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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 | Inside the Statehouse: Judicial races highlighted – June 5 primary

Steve Flowers

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This is not just a gubernatorial year in the Heart of Dixie.

We have every constitutional office up for election which includes Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, State Auditor and Agriculture Commissioner.

We also have a good many of the State Judicial races on the ballot. We have nine seats on our State Supreme Court. We have five judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals, as well as five seats on the Court of Civil Appeals. All of these judicial posts are held by Republicans. Therefore, it is more than likely safe to assume that the winner of the Republican primary will be elected to a six-year term and can be fitted for their robe, at least by July 17. In fact, Democrats usually do not even field candidates in state judicial races.

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Over the past two decades, a prevailing theme has been that women have become favored in state judicial races. In fact, it was safe to say that if you put two candidates on the ballot for a state judicial position, one named John Doe and the other Jane Doe, and neither campaigned or spent any money, Jane Doe would defeat John Doe.

However, for some inexplicable reason, this prevalence reversed itself on June 5, in the Republican primary. In the much-anticipated race for the extremely important Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, position two of the sitting members of the Supreme Court were pitted against each other. 

Justice Lyn Stuart, who is the longest serving member on the State Supreme Court, had moved into the Chief Justice role after the departure of Judge Roy Moore. She was running for Chief Justice for the full six-year term. Justice Tom Parker was Roy Moore’s closest ally and is now the most socially conservative activist on the court. Parker and Moore dip from the same well.

Parker chose to challenge Stuart for Chief Justice. The Lyn Stuart vs Tom Parker contest was billed as one of the Titanic battles of the Primary season. Stuart was the darling of the business community. Parker openly was carrying the banner of the social conservatives. Parker bested Stuart 52 percent to 48 percent. Most of Parker’s financial backing came from plaintiff trial lawyers. Parker does have Democratic opposition from Birmingham attorney, Robert Vance, Jr. However, he should win election in November.

Judge Brad Mendheim was facing two prominent female Circuit judges, Debra Jones of Anniston and Sarah Hicks Stewart of Mobile, for Place 1 on the State Supreme Court. Mendheim has been a longtime popular Circuit Judge in Dothan. He was appointed to this Supreme Court seat by Governor Kay Ivey earlier this year.  Mendheim decisively outdistanced his female opponents by garnering 43 percent of the vote. He is expected to win election to a full six-year term on the high tribunal on July 17.

Another example of the male uprising in the court contests occurred in the race for a seat on the Court of Civil Appeals. Judge Terri Willingham Thomas, who has been on this court since 2006 and has served with distinction, was shockingly defeated by her unknown male opponent, Chad Hanson.

Pickens County Prosecutor Chris McCool forged to the front in the race for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals. He led 43 to 35 over Rich Anderson from the Montgomery/River Region.

In the other court races, the candidate who raised the most money and was able to buy some TV time prevailed.

In the State Supreme Court race in Place 4, two Birmingham attorneys, John Bahakel and Jay Mitchell, were pitted against each other. Mitchell significantly outspent Bahaked and won 73 to 27.

Christy Edwards of Montgomery and Michelle Thomason of Baldwin County are headed for a runoff for a seat on the Court of Civil Appeals.

Richard Minor defeated Riggs Walker overwhelmingly 66 to 34 for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals. In the seat for Place 3 on the Court of Criminal Appeals there was yet another display of male dominance in the court races. Bill Cole bested Donna Beaulieu 60 to 40. 

On Saturday before the Primary, legendary Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Clement Clay “Bo” Torbert, passed away at 88 in his beloved City of Opelika. His funeral was on Election Day. Judge Torbert served as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for 12 years, 1976 to 1988. He had previously served two terms in the State Senate prior to his election as Chief Justice.

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 | The truth about what’s happening with child separations

Josh Moon

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There is a debate raging over what’s happening at our southern border, as the Trump administration separates children, including toddlers, from their parents.

There should not be a debate about this.

And the only reason there is a debate about it is because one side is being fed a steady helping of BS from the Trump administration, federal officials, Fox News and a variety of conservative disinformation outlets.

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So, in the interest of putting this all to rest, let’s share some facts.

  • The decision to separate children from their parents is 100 percent a call made by the Trump administration. Specifically, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this change — after Trump signed off — a few weeks ago.
  • The change itself moves from a policy of treating asylum-seeking refugees as a civil issue to one that is now a criminal issue. That is the specific policy change.
  • While your conservative friends keep trying to blame this all on a 1997 law signed by Bill Clinton, they are wrong. The 1997 thing wasn’t even a law. And it wasn’t signed by Clinton. Instead, it was a court settlement that allowed for unaccompanied minors at the border to be detained no more than 20 days before being placed in foster care.
  • Conservatives also keep insisting that Obama and Bush each had these policies. That is wrong. Obama’s policy, specifically, was to release those seeking asylum, along with their families, until their appointed hearing dates.
  • The overwhelming majority of the people seeking asylum are NOT breaking the law. They were not apprehended crossing the border. Instead, they presented themselves at a designated location and requested asylum from U.S. authorities.
  • The overwhelming majority of the asylum-seekers are fleeing from very real violence and danger. Many have been targeted by gangs and they view the U.S. as the only safe haven for their children.
  • There are verified instances of immigrants being denied asylum, deported to their home countries and killed within days.
  • A large portion of the immigrants have traveled upwards of 2,000 miles to reach the U.S. border — a remarkable distance on foot and by bus or crowded truck. And could possibly be evidence of just how scared and how desperate they are.
  • Our government, after separating small, crying children from their parents, are locking those kids in cages. Some are as young as 5. If you did that at your house, with your 5-year-old, DHR would be by to take the child.
  • While Fox News described the cages as “chain link fencing being used as walls,” they are, in fact, cages. You might could refer to them as a dog kennel and be accurate, but I’m not sure that helps your efforts of distortion.
  • I, and many, many other bleeding heart liberals, would be happy to take in children or families awaiting an asylum hearing. Just because your racism makes such an undertaking impossible to imagine doesn’t mean it affects decent humans the same way. You should stop using this as an argument. It’s dumb.
  • Those photos of kids in holding centers during the Obama administration are NOT child detainees. Unlike the current situation, during Obama’s final years in office, thousands of unaccompanied migrant children began arriving at the southern border. The children were housed in federal facilities until they could be processed out and placed sponsors, foster families or other arrangements made.  
  • Liberals/Progressives/Democrats who are angry about the treatment of immigrant children also care deeply about poor children in America. It’s why we are responsible for social programs that provide food and health care to needy children, programs that attempt to monitor the safety and welfare of all children and why we consistently protect this country’s free public education system. All of which conservatives would happily demolish today if it meant an extra dollar to them.
  • Why any of this is an issue is, quite honestly, astounding, considering that illegal immigration last year hit a 40-year low following a steady decline during the final years of George W. Bush’s administration and for the entirety of President Obama’s administration.
  • In Obama’s final year in office, apprehensions of immigrants crossing the Southwest border dropped to a low not seen since the mid-1970s. This occurred despite his policies that treated immigrants humanely and did not separate children from their parents, and despite his attempts to push through a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants. All indications that we can secure the border, treat immigrants with respect and dignity and pass common sense immigration reform laws that recognize the contributions of immigrants who as much Americans as you or I.
  • The current immigration policies being pushed by the Trump administration are none of those things. Instead, they are mean-spirited, hateful and blatantly racist.

These are the facts. Whether you like them or not.

Now stop being dumb.

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Opinion | We could do worse than John Merrill

Josh Moon

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I’m going to do something that my progressive friends will mostly not like.

I’m going to say nice things about Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

I know. I know.

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But hear me out.

Because part of the reason that I’m doing this is I believe politics at every level has devolved into such a scorched-earth, I-hate-everyone-on-the-other-side sort of spectacle that we’re no longer willing to say any person from the other team is doing anything good. Even when they are.

And Merrill is.

Yes, I know he’s blocked several dozen people on Twitter, and I find that silly and pointless and illegal.

And yes, I know he has been snarky and sarcastic to some of you. And to me.

But even so, we’re lucky we have Merrill.

Because it could be so much worse.

If you doubt this, I would like to point you to news stories from other states with Republican-dominated legislatures. Like Ohio, where they’re booting active voters off rolls for missing a single election. Or North Carolina, which implemented the most unreasonable voter ID law in the nation to prevent minorities from going to the polls.

Alabama has one of those voter ID laws, too. And it has the right now to kick voters off the rolls for missing an election.

But what you don’t have in Alabama is anywhere near the level of disenfranchisement of voters. Even a federal judge agreed, when upholding Alabama’s ID law.

That’s mostly due to Merrill’s work.

When Alabama’s legislature passed its voter ID law a few years ago, it placed very few requirements on Merrill’s office for how to go about making those IDs available. It was a stupid, pointless law that in no way deterred voter fraud, but it was a law that Merrill’s office had to deal with.

Instead of taking the usual Alabama path and doing the absolute bare minimum required in the job, Merrill went the other way. In the years since that law was passed, his office has put a mobile ID unit on the street, they’ve coordinated with various groups to set up registration drives in underserved areas, they’ve actually visited the homes of people to issue voter IDs and they’ve implemented electronic registration.

That last one has been the biggie, with more than 60 percent of voters registered during Merrill’s tenure coming since the electronic registration went live a little more than a year ago. That electronic rollout also included an app — an app built by the staff of the Secretary of State’s office.

They’ve tried to work with the county Boards of Registrars to get registration info into the communities and schools. They’ve pushed registration through an ad campaign. And they’ve been willing to travel to pretty much any festival, ball game, bake sale or other community function to set up a registration drive.  

And let me repeat: None of this was required of the Secretary of State’s office.

At the same time, Merrill took a different approach from Ohio to cleaning up the voting rolls (removing deceased voters, people who moved, etc.). Instead of labeling voters who fail to return a verification card as “inactive,” the SoS office implemented a two-step process that began when only if the Post Office returned a notice for a voter.

And even if the two notices were somehow missed, if a voter shows up to the polls and finds themselves on the inactive list, the fix is simply updating the SoS address card at the polling place and then voting a regular ballot (not a provisional one).  

Again, this wasn’t required. And a much more mean-spirited, onerous process is now perfectly legal, according to our Supreme Court.

The decision to make Alabama’s process reasonable and fair was Merrill’s.

And look, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Merrill and his staff shouldn’t get huge praise for doing the job they should be doing. After all, voter registration is the top priority in that gig, and there’s not a close second. So maybe we shouldn’t be handing out cookies for stuff the Secretary of State is supposed to do.

But that line of thinking ignores the reality of Alabama politics and the reality of the politically polarized country in which we live.

Because you just know that nine out of 10 Republican politicians wouldn’t have done half the things Merrill has. They would’ve offered a Jeff Sessions, little-kid-burning-ants, evil grin and hid behind the law and the lack of funds and the indifference.

That’s the norm.

So, yeah, Merrill loves the spotlight and camera lights. He has weird, right-wing beliefs that I wholly disagree with. And he has not always done enough to protect voter rights.

But man, things could be so much worse without him.

 

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Alabama Legislature Week 1: Strange from the jump

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