Why Jefferson County Needs Both Shelia and Sheila

I covered politics as a reporter and rarely stepped up to give my personal opinion or make endorsements in a widely public way. Most of the people who run for office are friends or acquaintances, and even in private it’s hard for me to take sides.

But this time I decided to make an exception because the times call for it.

The Jefferson County Commission seat in District 2 has grown into a heated contest with five candidates essentially battling in tomorrow’s Democratic primary over one issue: the former Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.

Incumbent Sandra Faye Little-Brown, whom I’ve known over the years, greatly disappointed me and the community with her decision in that area. Yes, she did try to “save” Cooper Green from its ultimately clumsy dismantlement with a proposed solution that would have forced the hospital’s administration to live within a $70 million budget. The problem is, the simple-minded solution would not have worked.

The plan called for a 50-bed hospital. But the facility needed a 101-bed minimum to continue receiving $40 million in federal dollars set aside for hospitals handling disproportionately high-volumes of indigent patients. I wasn’t quite sure what the “proposed in-patient transfer agreement” actually meant, so it seemed rather sketchy about how sending poor Cooper Green’s high-cost, hospitalized patients to other hospitals would work out financially.

But the biggest problem with the proposal was that the commission majority had concluded (based on what evidence, I don’t know) that “a Healthcare Authority is not a prudent alternative at this time.” But in fact, a healthcare authority — with carefully selected professionals to take over the indigent care system — would have been the perfect solution. And Commissioner George Bowman, who actually had oversight of the commission’s healthcare system, had made the suggestion repeatedly, to no avail.

The series of forums that I hosted with concerned citizens to find solutions to the Cooper Green fiasco ended with a wide-array of local healthcare professionals agreeing that a non-political authority was the best viable solution for indigent care. UAB Assistant Professor Dr. “Mickey” Trimm showed us the benefits of the Denver Health Care authority model and we’ve spoken to the architect of that model, which can be duplicated here.

Why Little-Brown didn’t work more closely with Bowman to urge her fellow commissioners to find the best solution for many people in her district and beyond, who needed Cooper Green to remain viable, I just don’t know. Instead, she worked more closely with Commission President David Carrington and compromised with the majority in a way that hurt rather than helped the most vulnerable people in our community. It’s a misstep that I simply cannot overlook.

So for me, that leaves the other candidates in the running for District 2: Dr. Max Michael, Cooper Green’s former chief executive officer and medical director; former Commissioner Shelia Smoot who’s trying to regain her seat; Rev. Steve Small, another former commissioner of District 2; and Shelia Burke Tyson, currently Birmingham City Councilor of District 6.

I scratch Dr. Michael off the list because he was the main drum major who, in at least one meeting I know about, urged elected officials to seriously consider implementing his long-held dream of a hub-and-spoke model of indigent healthcare delivery. Under his plan, Cooper Green Mercy would become the hub of this scaled back system, with other of the many hospitals in our county sharing the burden of expensive hospitalization and preventative care coming from our many local clinics. Clearly, the commission majority had Dr. Michael’s plan in mind when it voted to end in-patient and emergency room care at Cooper Green Mercy on Dec. 31, 2012.

But his experiment (or maybe to be fairer, the county’s ham-handed implementation of it) has proven to be an “abject failure.” If in fact Dr. Michael was the commission’s adviser with Cooper Green, he handed them a rose-colored plan that neglected the crucial cost analyses and policy details that would have been necessary for a more successful transition.

So, no to Dr. Michael.

District 2 voters had already put Rev. Small out to pasture in 2002 after 19 months on the job, largely as a rebuke to his aligning with two Republican women on issues they felt were more important to him than to them.

So that leaves Shelia Smoot and Sheila Tyson.

Really, I wish the two weren’t running against each other because they both have strengths that can help the citizens of District 2.

Now, I could throw around gossip about who has taken/given money/contracts over the past years and months. But it just muddies the waters and obscures an objective evaluation of their abilities. So until someone is actually indicted, arrested or brought up on ethics charges, I’m going to focus on what I see.

Tyson entered the commission race largely on Little-Brown’s mishandling of Cooper Green and her widely-perceived divided loyalty on the commission.

From the time I’ve known her as a reporter, Tyson has been a tireless neighborhood leader in West End. She’s seen the curse of poverty and drugs in the community and has worked on a personal level, particularly as a mentor for young girls as a softball coach, and on a community level to combat its ill effects. She worked to support summer jobs programs, programs to paint and weatherize senior housing, and wrote grants to update playground equipment in urban parks.

Tyson grew stronger and stronger as an advocate for citizens in her community to ensure fair treatment as powerful interests pushed their agendas. She moved more into politics, supporting Patrick Cooper in his runs for Birmingham mayor. She became the state coordinator of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. The national organization pushed voter education and registration during President Barack Obama’s first election so that urban citizens could vote on issues impacting their community.

Birmingham residents value folks who work in the trenches, and Sheila Tyson has a bona fide record that no one can dispute, especially when it comes to her passionate, sometimes tearful, advocacy for Cooper Green. So I wasn’t at all surprised when she won her City Council seat without a runoff on a ballot with six other candidates, despite scoffs from some quarters at her less-than refined street swagger.

But I would caution voters Tyson’s Council District 6 to keep her there, for now, because Smoot is the more experienced candidate in Commission District 2.

I don’t say this because Smoot and I have been friends for two decades, when we were fellow journalists in Birmingham. And I don’t say it because of the occasional business relationships we’ve shared.

Because of our personal friendship, I have a little more insight than most people. When she first beat Small to become District 2 County Commissioner in 2002, she asked my advice about which county departments she should oversee. I suggested community and economic development because she could, finally, bring some of the much needed federal and state dollars to grossly under-served cities and communities in her district. The new commission majority — with Smoot, Gary White and Larry Langford — also put Smoot over the good-old-boy Roads and Transportation Department, a historic moment in itself. (Commissioners Bettye Fine Collins of Trussville and Mary Buckelew of McCalla practically built up their communities using the poverty numbers from distressed urban areas to attract money and use it in their districts during the decades that they oversaw these departments.)

I remember a meeting that Smoot called with African American spiritual leaders, asking them how best she could use her new, unprecedented power on the commission. Under her two-term leadership, the county built senior housing, improved schools and public safety, upgraded roads and supported industrial parks with essential infrastructure improvements that attracted businesses and jobs in her district. She also supported $5 million for the arts through an organization that eventually became the Greater Birmingham Cultural Alliance. Her only condition was that the new organization fairly fund smaller, urban cultural arts groups that had been traditionally left out of the arts funding loops.

Smoot could have done more in Birmingham proper if she had developed a better working relationship with the city’s mayor and its council.

Which brings me to my point.

The two Shelias — Tyson and Smoot in their respective positions in government — should work together. They could use their substantial energy and power to uplift the most neglected neighborhoods, communities and cities in Jefferson County. They both are fighters and proven leaders who’ve demonstrated care for the community. They both know how to bring the resources that matter most to people needing hope, urban revitalization and lasting positive change that can improve the trajectory of lives and future generations.

District 2 voters didn’t dismiss Smoot from the job. She left it to run for Artur Davis’ place in Congress, but narrowly lost to Terri Sewell in 2010. If the voters liked the job Smoot did for them on the County Commission, they should give her the chance to come back and continue what she started.

If Smoot and Tyson can mend political fences after a bruising race and work for the good of the county and the city, I believe they can do more together than either one can do by themselves.

Let’s see if District 2 voters — and these two women whose work I respect — prove me right in tomorrow’s June 3 primaries.