Two cars stop on Main Street a block past Brighton City Hall. The driver in front, a woman in blue, puts her car in park and gets out to yell back toward a red Honda Fit.
“You’re running for mayor, right?” she shouts to the man she recognized from her rear view mirror. “You know you’ve got my vote.”
The two talk between opened car doors in the middle of the street for a minute or two. As a couple of other cars maneuver around them, the young man says he plans to do everything he can to help her grow a new business in town.
Brandon Dean is already pounding the pavement in his campaign to be mayor of this western Jefferson County town of about 3,000 people even though the election isn’t until August of next year. Sixteen months is long for a campaign like this, but if the campaign is a little unorthodox, it’s because the candidate is.
Brandon Dean, who wants to be the mayor of Brighton, is 23 years old.
When he cites blight, vacant properties and overgrown lots, Dean isn’t talking about properties across town. The lot next to his grandmother’s blue house on Letson Street, where he lives, is empty except for the end of what once was a driveway and knee-high grass. The house burned down years ago, he said, and was unlike most of the burned houses in Brighton in that someone lived there when the fire happened.
There are more than 100 dilapidated structures in Brighton, he said, and many that burned years before still stand as just charred frames.
The blight is just one problem the city faces. It’s seen five homicides so far in 2015, up from just a single homicide last year. In some areas, water pressure is so low that residents wait for a slow drip from their faucets and firefighters can’t put out those fires as quickly as they should be able to. The city doesn’t have the kind of parks or recreation facilities it needs to help residents stay active and children stay off the street corners.
Dean said the current city government hasn’t been responsive to citizens’ demands, that it hasn’t had the difficult discussions and fought the hard fights. He said he wants his campaign, over the next year and four months, to tackle those issues. He acknowledges he’ll have missteps, but he wants the campaign to be a voice.
“I think it would be a disservice to wait five months out, six months out from the election to begin a conversation that should have been happening already,” he said.
During a visit to the Brighton Senior Center, Dean talked with people who taught him in school, people who knew his family members, and one woman who recognized him from when he helped her with her voter registration eight years earlier, when he was just a teenager.
The people at the senior center act supportive of him, but also offer advice. One woman reminds him he needs to go to church.
“If you don’t go,” she said, “you’re going to get a whooping.”
Many of these people have seen Dean grown up. Brighton is his home.
Dean can drive down Letson Street and point out his family’s history in Brighton. His great-great-grandparents owned one house, where they raised livestock. His great-grandparents lived in another, where they grew pecans to sell.
He grew up between his grandmother’s home and his mother’s home in Bessemer, attended Brighton schools through eighth grade and graduated from Hueytown High School in 2010.
His grandmother worked 50 years as a maid, he said, and his father worked 20 years as a steelworker. They worked hard so he would have opportunities.
“With the limited resources that they had they made it very possible for me to make a better life for myself,” he said. “That was the encouragement I needed to get involved in public service.”
After his eighth grade year, he interned at City Hall, and knows some staffers personally from that experience.
After high school, Dean left Brighton for Howard University in Washington, D.C. He worked on campaigns and interned for political leaders, including two mayors of the nation’s capital.
He credits Muriel Bowser, the current mayor of D.C., with teaching him an important lesson about public service. She’s not in the position for the power or prestige, he said, she’s in it for the service. That’s what he wants to emulate.
“When you realize, ‘I’m not a three-piece-suit-wearing type dude,’ it can become a little bit daunting to stay in the game,” he said. “When you see people who are really in this for the service, it can inspire you to keep going.”
Since coming back to Alabama, Dean has worked as a field representative for the American Federation of Teachers and as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. He cites his union experience when he says he understands that Brighton needs jobs, and jobs that pay well. He said he wants a government focused on helping people make a better living.
“When this discussion is over, who’s leaving the table trying to figure out how can I make it so that we can employ more people and make it so they make more money?” he said. “I’m a union organizer. I know you can’t survive off $7.25.”
Dean knows he doesn’t have a lot of experience, that his possible opponents already in local government can beat him in that area. He said his long campaign is partially a way to overcome that. He said he wants to listen to people, to have time to make mistakes and show he can overcome them.
For now, he campaigns by listening. He asks everyone he comes across what problems need to be solved. He asks volunteer firefighters, teachers, senior citizens and the young people on the corner what they want from Brighton.
“Everywhere we go, we meet people, different types of people, old people, young people, sick people, well people, people who go to work every day, people who’ve been displaced for 10 years,” he said. “They say ‘I want to be a part of what you’re doing because I’ve never seen something like this in our community.'”