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2018 might be better … cautious warning aside

Bill Britt

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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

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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.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | The black hand behind Perry Hand

Bill Britt

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Perry Hand (via BCA)

Shortly after the Alabama Political Reporter made it known that the Business Council of Alabama’s Executive Board had voted on April 10 to terminate Billy Canary from his position as CEO, nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers were burning-up their mobile phones, trying to find out who Perry Hand is and who could convince him to push Canary out immediately. Hand wants to keep Canary in place until the fall

Billy Canary out at BCA, sort of 

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Hand’s motivation to protect Canary is not easily definable unless it’s weighed together with former Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to consolidate power after leaving office in 2010.

Perry A. Hand is the current BCA board chair and chairman of Volkert Inc., an engineering company, which primarily earns its money from government contracts. Volkert Inc. is a significant player in developing disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley’s lovenest, aka Gulf State Park.

Hand cut his teeth in politics first as a state senator under Gov. George Wallace but came to prominence as an appointee and confidant of accidental Republican Gov. Guy Hunt.

It was Hunt who appointed Hand to secretary of state in 1989, only to see him pummeled in the next general election when former Wallace aide Billy Joe Camp bested him by over 115,000 votes. Hand was also appointed the head of the department of transportation as another temporary position.

An Auburn engineering graduate, Hand found success at Volkert where he flourished, rising from the company’s marketing man to chairman and CEO of the Mobile-based firm.

The plan was elegantly simple: Riley’s handpicked successor Bradley Byrne as governor, Hubbard as speaker, Del Marsh as Senate president pro-tem and Luther Strange as attorney general. They would oust Dr. David Bronner at RSA, replacing him with one of their own, and the coup would be complete.

Now, it appears in the twilight of his career, Hand is the man who stands between Canary and some of the state’s most potent business interests who want to see him removed from BCA.

Canary’s deep connection to the Riley machine has been the secret of his success, and like his friend, former speaker of the House and convicted felon Mike Hubbard, that same connection is likely to be his downfall.

Before leaving office in 2010, Riley, along with Hubbard and Canary, devised a plan to carve up state government in such a way as to have the Riley machine controlling the levers of power for a generation and beyond.

The plan was elegantly simple: Riley’s handpicked successor Bradley Byrne as governor, Hubbard as speaker, Del Marsh as Senate president pro-tem and Luther Strange as attorney general. They would oust Dr. David Bronner at RSA, replacing him with one of their own, and the coup would be complete.

But that scheme unraveled first with Bentley’s election over Byrne, Strange’s hiring of prosecutor Matt Hart and the trial and conviction of Hubbard, which exposed the whole enterprise.

Canary, in effect, is the last man standing, and Riley and his gang are hard pressed to stand by while one of their last cohorts goes down in disgrace.

Marsh, for his part, washed his hands of the affair soon after Hubbard was under investigation and there was no longer a need to get rid of Bronner, because Riley loyalist, Canary’s wife Leura Canary, was installed at RSA to keep Bronner in check.

So, it is that Hand, with a few devious or unwitting members of the BCA board, are left to protect what’s left of Riley’s once-thriving empire.

There is little doubt that Canary’s days are numbered, but to think that Riley’s machine will walk away without a fight is naive.

However, greater forces are pushing for Canary’s exit, and if they stay strong, the black hand behind Perry Hand will fail.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Hey Batter, Batter: Taunting Ivey over debates is a silly thing

Bill Britt

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Gov. Kay Ivey throws out the first pitch at a Baron's baseball game in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday.

Some in the media, a handful of politicos and three Republican challengers for governor are dyspeptic over Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision to skip last Thursday’s debate to attend a baseball game.

While these head-to-head match-ups between Republican gubernatorial candidates might be entertaining, only the debate between the major party primary winners could prove decisive.

Ivey knows that she has little to fear from the men who want to replace her. So instead of engaging her Republican rivals, Ivey left them all standing like jilted prom dates to have some fun tossing out the first pitch at a Baron-Biscuits baseball game last Thursday night.

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No doubt the impish side of Gov. Ivey enjoyed donning a Magic City jersey to appear before a cheering crowd while across town campaign consultants and media types fretted over being deemed irrelevant by a governor who doesn’t care what they think.

Ivey’s opponent, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, cares that Ivey doesn’t give him the time of day, so does evangelist Scott Dawson and state Sen. Bill Hightower. But the sellout crowd of nearly 9,000 at the Baron-Biscuits baseball game Thursday night didn’t care about the debates, and neither do most voters who will determine the winner of the June Republican primary.

Why would a sitting governor who holds a 60-plus percent statewide approval rating attend an hour-long food-fight with candidates who aren’t even close to challenging her for election?

Ivey knows that she has little to fear from the men who want to replace her. So instead of engaging her Republican rivals, Ivey left them all standing like jilted prom dates to have some fun tossing out the first pitch at a Baron-Biscuits baseball game last Thursday night.

Like Thursday’s game where the Montgomery Biscuits took an early lead to defeat the Birmingham Barons 7-1, Ivey would be foolish to confront her opponents directly, when she already holds a commanding lead. Ivey will easily coast to victory in the ALGOP primary unless she commits an error, which is always a possibility in a public election.

Rarely do these stage confrontations have a significant impact on the outcome of a political contest, and usually, as with Thursday’s talkfest, nothing is actually learned by the viewer. Canned answers, even worse questions and general public apathy have made modern campaign forums almost useless— if the goal is to gain insight into how a candidate will govern.

Calls for Ivey to face Battle, Dawson and Hightower isn’t so much about a discussion of ideas but an opportunity for supercilious outrage as flimsy as a balsa wood cross whose bearer laments, “Ivey won’t debate.” Signal jackasses braying.

When talking heads and politicos whine and moan about Ivey ducking their get-togethers, it’s not about Ivey or the public’s interests – it’s about them.

What happened Thursday night wasn’t a serious policy debate or even a real opportunity to examine the candidates in any real meaningful way, it was a show. Like a beauty contest, moderators tossed out softball questions that drew vague answers.

When the candidates were asked if they supported Judge Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate, it was as if the moderator had hurled a beanball, with only Dawson directly admitting to voting for Moore while Battle and Hightower equivocated saying little more than they supported the Republican ticket.

The bloom may be off Moore’s rose, but the thorns remain, and that’s always been his appeal; a thorny character who doesn’t mind sticking his sharp finger in the blurred-eyed confusion of modernity. If Moore ran as an independent, he would give Ivey a real run for her money while sending the media into an apoplectic fit of indignation.

First off, only the left-leaning media cares about who supported Moore in the Senate election. Anyone who thinks a vote for Judge Moore hurts a candidate in an Alabama Republican primary doesn’t know much about Republican primary voters. In the ALGOP primary for the U.S. Senate race, Moore overwhelmingly bested his challenger, Luther Strange, by double-digits. He just barely lost to Democrat Doug Jones, even after all the scandal-mongering by the press.

A good 95 percent of the Alabama Republican Party’s base voted for Moore, including Gov. Ivey. Her vote for Moore will not hurt her in a Republican primary.

The bloom may be off Moore’s rose, but the thorns remain, and that’s always been his appeal; a thorny character who doesn’t mind sticking his sharp finger in the blurred-eyed confusion of modernity. If Moore ran as an independent, he would give Ivey a real run for her money while sending the media into an apoplectic fit of indignation.

There are no good reasons for Gov. Ivey to wade in to a blathering-pool for media ratings or to raise her opponents name-ID. All she needs to do between now and June is toss out more two-hoppers, shake hands, kiss babies, and she crosses home without breaking a sweat.

Now, if she refuses to face whoever emerges victorious from the Democrat primary, be it Judge Sue Bell Cobb, former state Rep. James Field or Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, then there will be a reason to call foul. Until then, taunting Ivey is a silly stunt.

As for Battle, Dawson and Hightower, each man, if not facing an incumbent, would be a formidable candidate and even perhaps a good governor. But like a grand slam, it’s all in the timing.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Court of Criminal Appeals continues its failure to rule in Hubbard case

Bill Britt

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With the indictment, conviction and sentencing of former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, there was an expectation of change. But because the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has failed to rule on Hubbard’s case, the once-hoped-for new dawn in Alabama politics is on hold.

For 11 months, the appeals court has been in procession of the final briefs needed to rule on Hubbard’s case, yet the court continues to stall its judgment.

For all the motions, pleading and downright cheating by Hubbard’s defense, it now comes down to politics and an elected court with judges who want to avoid putting Hubbard in jail, where a circuit court judge and jury of his peers in Lee County said he belongs.

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Most notably since Hubbard’s conviction, Criminal Appeals Court Judge Liles Burke has been nominated to the federal bench by President Donald Trump. Burke has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits final confirmation by the full Senate.

How in the name of all that is justice and fair can the United States Senate in good conscience vote to confirm a man to a federal judgeship who will not rule on the most egregious public corruption case in Alabama in over the last decade?

For eleven months the appeals court has been in procession of the final briefs needed to rule on Hubbard’s case yet the court continues to stall its judgment.

How can Sens. Richard Shelby and Doug Jones vote to confirm a man like Burke who even now shrinks from his duty?

Has duty, honor and blind justice become so subservient to politics as to render an entire court neutered and slavishly beholden to the donor class?

Hubbard’s case is not complicated. Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker III studiously and with an abundance of caution adjudicated Hubbard’s trial. There are no grand questions of law hanging over his rulings. What there is are big donors and influential men who were caught in the same web as Hubbard, and these individuals have access to the levers of power that frighten elected courts.

How is the public to trust that Burke will do any better given a lifetime appointment on a federal court? How can we as a state and nation believe that justice sits on the ultimate balance scale where no one individual is above the law no matter their status when the state court of criminal appeals weights case after case while ignoring Hubbard’s?

It seems there is nothing that can be done to move the court forward but what can and should be done is for Burke to be denied a seat of the federal court for failing to do his duty.

When then-Republican Speaker of the House Hubbard was indicted on 23 counts of felony ethics violations, many of us thought things would change. It didn’t. Many in the Republican supermajority stood by Hubbard at a rally the same days as his indictment and praised the would-be felon. Not only did Republicans stand by Hubbard after his indictments, every Democratic House member save Rep. Alvin Holmes voted to re-elect him speaker.

After Hubbard’s conviction on 12 of those 23 felony charges, once again, there was an expectation of better days to come. But those hopes for renewal are dashed against the hard reality that weak judges who know better and should enforce the law are crushed under the weight of the rich and powerful who believe they are a law unto themselves.

It is widely believed that the Court of Criminal Appeals will leave the Hubbard decision until a new court is seated in 2019, or worse, will dismiss it under the cover of darkness. Either way, the State Supreme Court will hear Hubbard’s appeal before the public has closure.

It seems there is nothing that can be done to move the court forward, but what can and should be done is to deny Burke a seat on the federal court for failing to do his duty.

The courts deserve women and men who put the law before political connivance – something that is sorely lacking here in the Heart of Dixie.

 

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2018 might be better … cautious warning aside

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