some of the same men who got Woodfin elected student government president there 15 years ago, donated their money and their time to help their brother accomplish his dream of becoming Birmingham mayor.
Morehouse alumni from Washington, D.C.-based Pine Street Strategies served as his political strategists. Former classmates who live in Houston, St. Louis and D.C. hosted campaign fundraisers. Other alumni from as far away as Los Angeles and Philadelphia donated to his campaign.
"One brother calls another brother," said Woodfin's former classmate Jarrod Loadholt, an attorney who works for Pine Street Strategies. They help whether a brother is running for political office or seeking a new job. "For black men there is no network like that," he said.
At least a dozen Morehouse alums stood on the stage as Woodfin gave his victory speech Tuesday night after defeating the incumbent William Bell. He thanked all of them who drove and flew out to help him.
"It is important to remember I didn't get here alone," he said. "In 1999, I was privileged to participate in what I call another production at 830 Westview Dr., Atlanta, Ga. A little small college called Morehouse College."
He said the college focuses not only academics but on servant leadership, community service and brotherhood.
"And for all of these years, 18 years later, my Morehouse brothers across this entire nation have stood tall for me," Woodfin said. "Not just from Atlanta, Ga. but from Houston and D.C. from New York and St. Louis from L.A. to Chicago. I am surrounded by brothers who have said we know your heart, we know your commitment to your hometown, when you call upon us we will descend upon your city and do whatever is necessary to be a part of it."
Randall Woodfin sings the Morehouse College hymn with former classmates
Morehouse is an all-male, historically black college with an enrollment of about 2,500 students. The college attracts students from across the country, particularly from cities with a large African-American population.
Woodfin once said that politics at Morehouse is like football at an SEC school. Morehouse highlighted Woodfin's victory on its website this week.
Woodfin also received support from alumni of Spelman College, a women's college affiliated with Morehouse. Members of Woodfin's fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. also lent their support, Loadholt said.
"When our people run for office, this is what happens," he said.
While one Morehouse man helps another, Loadholt said Woodfin received more support because he was popular at the small college. People knew him because he was SGA president, but it was his personality that made people like him.
"Randall is kind of a relaxed southern guy," he said. "He was never flashy or braggy."
Calvin Harris, a strategist with Pine Street Strategies, said Woodfin had already graduated before he came to Morehouse, but his presence was still felt there.
"I heard about his impact on the campus," he said. "He was just one of those people who you admired."
Loadholt said Woodfin has always been a "Birmingham guy." Even in his Morehouse days, he wanted to be mayor of his hometown.
So, when Woodfin decided to run last year, his friends decided to help, he said.
Morehouse and Spelman graduates and members of his fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. gave the first donations, Loadholt said.
How Woodfin won
While his campaign received backing by Morehouse alumni and even robocalls from 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Woodfin said he won by engaging voters.
"We literally did it by going door-to-door," Woodfin said.
He didn't just target millennials, the candidate said. His campaign was committed, from the first day, to reaching every generation, rich or poor, black or white, he said.
"That is important because it is easy for social media to fool you that we are only targeting one group," Woodfin said. "That wasn't the case at all. We engaged everybody.
"I think the way you engage them is to figure out what their issues are," he continued. "We took the time to listen to voters over the last year and six weeks, but we also took the time to be on the solutions end, figuring out a way to address those issues that they shared."
He said the numbers reflected that. "We won north, south, east and west," he said.
Out of 70 precincts, Woodfin won all but 13 of them, according to unofficial campaign results.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of Morehouse and Spelman alums and others donated $18.71 to Woodfin's campaign over the last year.
Woodfin's campaign manager Ed Fields said the fundraising strategy shared through social media was the candidate's idea.
"Birmingham was founded in 1871," he said in a text message. "It was a campaign strategy to engage more people and tie that to an inherent message of getting back to basics ... and to raise a lot of money."
Loadholt said people who didn't even know Woodfin contributed $18.71 to his campaign.
"I think as a campaign you would prefer to have these small dollars because they don't have these strings attached," he said. "His donors got what they wanted (Tuesday) night.
"They are not trying to get a Water Works contract," Loadholt added. "That is not why they give. I think that is liberating. You have to be more active to get money, but it is clean."
In the month of April alone, the Woodfin campaign received contributions of $18.71 from 47 separate donors, according to the Committee to Elect Randall Woodfin's campaign finance report for that month. That made up $879.37 of the $24,168.37 in contributions received that month.
Contributions came from as far away as San Diego, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; Houston, Philadelphia, Pa.; and Baltimore, Md.
Loadholt said so many people liked Woodfin's message of revitalizing blighted neighborhoods and investing money in making Birmingham streets safer, that they gave their money.
Others drove hours to volunteer, or just to take part in Woodfin's victory on Tuesday night.
Loadholt said a 1971 pledge to Woodfin's fraternity drove from Atlanta to volunteer in the campaign. Former Woodfin classmate, Harold Martin, who is now the president of Morehouse College attended the victory party.
One former classmate drove eight hours from Chicago, and another drove seven hours from St. Louis, he said.
Bernie Sanders effect
This social media driven grassroots fundraising utilized by Woodfin was made popular by the Bernie Sanders. Woodfin was endorsed by and received volunteer and financial support from Our Revolution, a political action organization inspired by Sander's campaign.
The leader of that group, Nina Turner, campaigned for Woodfin in Birmingham on at least two occasions.
"From knocking on doors to sending text messages (more than 11,000), and making calls, Our Revolution invested in Woodfin's campaign because he truly believes investing in people is how we build better cities," she said in a statement. "In my travels to Birmingham, I saw firsthand, Randall's passion and commitment to the people of his city. We look forward to the Woodfin team bringing a new spirit of community and compassion to city hall. This isn't just a victory for Birmingham, it's a victory for all of us."
Vince Gawronski, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College, said Woodfin energized voters in a way that Bell, the incumbent mayor, couldn't.
"I think people are tired of Bell," he said. "I think Bell got tired."
The Sanders connection helped, in part, to garner Woodfin national media attention, Gawronski said.
On the local level, Woodfin said the endorsement from Our Revolution helped inspire millennial voters.
"I think the 2016 presidential race showed that if you commit to certain policies around helping people, you can tap into young people that don't normally vote," he said. "Having the support of Our Revolution, allows local people to be engaged in a local municipal election. That is an honor."
But that wasn't the only thing that led Woodfin to victory.
"No one I talked to said they were voting for Woodfin because Bernie Sanders told them," Gawronski said.
He credits Woodfin's win largely to the energy of his grassroots campaign.
"(Woodfin) had an army of volunteers pounding on pavements, knocking on doors and sending emails," Gawronski said, adding the volunteers could tap into the campaign's phone bank at home.
Pine Street Strategies worked to get Woodfin's name in the national media early on in the race, sharing commentary written by the candidate, when local press wasn't paying attention, Harris said.
They shared Woodfin's platform for inclusive government and seeking collaborative solutions to solve the problems that are plaguing Birmingham's communities, he said.
Harris said Woodfin is part of an onslaught of young political leaders - like new Jackson, Miss. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba -- who were garnering attention because of endorsements from Our Revolution and other progressive groups.
Woodfin's message was shared widely on social message. It was "contagious," Harris said.
Loadholt said Woodfin sought that national attention, writing editorials for Huffington Post, because "that is how you raise name ID.
"It is a chance to engage voters for free," he said.
Loadholt was quick to point out, though, that Lumumba, also benefited from the Morehouse network. His wife, Ebony, is a graduate of Spelman College.