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Opinion | Secretary of State John Merrill isn’t very collegial

Joey Kennedy

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As we head to the last weekend before next Tuesday’s midterm elections, Alabama voters need to be reminded how Republican candidates have conducted themselves this campaign season.

Very few Republican candidates have debated their Democratic opponents. That’s because Republicans would rather not have to defend their programs and policies in front of an opponent who, quite frankly, probably has better ideas.

The Republicans’ control in Alabama is getting stale. They really have no new ideas to move Alabama forward, if they ever did. Their main strategy is just to make Alabama more Republican. That’s true across all the constitutional offices that are elected statewide.

Their strategy: Stay hidden, say little, and arrogantly depend on Alabama voters to once again return them to office, once again vote against their best interests.

Voters should not reward that kind of arrogance.

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Perhaps one of the most arrogant Republicans seeking re-election is Secretary of State John Merrill. Like most Republican secretaries of state across the nation, Merrill’s goal is to make sure as few people vote who might vote against Republicans as possible. He’s the kingpin of elections in Alabama and the primary architect of voter suppression in the state.

Merrill argues: We need strong voter ID because voter fraud at the polls is real. Fact: It isn’t. In-person voter fraud is rare, as studies have shown. Even President Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (voter fraud commission) disbanded after only a few months because it found no voter fraud.

Merrill argues: We don’t need early voting in Alabama because you can apply for an absentee ballot and vote early. Fact: Absentee ballots are for voters who cannot, for whatever reason (usually because they’re out of their districts on election day), go to the polls. All states with early voting also provide for absentee voting. They are two different things.

Merrill argues: We don’t need automatic voter registration in Alabama because if a qualified citizen can’t go through the steps required to register to vote, that person is “lazy.” Fact: Automatic voter registration would qualify many more citizens to vote, and more voters is not what Merrill and Republicans want to see.

We have all of that, plus, Merrill is simply not a very nice person. In academia, we would say he’s not “collegial,” which means he doesn’t play well with others, especially those who disagree with him.

Merrill’s Twitter feed often lashes out at those people who do disagree with him. He’s known to block people left and right, if he doesn’t like what they say. Merrill can’t take criticism, and he doesn’t have the critical thinking skills to accept that somebody else might have a better idea than he.

Merrill is even unpleasant at public events.

At a gathering at the Spencer Honors House at UAB a couple weeks ago, Merrill refused to answer some questions, unless the questioner acknowledged Merrill had done more as secretary of state for Alabama than any other in the nation. In other words, Merrill needed his ego stroked. Not collegial.

Merrill didn’t want to address hard questions in detail or honestly, everything from automatic voting to voter fraud to educating felons on how to register to vote after they’ve served their time and are qualified again.

“From the very beginning, he was so defensive,” said UAB honors student John Aiken, a political science major. “He was already ready for all of (those questions). He wasn’t answering a lot of questions. It was like talking to a brick wall, and I just had to give up.”

Aiken, 21, is education director and on the executive board for UAB’s College Democrats, so he went to the meeting knowing that he and Merrill likely wouldn’t agree on much.

But what Merrill fails to acknowledge is that, while a Republican, he’s the elected secretary of state for all Alabamians – Republicans, Democrats, third party, independents. He fills that role poorly. Not very collegial.

“I asked him about automatic voter registration,” Aiken said. In his response, Merrill said that some eligible voters don’t want to be registered. “He’s more concerned about violating the rights of those who don’t want to vote” than those who do, Aiken said.

Merrill also told Aiken he was generalizing because Aiken couldn’t provide the name of somebody who couldn’t physically register to vote or who would benefit from automatic registration. Merrill said that type of person doesn’t exist.

Well, of course, that type person does exist. Every eligible voter should be registered, whether they’re “lazy” or not. If they don’t want to vote, they don’t have to vote. But what’s the harm in making certain they can if they so desire?

Well, they might vote, and that scares Merrill and Republicans to death.

As for encouraging qualified former felons to register, Aiken said Merrill claimed these former felons can’t be found. I’ll guarantee you law enforcement agencies can find them.

But again, former felons aren’t likely to vote Merrill’s way.

Following the event, Aiken posted details on his Facebook page. Somebody screenshot the page and sent it to Merrill on Twitter.

Merrill’s response was fairly typical, considering that he and Aiken disagreed: “He heard what he wanted to hear he came in there with an agenda and that’s what he promoted. That’s generally the liberal narrative. If you would like to talk to me about the meeting or what we have done since I’ve been the Secretary please to call me at cell phone 334-328-2787.” Not very collegial.

By the way, Aiken did call Merrill. The call went to voice mail.

I’ve heard this same story from other people who have had interactions with Merrill, then tried to call him. I’ve seen similar partisan, nasty Tweets from Merrill on his timeline. It’s a way for Merrill to appear he’s open for discussion when he’s actually anything but.

At an academic institution, Merrill’s lack of collegiality could easily prevent him from ever earning tenure.

So here’s the question: Why should voters give Merrill another four years’ tenure as Alabama Secretary of State? He certainly doesn’t represent all of us. He doesn’t have an open mind about getting more voters to the polls because that scares him. He’s just one of many Republican election officials across the nation doing everything they can to keep voter turnout low, because that’s what Merrill and other Republicans need to keep winning elections. And, after they win, to keep suppressing votes.

If you’re not one of those “lazy” people who isn’t registered to vote, make sure to show up Tuesday. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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

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Bill Britt

Opinion | The political genius in film: William Goldman

Bill Britt

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Last Friday, Oscar-winning writer William Goldman died at the age of 87. Movie-goers and Hollywood enjoyed his wry wit and sardonic wisdom, but investigative reporters worldwide are forever in his debt for giving us the single best lead for tracking down public corruption and nefarious politicos.

Goldman wrote the screenplay for the movie adapted from Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book, “All the Presidents Men,” which follows the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon after the Watergate break-in.

During a pivotal scene in the 1976 movie, Woodward’s character, played by Robert Redford, is told by his anonymous government source known as Deep Throat to, “Follow the money.”

Nowhere is the line, “Follow the money” found in Woodward and Bernstein’s book. It is Goldman’s invention and pure reporting genius.

But tracking a money trail can be used in a broader context to understand why things happen the way they do in government.

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Let’s put aside, for now, the notion of public service and admit that a majority of what happens in politics is tied to the wants of one particular group or another. These groups or individuals, commonly referred to in the pejorative as special interests, are not necessarily evil. They just want what’s best for themselves and their interests.

During her first State of the State address nearly a year ago, Gov. Kay Ivey staked her ground with workforce development, job creation and an education proposal under her, “Strong Start, Strong Finish: from pre-K to workforce,” plan. Gov. Ivey has a detailed strategy for success, but her goals will be challenged by those who prosper under a system that is burdened with an entrenched bureaucracy, as well as those who dine off the Education Trust Fund without actually being a part of educating Alabamians.

Likewise, Alabama’s Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon lists infrastructure, improving public schools, school security and stronger ethics laws as a priority. To enumerate the special interests that will line up to pick away at his goals would be a nearly impossible task.

Neither Ivey or McCutcheon will be swayed by personal gain as was their predecessors, but they will need a well-placed group of watchers to see who will work to undermine their best efforts. To do so means following the money.

Goldman wrote many other novels and screenplays, most notably, “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the pair’s only hope of escaping a rapidly approaching posse is to cliff dive hundreds of feet into a raging river. During the tense moment, Sundance reveals he can’t swim to which Butch chuckles, “Are you crazy, the fall will probably kill you.”

Butch and Sundance were not winners, but they rarely doubted as an exchange between the pair shows.

The Sundance Kid: “You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at.”

Butch Cassidy: “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Goldman’s characters displayed ironic humor in the face of defeat and generally find a way, at least for a moment, to turn a loss into a victory. Sometimes leadership is simply the ability to make it from one failure to the next.

An enduring line from the Princess Bride is, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” However, any wise practitioner of the political arts knows as Goldman points out, there’s not much money in the revenge business.

Another phrase from the Princess Bride which is a mainstay of the movie’s fans is, “Inconceivable,” repeatedly uttered by the stooge mastermind, Vizzini. Every action in government is conceivable because it is human nature at work.

In Goldman’s “Marathon Man,” Dustin Hoffman plays an oblivious long-distance runner who becomes entangled in a case of stolen gems and sadistic henchmen.  During the film, Huffman’s character encounters a Nazi-dentist who drills Hoffman’s healthy teeth without painkillers, torturing him for the correct answer to the eternal question, “Is it safe?”

It’s politics, and it’s never safe. That is why there must be journalists who ask the tough question, dig for facts and report without fear or prejudice. We don’t see this as often as we should in state politics because there is a cost to truth-telling. But the price of not reporting is a price too high to measure.

Goldman was a genius who not only entertained us but made us think. In politics, we don’t all have to think alike, but it would be good to know that everyone is thinking.

With Butch and Sundance, he gave us a lesson in how hope springs eternal. In “Marathon Man,” we see that things are not always what they seem. “The Princess Bride” let us see how true love can conquer all, but in politics, follow the money if you want to know what’s really happening.

In the end Goldman summed up the human condition, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” –The Princess Bride

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Opinion | Straight-party suicide

Joey Kennedy

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One wonders if the 2018 midterm elections will ever end. There are still races undecided, recounts going on all over the nation. The original thoughts that the results were only mildly in favor of Democrats on a national level have turned toward a true Blue wave, as Democrats continue to win close races in once-solidly Red districts and solidify their hold on the U.S. House and a few more state governments.

Well, except for Alabama. Our midterms are long over – apparently they were over even before state voters cast their (straight-ticket) ballots nine days ago.

There was such a Red wave in Alabama that even the closest statewide race between a Republican and Democrat was such a GOP landslide nobody even blinked. Instead, we yawned.

Oh, Alabama! We’re so far out of touch with the nation. Even Mississippi has a runoff between a Democrat and Republican. Georgia and Florida have marquee races that are still undecided. A Democrat flipped a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. A diverse caravan of women have elbowed their way into that old, white man’s club in Congress.

We could have had some of that. We could have gone more progressive. Instead, we stayed solidly regressive.

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Sure, a chunk of the problem is the dysfunctional Democratic Party of Alabama, which stood by while highly qualified candidates were massacred. If changes aren’t made in the state party, we’ll see more of the same, too. Even as the nation becomes ever more forward-thinking, ever more “we’ve got to dump Trump,” Alabama loves its status as one of the lowest-ranking states in quality-of-life issues. In education. In health care. In compassion for the least of these.

Hey, but we got that Ten Commandments constitutional amendment passed, one that’ll cost Alabama more money it doesn’t have in losing legal challenges.

We Dare Defend Our Wrongs.

But a bigger problem with Alabama, and we’ve got many where elections are concerned, is that we still allow straight-party voting. Voters overwhelmingly took the lazy way out on election day. They didn’t want to go down the ballot and choose the best-qualified candidate for office. That’s too hard. That requires thinking. Instead, they just bubbled-in the “D” or the “R.”

As with so many reforms, Alabama is among those who choose to stay the archaic course. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only eight states allow straight-ticket voting these days. Of course, Alabama is one of them. We don’t hear Secretary of State John Merrill talking about reforming that voting anomaly. And even Texas, one of those eight states, is doing away with straight-ticket voting for the 2020 elections; Indiana, another one, doesn’t allow straight-party voting for at-large races.

It’s no coincidence, either, that just about every state that still allows straight-ticket voting is a solidly Red state. It’s just another way Republicans, whose agenda is completely out of touch with what is happening across America but are masterful at suppressing the vote, maintain their now-more-tenuous hold on power.

Straight-party voting goes both ways. In Jefferson County, now a solidly Democratic county, straight-party voting for Democrats left some outstanding judges out of jobs. That judges even run in partisan races is a flaw – party philosophy has no place in the law.

The loss is that up and down the ticket, there were qualified candidates on both sides. Too many voters, though, had to run home and watch Fox news, so they didn’t have time to think about their selections. Instead, they just blacked the “R” oval and settled into their easy chairs to watch Hannity.

Far too many voters aren’t responsible enough to educate themselves before an election, even on the most important offices – governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the Public Service Commission, statewide judicial seats, Congress.

Now, our Republican U.S. House delegation (Democrat Terri Sewell is the one exception) find themselves on the outs. They’re in the minority, with little power to do anything – not that any of the Republicans from Alabama exercised their influence when they had that power to begin with.

Republicans have been pretty successful at influencing low-information voters, and that’s to those voters’ detriment. When it comes to issues like preserving Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, access to health care, protection from health insurance companies on pre-existing illnesses, equal pay, protecting women against sexual assault, humane immigration reform, equal rights for all Americans, including minorities and the LGBT community, Democrats are more likely to stand up.

Republicans give out billions in tax breaks to billionaires, then try to make up the difference with cuts to the programs that disproportionately affect the very Alabamians who elected them.

You may not like that assessment. You may be offended by it. Well, get over it. That’s the truth.

Try thinking.

But if you don’t, at least you can vote that straight ticket.

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

 

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Opinion | Sellouts are running Alabama’s environmental agencies. Why don’t you care?

Josh Moon

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There is contaminated tap water in north Alabama.

There are no oysters in the Gulf.

There is poison soil in Birmingham.

There are polluted lakes and rivers throughout the state.

There have been coal ash spills and a stalled poop train and imported toxic waste too dangerous for other states to allow.

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There’s a poison plume running under all of downtown Montgomery.

This is Alabama Outdoors.

In a state where at least 90 percent of the males hunt or fish with some regularity, and state law requires at least every third car have a “Salt Life” back window sticker, we don’t seem to give two good damns about the actual environment that make those things possible.

And we sure don’t seem to care much about the people who are supposed to be in charge of protecting those things.

If you did, you would know that two of those people were indicted this week on ethics charges. There are serious — and widely known and widely believed and widely supported with a mountain of evidence — allegations that Trey Glenn, the current head of the EPA’s southeastern region, and Scott Phillips, a former commissioner with the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, accepted bribes from polluters to actively work against cleaning up pollution and holding those polluters responsible.

Or to put that more simply: They sold out.

They sold out you.

They sold out the environment.

They sold out their oaths.

(Allegedly, of course.)

And these two aren’t the first ones. If you paid the least bit of attention to the recent trial involving a former Balch & Bingham attorney and a former Drummond Co. executive, you heard of all sorts of shady dealings flowing back and forth between companies highly suspected of polluting our soil, air and water and the agencies — Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), EPA and AEMC — that are supposed to stand in the gap between us regular folk and big business.

Instead, it seems, these guys have spent most of their time standing in big businesses’ pockets.

In addition to Phillips to Glenn, ADEM head Lance LeFleur was accused of having a cozy relationship with Drummond, and once wrote a letter opposing the EPA’s listing of a pollution area in north Birmingham as a superfund site. In court testimony, attorneys openly questioned if that letter was written at the encouragement of Drummond and its attorney.

A few weeks after the trial, 12 environmental groups sent a letter to AEMC demanding that LeFleur be removed and cited examples of his department’s failures and compromises. LeFleur denied the allegations, calling them “mean-spirited” and “untrue.”

But the problems don’t even end there.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley was actively writing — or signing his name to letters pre-written by Drummond’s attorneys — to stop the superfund site and cleanup.

Former attorney general Luther Strange signed off on pre-written letters from his office to the EPA demanding that the site not be listed on the superfund registry and proclaiming that the state would provide no funds for cleanup.

Think about that.

That’s the guy whose main job is consumer protection.

You’re the consumer. We’re all the consumers.

So, why, why, why do you not care?

I’m begging someone to explain this to me. Why do you not care that you can’t eat fish out of the Tennessee River? That you can’t swim in Wheeler Lake? That you can’t drink the tap water in Courtland? That there will literally be NO oysters harvested from the Gulf this year? That poor people in one of the poorest areas of this state have dealt with constant illnesses? That your “salt life” and your “lake life” and your hunting and your fishing and your kids swimming and your just everyday existing is being jeopardized by sellouts?

Why don’t you care?

And I know you don’t care, because you just voted 60-40 to put the same people back in charge who put all of these people in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources.

And those same people you put back in office are taking your indifference seriously. When I sent a question to the governor’s office today asking for a comment on the sad state of Alabama environmental management programs, they didn’t even bother to respond.

Because Kay Ivey knows you don’t care.

There wasn’t a peep from any state lawmakers, because they also know you don’t care.

You know, I hear people ask all the time how Alabama — in the middle of the Bible Belt and with a church on every corner — could have a government that’s so corrupt, so filled with people willing to take bribes and sell out their constituents.

This is how: You stop paying attention.

 

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Elections

Opinion | The Alabama Democratic Party has no plan, no hope for the future

Josh Moon

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The Alabama Democratic Party is a dumpster fire.

This cannot be news to you by now.

Not after last Tuesday. Not after the last eight years.

Actually, that description might not be harsh enough. Try this: The Alabama Democratic Party is a flaming bag of poop way down at the bottom of a dumpster fire.

And before you go away thinking that to be too harsh, consider this: In the midst of a legit blue wave nationally — Democrats will gain around 40 House seats and receive around 8 million more votes when all of the counting is finished — Democrats in Alabama lost five House seats to an existing GOP supermajority.

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Alabama Dems’ best crop of candidates in YEARS received roughly the same percentage of the vote as its worst candidates ever.

Gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox traveled more than 30,000 miles around this state, spent years attending county commission meetings and getting to know citizens on both sides of the aisle. His likability numbers among likely voters, regardless of party, were fantastic.

He got roughly the same number of votes as Lt. Governor candidate Will Boyd, who you couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles.

Party chairwoman Nancy Worley and Democratic Conference head Joe Reed had quite the answer for this disaster of an election, saying, and I’m paraphrasing here: “eh, whatchagonnado?”

That was basically Worley and Reed’s response after they were heavily criticized by their own candidates last week. The criticisms, which came most loudly from Congressional candidate Mallory Hagan, centered on the Alabama Democratic Party’s lack of assistance with campaigns, lack of messaging, lack of financial support, lack of planning, lack of Get Out the Vote efforts, lack of organization and lack of visibility. To name a few.

Worley and Reed attempted to explain it all away by noting that Hagan and other candidates faced insurmountable odds, that the deck was stacked against them, that they would have been wasting resources to have even tried.

Don’t you dare buy it.

Because while it’s true that dropping a half-million the last month of the campaign wouldn’t have saved any candidate (except maybe Johnny Mack Morrow), that’s not when the money should have been spent. That’s not when the party office is most useful.

Winning elections takes effort. It takes planning. It takes information. It takes a long-term strategy.

Republicans didn’t take over the State House after 100-plus years of Democratic control because they prayed about it harder, even if that’s what they’d like you to believe.

They had a plan. They executed that plan.

They started down the ballot, winning races where a handful of votes swayed by the top of the ticket or a county initiative could land a few judgeships, maybe put a new House rep in place. Then they built on that.

They also did it through messaging.

I loathe Mike Hubbard, but that dude knew how to win elections. And he knew how to drive a point home. From the mid-2000s on, Democrats couldn’t go to the bathroom without Hubbard holding a press conference or issuing a press release claiming the Dems were in the bathroom plotting to take your guns or steal your money.

He went to major businesses around the state and started making deals for campaign contributions. And then he used those funds to push the party message even harder. Year after year, Hubbard and the rest of the ALGOP highlighted every bad thing Alabama Democrats did, and told people how Republicans would fix it and make their lives better.

Hubbard could do that, because as party chairman, he spoke for the ALGOP. And because he controlled the purse strings of the party, he could ensure that his message was the message resonating throughout the ALGOP.

ALGOP candidates were prepared with the best polling, the best opposition research, the best ads and the best volunteers. And they were all pushing just the right messages to voters.

They got to be so good at it that it didn’t matter if the candidate was essentially a door stopper. The ALGOP brass, led by Hubbard and a few others, had established a system so good and so efficient that they could get Shadrack McGill elected to the Alabama Senate.  

It didn’t even matter that the messages were mostly BS, and all Hubbard really wanted to do was take all of the money he could get his hands on.

The plan, the message and the execution were so good that it didn’t matter.

Alabama Democrats don’t have any of that.

Not the plan. Not the voice. Not the leadership.

And for some reason, the people in charge of the party seem to be OK with that. Because they just continue to not do anything at all to fix it.

The state deserves better.

 

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Opinion | Secretary of State John Merrill isn’t very collegial

by Joey Kennedy Read Time: 6 min
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