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Alabama Legislature Week 1: Strange from the jump

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

It was a nice, quiet opening week in the Alabama Legislature.

Ha. Just kidding. It was mass chaos, like usual, and right out of the gate. From the governor’s mistress weeping from her balcony seat over words she (likely) wrote, to arguments over Civil War monuments, to an only-in-Alabama Senate appointment, the 2017 Legislative Session started like all the grace of a roller derby.

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So, without a further ado, here’s your weekly recap:

State of the State: Tears

As far as I know, no one has ever mentioned Robert Bentley’s name among the great orators of our time. Yet, by the time the governor had wrapped up, for no discernable reason, his second Olympics analogy in one speech – a speech given some six months after the last Olympic games – his inappropriate relationship partner, Rebekah Mason was wiping away tears. (I’ve seen the video.)

Maybe it was the vivid imagery Bentley painted at the end of his tenure as governor coming to an end. The Governor used the story of an injured and broken runner needing help from his father to drag himself across the finish line. Not sure it was tear-worthy, but the way his governorship is going, the analogy certainly fit.

Inside the speech, there wasn’t much new, other than Bentley seems to suddenly realize after six years that people shouldn’t pay a tax on food, that poor people are having trouble finding health care and that the health of students plays a role in their scholastic performance.

But the primary focus was none of that. Instead, it was prison reform, and by “reform,” Bentley meant building bigger prisons – at a cost of $800 million. Let’s raise our tattooed hands to God – only the Christian God, mind you – and pray that this money falls from the sky, because that’s the only way we’ll have it.

A Strange Appointment

Last week, during a chat with a Montgomery civic organization, I told the group that there was no chance Luther Strange wouldn’t be appointed to the US Senate this week.

That wasn’t some bit of brilliance on my part. It was simple common sense.

Strange has been investigating the Governor. The Governor wants that stopped. The Governor appoints Strange to an out-of-town job. The Governor appoints the State’s new AG. And poof, investigation gone.

Why did anyone ever believe it would happen any other way?

What, you thought an Alabama politician would put ethics and voter interests above personal gain? Did you just move here?

The question now turns to who will be Strange’s replacement in the AG’s office. A few popular names have surfaced and been repeated, but if I had to lay down money on a trifecta of candidates, I’d go in this order:

  1. Troy King
  2. David Byrne
  3. Cooper Shattuck

Don’t ask me why or to explain any of the picks. I have my reasons and my sources. The order could change along the way, but that’s where it stands now.

Monumentally Bad

Monuments and street names. A couple of legislative committees took up bills dealing with those, under the guise of protecting Alabama’s history. In reality, the two bills – one from Rep. Kyle South and companion from Sen. Gerald Allen — served only to make it harder to rename schools and streets named in honor of the racists who pushed the South into the Civil War.

This is what we’re fighting about in Alabama in 2017. On the second day of the session.

Those bills were power grabs by the legislature – a means of taking power away from local officials and hoarding it all in Montgomery. Apparently, despite massive problems on every front, state lawmakers seem to believe that they know best – about everything.

Big Finish

In addition to all of that, there were bills that would limit adoptions to gay couples, because apparently some Republicans believe a parent-less child bouncing around foster care is preferable to a stable, loving, same-sex couple, despite all science disagreeing with them. But then, science, pfft, what is that?

A bill that would remove the permit requirement for concealed carry is also moving swiftly towards the floor. I’m sure it will be followed by a bill to make it easier for toddlers to carry automatic weapons.

A bill from Sen. Dick Brewbaker that would remove judicial override of jury verdicts also saw its first light. It made sense, so I’m certain it will be beaten to a pulp.

And finally, at Thursday’s contract review committee, Bentley’s favorite attorney Cooper Shattuck, the man responsible for the pay scheme that allowed Rebekah Mason to work off the books for the governor, was the subject of a brief debate about a big payday heading his way. The committee delayed approving two contracts for Shattuck totaling $325,000 for what appears to be fairly inconsequential legal work. It appears inconsequential because at the committee meeting, no one could explain why he was being hired or why he was being paid that much.

Week One, Alabama. Week one.

(EDIT: Story was updated to reflect that the contracts for Shattuck were delayed by the Contract Review Committee)

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | The Pulitzer Prize: The Good Journalism Seal of Approval

Joey Kennedy

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Alabama Media Group columnist John Archibald’s life has changed forever.

I know, because I’ve been there. Still am.

Archibald won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary this week, a much-deserved honor and one that underscores the journalism talent that existed at The Birmingham News for decades. Still exists on a few islands.

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It says much about those who run the media company now that they have destroyed the best of journalism in Alabama over the past six years. It also says much about Archibald, who hung in there and did his thing – write superb columns – under no telling how much pressure.

When digital became the primary means for consumers to get their news, Advance Digital focused on trying to make profits instead of keeping the best journalists in the state. To do that, the company cut their most valuable resource.

My wife, Veronica, was among the 60 or so journalists laid off during the first wave of decimation back in 2012. From there, year after year, some of the state’s best journalists were cut loose or fled before that happened.

Profit over journalism.

Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have continued doing the best journalism in America, despite cutbacks. But they had better plans for digital. They didn’t give away their product, which is NEWS, by the way, not newspapers.

Instead, Alabama Media Group cut a great newspaper to three days a week, turning its back on its most loyal subscribers.

That Archibald won the Pulitzer for Commentary – one of the most prestigious of the prizes – says everything about him and not the company.

Archibald is an outstanding writer, a veteran of more than 30 years at the newspaper. He’s a good person, sharp, and works tirelessly. He has compassion and cares. Archibald has built a huge audience. It’s not unusual to see him on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and he has weekly segments on WBHM, Birmingham’s National Public Radio affiliate.

Now, his life has changed.

Archibald will forever be known as a Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s journalism’s top honor. That’ll likely be in the lead of his obituary.

Mine, too. I was one of three editorial writers who won the first Pulitzer Prize at The News and, indeed, at any newspaper owned by the Newhouse company at the time. The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson, and I won in 1991 for a series on tax reform in Alabama.

This week, as Alabama Media Group showered Archibald with praise, and deservedly so, it recapped the other two Pulitzer Prizes won by the “company.” In 2007, Brett Blackledge won for investigative journalism, and, of course, we won in 1991 for editorial writing.

You’ll see Blackledge’s award acknowledged, but the media group’s story just mentioned that The News also won for editorial writing in 1991. That’s misleading. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to individuals, unless there is a team of four or more writers, and then it’s a staff award.

The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson (now Philadelphia Enquirer Editorial Page Editor), and I were awarded Pulitzer Prizes, individually. Nowhere on our Pulitzer Prize awards is The Birmingham News mentioned. The News editorial board had a good team, too. We were cited as top-three finalists for Pulitzer Prizes in 1994 and 2006.

But, you see, I wasn’t “eased” out the door at Alabama Media Group, like so many were. I was fired outright, for “threatening” sources and for “being too personally involved with my stories.”

Any good journalist has threatened sources. Not with violence or something that stupid. But we “threaten” all the time if a source isn’t going to respond, or is going to respond with a known lie.

“If you don’t give your side of the story, I’m still writing that story.”

Or,

“If you are going to just tell that lie, I’m going to report the truth.”

“Threats.” Journalism, as Archibald and any good journalist will tell you, is a confrontational business.

And, yes, since I became an advocacy journalist in 1989, I’ve become personally involved in my topics. I write about subjects that I’m passionate about. Hard not to become personally involved when one actually cares, whether it be about undocumented immigrants, or abused children, or how badly this state treats its poor residents, or race, or equality, or education, or, yes, animals.

That’s the very characteristic that helps make us good advocacy journalists and keeps us human: We care, even if our bosses don’t.

Thank goodness I was fortunate enough to win a Pulitzer Prize. It did change my life, and it’ll change Archibald’s.

I found myself in an elite community. I began to really study writing. I wanted to deserve to be in the company of Ernest Hemingway, and Russell Baker, and Cynthia Tucker, and William Safire, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

So many great writers.

I returned to university for a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in creative nonfiction. I have a rewarding second career, now in my 18th year, teaching English at UAB, my alma mater.

Archibald, too, will see new opportunities ahead of him. He has always been a star, for at least three decades, but now he’s got the official sanction of our profession, the ultimate seal of approval in journalism.

What opportunities will open before him: Who can say? But they’ll be there.

John Archibald knows a good column when he sees one. He’ll know the good opportunities, as well.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Races to watch

Steve Flowers

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Our antiquated 1901 Constitution was designed to give inordinate power to the Legislature. During the Wallace years, the King of Alabama politics, George Wallace, usurped this power and controlled the Legislature from the Executive Branch of Government. Over the last couple of decades the Legislature has wrestled this power back and pretty much excluded the Governor from their bailiwick. Governors Bob Riley and Robert Bentley were ostracized and pretty much ignored.  Their proposed budgets were instantaneously tossed into the nearest trashcan.

Legislative power is derived from controlling the state’s purse strings. Thus the old adage, “Those who have the gold set the rules.” The Legislature has gotten like Congress in that incumbents are difficult to defeat. Therefore, the interest will be on the open Senate and House seats. Most of the Montgomery Special Interest money will be focused on these Legislative races.

Speaking of Montgomery, two open and most interesting Senate seats in the state will be in the Montgomery/River Region. One is currently in progress. Montgomery City Councilman, David Burkette, Representative John Knight and Councilman Fred Bell are pursuing the Democratic seat vacated by Senator Quinton Ross when he left to become President of Alabama State University. Burkette has already bested Knight and Bell in a Special Election last month. A rebound race is set for June 5.

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The Republican Senate seat in the River Region held by Senator Dick Brewbaker is up for grabs. This seat was expected to attract numerous well-known aspirants. However, when the dust settled at the qualifying deadline two relatively unknown candidates were the only ones to qualify. Will Barfoot and Ronda Walker are pitted against each other in a race that is considered a tossup.

The Etowah County/Gadsden area was considered one of the most Democratic areas of the state for generations. However, in recent years it has become one of the most Republican. State Representative, Mack Butler, should be favored as a Republican. Although, polling indicates that veteran Democratic Representative, Craig Ford, could make this a competitive race in the Fall. He is running as an Independent.

Veteran State Senator Harri Ann Smith has represented the Wiregrass/Dothan area admirably for over two decades. She has been elected several times as an Independent. However, she has decided not to seek reelection. Her exit leaves State Representative Donnie Chesteen in the catbird seat to capture the seat.

Republican State Senator Paul Bussman, who represents Cullman and northwest Alabama, is a maverick and very independent. This independence makes him powerful.  He will be reelected easily.

State Representative David Sessions is predicted to win the seat of Senator Bill Hightower who is running for Governor.

Most of the state Senate’s most powerful members are unopposed or have token opposition. Included in this list of incumbent State Senators are veteran Senate leader and Rules Chairman, Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia, Senate President, Del Marsh, R-Calhoun, Senate Majority Leader, Greg Reed, R-Jasper, veteran Senator Jimmy Holley, R-Coffee, as well as Senate leaders Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, Clay Scofield, R-Marshall, Clyde Chambliss, R-Autauga, Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, Tom Whatley, R-Lee, and Shay Shelnutt, R-Gardendale. The Senate leadership will remain intact, as will the House leadership.

Almost all of the House leaders are unopposed or have token opposition. This prominent list includes:  Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Madison, Budget Chairmen, Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, Speaker Pro-tem, Victor Gaston, R- Mobile, Rules Chairman, Mike Jones, R-Covington.

In addition, there are numerous Veteran lawmakers, who will be reelected, including Lynn Greer, Mike Ball, Jim Carnes, Howard Sanderford, Kerry Rich, and Jimmy Martin; as well as rising leaders: Nathaniel Ledbetter, Kyle South, Connie Rowe, Tim Wadsworth, April Weaver, Paul Lee, Terri Collins, Danny Garrett, Dickie Drake, Chris Pringle, Randall Shedd, Allen Farley, Becky Nordgren, Mike Holmes, David Standridge, Dimitri Polizos, Reed Ingram and Chris Sells.

Even though there are 22 open House seats and 10 open Senate Seats, the leadership of both Chambers will remain the same.

There are some competitive House seats that will be interesting. In the Pike/Dale County Seat 89, Pike Probate Judge Wes Allen is pitted against Troy City Council President Marcus Paramore. Tracy Estes is favored to replace retiring Mike Millican in Marion County. Alfa is going all out for Estes. David Wheeler is expected to capture the open House seat in Vestavia.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Opinion | Hot buttons worth pressing

Joey Kennedy

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They don’t want you to vote.

Remember that.

And “they” are mostly the Republicans today. Voters scare Republicans just about to death.

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I stand corrected: “They” don’t want you to vote unless you vote for them.

But to be fair, when Democrats controlled all the branches of Alabama government, they weren’t too crazy about you voting, either, unless you were voting for them.

“They” usually could get you to vote for them, too. For years, Democrat George Wallace used the race card in vicious ways to scare black voters away and draw equality-challenged whites to the polls. There were no race-baiting tactics too vile for Wallace to use.

It wasn’t simply that Wallace was a racist, though he was. But he knew, after losing to John Patterson in 1958, that he’d been out-N’d by Patterson, and he vowed that would never happen again.

And it didn’t. Wallace won in 1962 on a strict segregationist platform, and he dominated Alabama politics through the mid-1980s using some form of the same themes.

Even after race was no longer such a hot-button issue, Democrats still won. The last Democrat elected governor, Don Siegelman, didn’t use race; he used the hot-button lottery.

That may have gotten him elected, but because Siegelman’s lottery proposal was so difficult to understand, and because Republicans and other conservatives used hot-button, non-sequitur religious arguments against it, the lottery was doomed.

“Go to church on Sunday, or the ‘lottery’ will get you!”

Well, something like that.

After Siegelman was defeated by Republican Bob Riley, Alabamians have elected nothing but Republicans to the state’s top office since, and most other statewide offices as well.

Democrats may have used hot-button racial and other issues to get elected, but Republicans perfected the hot-button campaign.

The evils of immigration and undocumented residents.

The traditional marriage “threats” posed by lesbian, gay, and transgender residents.

Democrats are corrupt. Democrats only want higher taxes and more spending. Democrats hate your mother, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

As it turns out, Republicans are the party of corruption in Alabama. Consider just the past few years, when the governor (Robert Bentley), speaker of the House (Mike Hubbard), and Chief Justice of the state (Roy Moore) were removed from their respective offices because of corruption (or, in Moore’s case, twice for not adhering to his oath of office, another form of corruption). Other Republican lawmakers and public officials have been caught up in corruption scandals. Some are in prison right now, though Hubbard, for some reason, remains free.

Too, Republicans figured out a way to keep the people who won’t vote for them from voting at all.

Alabama has some of the most restrictive ballot-access laws in the nation. Both Democrats and Republicans share the blame, but Republicans, with a supermajority in both the House and Senate, could have opened the ballot more.

They refused. The more candidates on the ballot, the more choices voters have. Can’t have voters having choices; can’t have different ideas floating around out there.

The more people out there who vote, the less chance Republicans have of winning. So they passed draconian voter ID laws. That locks out or scares away many voters who would likely vote for Democrats or a third party. Qualified voters who don’t have photo IDs are more likely to be poor and minority, generally voters who elect Democrats or who certainly don’t vote for Republicans.

Republicans gerrymandered the state to such an extent, their districts are usually considered safe. They even gerrymandered moderate, thinking Republicans out of their own districts so those reasonable officeholders couldn’t win against the far more conservative Republicans.

Republicans now have weakened the state’s ethics laws so much, their favorite kind of corruption – using their offices for public gain – is practically legal.

It’s a mess, to be sure.

That’s why this year is so important. With the December win of Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones over Republican Molester Roy Moore, Democrats and independents are charged up.

There actually are more Democrats running for office this year than Republicans. Many are women. Many are African-American women. The governor’s race this year not only features Republicans challenging the incumbent, but Democrats elbowing their way in.

True, many of the Republicans running for office are the incumbents. But Democrats and independents are fired up.

And with Millennials and post-Millennials becoming qualified to vote, and with a renewed interest in activism because of the #MeToo movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the #NeverAgain gun restriction movement, the #DACAnow immigration movement, and the radical shift in public opinion surrounding LGBTQ issues, it very well may be a new day.

Yes, even in Alabama.

Imagine our hot buttons turning out to be a real push for reasonable gun control. Or “Equality for All,” that would make the lives of immigrants and the gay community and women and, yes, sadly, still, African-Americans feel truly included.

Imagine hot buttons that truly matter.

Those are the hot buttons we can press with pride. If we will.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Alabama Legislature Week 1: Strange from the jump

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