Donald V. Watkins
Randall Woodfin: A Case Study in Selling Out a Neighborhood to a Known Polluter
An Exclusive Investigative Report
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on May 6, 2019
On October 3, 2017, Randall Woodfin won an impressive election night victory over incumbent Birmingham, Alabama mayor William Bell. Woodfin, who was 35-years-old at the time, became “Birmingham’s Next Generation Mayor.” It was an exciting time for the city.
Basking in the warm glow of Woodfin’s celebration that night were the principals of a small but talented Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm called Pine Street Strategies. Pine Street specializes in legislative and regulatory affairs, corporate public affairs consultation, targeted communications, and effective candidate and issue campaigns.
Pine Street CEO Donald Calloway, Jr., who supported Woodfin’s mayoral candidacy from the beginning, gave credit for Woodfin’s victory to campaign manager Ed Fields, Calvin Harris, a Pine Street’s Senior Vice President for Communications and Messaging, and a host of other Woodfin campaign team members. Woodfin and Harris are Morehouse College graduates and close friends.
Calloway gave a special shoutout to Iva Williams, III. “Nobody compares to Iva Williams. Nobody,” said Calloway. He was right in his description of Iva Williams, III, who serves as Vice-President of the Birmingham-based Outcast Voter League.
Williams is best known locally for a 2013 public confession that he suffered from severe depression and considered suicide. He has had multiple run-ins with the law in recent years. In June 2017, Williams filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to disqualify mayoral candidate Chris Woods, who also opposed William Bell. Locally, Williams is known as a “political hustler” and “loose cannon” who will say and do just about anything for money.
After the 2017 mayoral election, Mayor Woodfin awarded Pine Street a lucrative professional services contract that pays the firm a staggering monthly retainer. The City of Birmingham is prominently listed on Pine Street’s website as one of the firm’s anchor clients. Also listed is the prestigious Environmental Defense Fund, whose board of trustees and executive officers are among the global leaders in clean air policies and initiatives.
Pine Street has two primary roles in the Randall Woodfin administration: (a) influencing the mayor’s public policy agenda through targeted messaging and (b) raising campaign money for Woodfin-controlled political action committees. Both roles benefit Woodfin in his capacity as a future political candidate, but not the City of Birmingham. Yet, Birmingham taxpayers are footing the bill for these ongoing and expensive professional services.
According to Pine Street’s website: “We help your organization tell the right story to the right audience, at the right time." Pine Street then brags that the firm “utilizes our relationships with the press in various media outlets across the country to get your message to the people who need to hear it.” The Birmingham News and AL.com are two such media outlets.
Neither Pine Street Strategies, nor the Outcast Voters League, nor Iva Williams is registered as a lobbyist with the Alabama Ethics Commission to perform any kind of lobbying services in the state on behalf of the City of Birmingham or its mayor. Yet, Iva Williams functions as a Pine Street Strategies paid subcontractor who regularly engages in messaging activities that are designed to influence public policy on matters of significant political interest to the Woodfin administration.
Sneaking the Sherman Industries Concrete Facility Relocation Plan through the Environmental Permitting Process.
In January 2019, Sherman Industries cut a deal with Mayor Woodfin to sneak the company’s planned relocation of its downtown concrete manufacturing facility into a stable black neighborhood in the Five Points West community without providing adequate notice of the plan to the residents who live in this community. Instead of vigorously opposing the controversial relocation plan, Woodfin blessed it.
When white residents in the booming downtown areas around Railroad Park and Regions Field wanted the toxic concrete manufacturing facility moved to another location, Sherman Industries and Mayor Woodfin dutifully obliged them.
On May 1, 2019, Mayor Woodfin admitted on video that he has been fully aware of Sherman Industries’ relocation plan for the past several months. Yet, his office did nothing to stop it.
A timeline of key events on Woodfin’s “Putting People First” mayoral letterhead shows that the Mayor’s office was first approached about the Five Points West site on January 24, 2019. Consultants for Sherman Industries introduced this potential site to Woodfin’s Planning, Engineering, and Permitting Department (PEP) at that time.
Sherman Industries had not engaged the Five Points West community nor District 8 councilor Steven Hoyt regarding the company's relocation plan. Instead, Sherman Industries got the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) to post the company’s application for an Air Permit on the JCDH website on April 14, 2019, along with an abbreviated public comment period which ended on April 30, 2019.
Rather than condemning this sneak attack on the Five Points West community, Mayor Woodfin continued to aid and abet Sherman Industries’ planned relocation.
On May 1, 2019, Mr. Joseph Cole, a former student government president at Alabama State University and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Gadsden, Alabama Chapter), brought this matter to my direct attention. During his SCLC presidency, Cole's organization desegregated every city department in Gadsden. He is an expert in mayoral powers under Alabama's municipal government laws.
Neither one of us backed any mayoral candidate in the 2017 Birmingham city elections.
Based upon my intimate knowledge of Birmingham’s Mayor-Council Act, I knew something was terribly wrong with this relocation plan. This deal smelled like a dead rat. Mayor Woodfin’s PEP had the power to kill this plan on the spot, but they did not do so.
In 2015, Nashville had an identical situation involving Nashville Ready Mix. The company withdrew its plans to relocate a concrete batch plant to another site the company owned in northeast Nashville after neighborhood residents protested the planned relocation of the toxic plant and city planners recommended that the Metro Planning Commission disapprove construction.
Unleashing an Unregistered Lobbyist
After I investigated Mayor Woodfin’s cozy relationship with Sherman Industries and started publishing a series of articles about Councilor Steven Hoyt’s courageous efforts to stop this egregious act of environmental racism, unregistered lobbyist Iva Williams, III leaped into action.
As directed by his bosses, Williams started an intense lobbying campaign on Mayor Woodfin’s behalf. As part of this campaign, Williams falsely accused me of framing Woodfin.
Williams’ all-out social media assault was designed to influence Steven Hoyt and other city officials who have portfolio responsibility for approving or killing the Sherman Industries concrete manufacturing facility relocation plan.
On May 5, 2019, Williams posted a message on his Facebook page that said: “Donald V. Watkins is a brilliant man... so brilliant that y'all constantly forget he's a pathological bald-faced @$$ liar. Negro go to jail! FOH!”
Later that day, Williams directly lobbied District 8 Councilor Hoyt with the following letter that was designed to influence Hoyt’s and District 4 Councilor William Parker’s official actions in this matter. The letter stated:
“Dear Councilman Steven Hoyt:
Richard Arrington lost $700k and that was after almost going to jail because of him being in city hall years before.
William Bell lost a mayoral election as sitting interim mayor (after raising $1M) because of his relationship with him.
Bernard Kincaid lost his mayor's seat because of his relationship with him.
William Parker lost his state legislative seat because of him.
TWO (2) Alabama State University presidents have lost their jobs because of their relationships with him.
A dozen celebrities and wealthy individuals lost millions because of him.
HE LIED ON CONDOLEEZA RICE!
IJS... don't associate with trash sir. Mess with Donald V. Watkins and it'll come back to bite you!”
Park Board president Montal Morton gratuitously supported Iva Williams in this unregistered lobbying activity by “Liking” this letter on Williams’ Facebook page. Morton's action was designed to give the appearance of legitimacy to Williams' lobbying campaign.
In furtherance of his lobbying campaign on behalf of Mayor Woodfin and Pine Street, Iva Williams began shaping the Woodfin administration’s public narrative on this highly controversial environmental justice matter through a series of Facebook statements to inquiring parties. Williams’ published statements even disseminated information on behalf of Mayor Woodfin about Sherman Industries’ property ownership, relocation plan, and interaction with other Birmingham neighborhoods.
Sadly, Randall Woodfin has become the first black mayor in American history to openly, willingly, and knowingly embrace an unmitigated act of environmental racism. Woodfin made an unwise choice to side with Sherman Industries and he appears to be stuck with it. No amount of PR spin or Internet bashing by Iva Williams can sanitize Woodfin’s bazaar sellout of the Five Points West community to an industrial-scale polluter.
Pine Street Strategies now enjoys the unique distinction of representing a world-class environmental organization at the same time it is helping Mayor Woodfin (via the unregistered lobbying actions of Iva Williams, III) in his efforts to escort a known air, ground, and water polluter into a stable black residential neighborhood that is resisting a toxic concrete manufacturing facility. It will be interesting to see how Pine Street Strategies explains the firm’s double life to the Environmental Defense Fund.
PHOTO: Pine Street Strategies Principals Donald Calloway (far left) and Calvin Harris (second from the left) dropped in to see Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin (second from the right) on April 1, 2019. Calloway, who is Pine Street's CEO, has praised the work of unregistered lobbyist, Iva Williams, III, for Mayor Woodfin's campaign.