By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
When we look back over 2017, it would seem there is little cause for celebration, and yet, there are signs of a better year to come. As we ponder the coming year, here are some things to keep in mind.
Happening in the House
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon is showing that it is possible for now to lead the House of Representatives with the strength of conscience and not just political muscle or intimidation. The 2018 Regular Legislative Session should roll along without any great turmoil. Expect House members to enter the State House more united, but voters shouldn’t expect too much in the way of sweeping legislation as it is traditional to tamp down controversy before a general election. Instead, expect McCutcheon and his team to be teeing up the ball for 2019 with an emphasis on budgeting reform, infrastructure planning and a more inclusive agenda that doesn’t merely rely on National GOP talking points.
After taking the reigns when former Speaker Mike Hubbard met his fate in a Lee County courtroom, McCutcheon promised to leave central leadership positions intact until the next quadrennium. However, circumstances have resulted in Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter taking up the post of Republican House Majority Leader with Rep. Connie Rowe as vice chair of the House Republican Caucus. Both Ledbetter and Rowe, elected in 2014, do not owe their positions to Hubbard or the Business Council of Alabama and remain untouched by the corruption that still taints some in House leadership. The elevation of Rep. Mike Jones to Rules chair is a positive move as Jones is studious in his understanding of every piece of legislation before it is presented in the “people’s house,” as McCutcheon refers to the lower chamber.
What ethics reform
Ethics reform, for now, is being relegated to the legislative “lost and found.” McCutcheon continues to support Rep. Mike Ball as chair of the House Ethics Committee. Ball’s chairmanship presents a serious problem as he continues to accuse AG Division Chief Matt Hart of criminal activities, and also press a case that former Speaker Mike Hubbard was the victim of a political prosecution. Ball wonders in a conspiracy dreamland of his own making which renders him wholly incapable of such a serious responsibility. McCutcheon’s unwillingness to replace Ball is baffling. Has the Speaker not yet grasped the need to strengthen and clarify state ethics statute? Ethics reform will continue to be a thorn in the side of the House leadership until it is resolved.
Worry in the courts
There is a legitimate worry among pro-ethics reformers that the State’s Court of Criminal Appeals may move to strike down some of the charges against Hubbard, claiming the judge and jury interpreted some of the ethics statutes too broadly. This has been the contention of several lawyers who continue to work to undermine the ethics laws, especially the portion that deals with principals. Business elites and those that protect them are not, so subtlety, encouraging the court to rule against the jury’s finding on these parts of Hubbard’s conviction. Meanwhile, Hubbard remains convinced the court will throw out all charges against him. The court is expected to issue its opinion after the first of the year. Expect a firestorm to rip through the judicial branch if Hubbard is exonerated on any of the 12 felony counts against him.
Gov. Ivey’s ship is steady for now
Gov. Kay Ivey is keeping her promise to right the ship of state. Her cautious leadership has served the state well but will be challenged as the state moves toward the general election.
Gov. Ivey’s team has yet to set forth a cohesive agenda, but that may very well change in the upcoming State of the State Address on January 9.
Ivey’s reliance on a single advisor is showing strains within her staff, who feel their advice and expertise is being ignored, and it is not going unnoticed by her allies as well as enemies that discord is fermenting in the ranks. A large contingency of Montgomery insiders still believe that former Gov. Bob Riley is directing members of Ivey’s inner circle. If only a perceived reality, Ivey’s failure to rid her administration of Rileyittes is casting a long shadow over her current stream of success.
Her challenges from Huntsville, Mayor Tommy Battle, and faith-leader Scott Dawson are serious. But it is Democrat gubernatorial hopeful Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox that should be giving Gov. Ivey heartburn.
While the election of Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate is a one-off phenomenon, Ivey would be foolish to underestimate the enthusiasm that has emboldened young Dems, Black voters and some crossover Republicans and independents.
Moore is down but not out
Judge Roy Moore may be down, but only fools count him out. He’s still fighting for the U.S. Senate seat, but that’s a vain prospect. It took over $50 million in cash, The Washington Post, most of the national and local media plus the GOP establishment to defeat Moore in his Senate bid, but those forces will not unify to stop Moore from mounting a formidable campaign for governor. Moore’s base of hardcore social conservatives is set on revenge which will likely split the ALGOP primary vote. Even now, Moore is fundraising and calls are going out from Courageous Conservatives PAC calling into question those Republicans who they say aided in his defeat.
Dems opportunity and conundrum
On the Democrat side, Joe Reed needs to understand it’s time to let Nancy Worley go, or he will squander a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the Democratic Party in Alabama. Reed must decide if his legacy will be: he built a Black Democratic Party in Alabama that loses, or did he preside over the rise of an inclusive party that can win again? The same goes for Sue Bell Cobb. Judge Cobb had her chance to lead the party as Chief Justice, but for reasons that remain unclear, she stepped down. Like Reed, she can still play a significant role in a Democratic comeback, but only if she clears the field for Maddox. Both Reed and Cobb need to support new young leadership and help guide the next wave of Democrats – but from the sidelines.
Marshall sells soul to Hubbardites
Perhaps the most consequential race in 2018 will be for the State’s Attorney General Office. Steve Marshall, a Gov. Don Seigelman-Robert Bentley appointee, is a disaster. Veteran lawyers are leaving his office due to his incompetence. But the business community likes Marshall because he has shown a willingness to bend to its will, and they see in him a weak man who will end white collar crime investigations just to curry favor with big-moneyed donors. Even now, Marshall is isolating the powerful Special Prosecution Unit that successfully brought Hubbard to justice. Current money from Hubbard BFF Southern Wood’s Jimmy Rane is flowing like mother’s milk into Marshall’s campaign. Unless Alice Martin or Troy King can stop Marshall, all hope of holding public officials accountable to the law will be lost.
Odds and ends
Retired Alabama Supreme Court Justice Terry Butts was thinking of running for the State Senate seat currently held by Dick Brewbaker who is stepping down at the end of this term. APR recent spoke with Judge Butts, and he confirmed that he is not seeking that office. “As Bob Ingram, a man I respected and enjoyed, who was a beloved, respected, reporter and political commentator always advised would-be political candidates: “Don’t be a deciding candidate,” Butts said.
Judge Butts confirmed that over the Holiday his family discussed his possible candidacy and decided it was best for them if he did not run for elected office at this time. “The unanimous agreement of my family that I just continue with my law practice and with my other, both legal/non-legal public work, and simply not attempt a return to elected office,” Butts said.
He ended our exchange by reciting a quoting from President Abraham Lincoln which he keeps on his desk, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
Also this past week APR learned that Dr. Rich Hobson plans on opposing U.S. Congresswoman Martha Roby in the fall. Hobson is the former Chief of Staff to former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Roy Moore. Hobson is a native of Enterprise. He earned his A.A. from Enterprise State Junior College and his B.A., M.A., and Doctor of Public Administration from the University of Alabama. Hobson will enter the field along with State Rep. Barry Moore to challenge Roby, the incumbent.
And so it is that there is more to be done and few that are willing to pull the load unselfishly. We enter the new year much as we leave the old – with some good, some bad and too many wanting to rule the world.
But with a bit of grace, a lot of mercy and little luck, 2018 might be better.