By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
News headlines flowing from Montgomery late this legislative session have focused on many controversial topics – something that some politicos had said was unlikely in an election year, but that is happening nonetheless.
Chief among these has been a bill proposed by GOP lawmakers that would increase representation on the Birmingham Water Works Board to include members from outside Jefferson County, an undertaking spearheaded by Senator Jabo Waggoner in the Senate and Representative Paul Demarco in the House.
Another hot topic up for debate has been Senator Scott Beason’s gun bill, which would allow Alabamians to carry loaded pistols in their vehicles without a concealed carry permit.
While these two issues were before completely unrelated, events late last week – and likely to continue this week – have proven the topics to be inextricably linked.
Support for Senator Beason’s gun legislation, SB354, seemed half-hearted when it was discussed in a public hearing that APR covered earlier this session, with many lawmakers seemingly worried about the funding currently raked in locally from concealed carry permit fees.
Coverage of the hearing, and video interviews of Beason and a representative of the Sheriffs’ Association can be viewed here.
Half-hearted seemed like an absolute understatement last week in the Senate, though, when Senator Beason, R-Gardendale, not only had to wheel and deal to get his bill on the calendar, he did not – and still has not – gotten the legislation through the upper body, much less through the lower chamber.
Once the Birmingham Water Works bill came to the Senate floor for debate, the show began. Senator Rodger Smitherman, former Senate Pro Tem, brought out an easel with an oversized-poster map of the Birmingham Water Works and its service infrastructure and customer base.
He had already brought the map out earlier in the session, when he successfully prevented a final vote on the bill through filibuster, providing an opportunity for this observation by Senator Gerald Dial:
“When I came in here earlier and saw all the charts, I thought… haven’t we already reapportioned? Then I figured out it’s just the water board they’re trying to reapportion.”
Reporting on that failed attempt to push the bill though the Senate can be read here.
Just like that attempt, last week’s water works round two looked to be headed the same way when GOP leadership failed to pass a cloture petition that would have cut off debate and forced an up or down vote. The vote failed by one – and Senator Scott Beason had not participated in the vote.
“I won the vote,” Senator Smitherman said once the ayes and nays were cast, “I guess I’ll just keep talking.”
Smitherman has pledged to “slow down” every bill until session ends over the water works bill.
The Democrat didn’t know just yet, but another vote to cut him off was on the way. The GOP leadership had something Beason wanted, and they were about to give it to him.
After another cloture petition was filed, and a vote on cutting off debate was called for. Senator Beason voted to cut off debate with GOP leadership, casting the deciding twenty first vote. The Birmingham Water Works bill then passed the Senate, and has now been assigned to a House committee for further action.
The next day, it came time for Senate Republican leadership to decide the agenda of the day – and for Senator Beason to reap his reward.
Senator Waggoner, also the sponsor of the water works bill, as chair of the Senate Rules Committee put forward the day’s special order calendar, which included – first on the list – a certain gun bill from a certain Gardendale Republican.
After debate was heard, and after an unsuccessful effort by Republican Gerald Dial to substitute the calendar for one without Beason’s bill was over, the gun bill hit the floor.
That is where it ended, though, so far. After several hours of debate at the end of last week, the Senate has not yet passed Senator Beason’s legislation. Effectively held up by Republicans, the bill may see a final vote as early as this week.
From what APR has gathered, the Senators holding the bill up seem to be doing so for different reasons.
Senator Gerald Dial has said that both the gun debate and the water works debate are “for ego,” declaring the time spent on debating them “the two ego days.”
Senator Phil Williams has expressed concerns over concealed carry permit fee revenues, even putting forward an amendment on the topic, though it is unsure as of right now how its ambiguous language would be implemented.
The remaining Senators preventing cloture, including Bryan Taylor, may be doing so in an attempt to get his bill enhancing gambling penalties heard in committee.
Senator Taylor said on Twitter, “Indian casino lobbyists just actively blocked the quorum needed for cmte to consider my bill to increase penalties on ILLEGAL casinos.”
When asked who did not show up for the meeting, Senator Taylor confirmed that the two Democrats and one Independent on the committee were not present, but would not identify the GOP Senators.
Senator Smitherman, who also led the filibuster of Beason’s bill, has said that he is not opposed to the legislation, but is doing this because of the water works bill.
He has gone as far in expressing his reverence for the Second Amendment by saying , “If there were an intruder into the Senate chamber, Senator Smitherman said on the floor, “I’ll bust a cap…all 35 of y’all just get behind me.”
Alabamians can learn much from all of this. Issues on Goat Hill are not always evaluated on their merit, but on political expediency. Votes on a particular issue aren’t necessarily about the topic purportedly at hand. Senator Smitherman is willing to protect the Senate if necessary. Best of all though: don’t bring a chart to a gun fight?
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.
Trump to visit Pensacola tonight
Trump is making a push in Florida in the final weeks of the election, and Northwest Florida is part of his strategy.
Neither presidential candidate is likely to visit Alabama before the general election, as both campaigns accept that Alabama will be certainly in President Donald Trump’s camp on election day no matter what else happens. While Alabama is not a swing state, Georgia and Florida are both in play, and both campaigns are devoting enormous resources there.
Trump is making a push in Florida in the final weeks of the election, and Northwest Florida is part of his strategy. Trump will be just across the Florida-Alabama state line visiting Pensacola and is scheduled to address supporters at the ST Engineering hangar beginning at 7 p.m. CT.
The doors open at 4 p.m. and the event begins at 7:00 p.m.
The president’s rally tonight comes right after a visit to Pensacola last week by Second Lady Karen Pence and is one of many Florida campaign events planned for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump arrived in Florida after Thursday’s final presidential debate with Joe Biden. He is scheduled to hold a campaign event in The Villages before traveling to Pensacola. The president will spend the night at his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago and will vote early Saturday.
The vice president will hold rallies in Lakeland and Tallahassee on Saturday. Florida has 27 electoral college votes. It would be very difficult for Trump to get the 270 electoral college votes necessary to win without winning Florida.
Democrats warn that attending a Trump rally could be dangerous due to the coronavirus threat.
“The last thing Floridians need is for Donald Trump to host more potential superspreader rallies across our state,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement on the rally in Pensacola. “What we do need, however, is a president capable of putting Floridians ahead of his own self-interest and get this pandemic under control.”
Most recent polls have Trump trailing Biden in Florida. Tickets are required to attend the rally.