By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Oliver Robinson is going to jail.
Quite a few others should be going with him.
If Robinson, a former State Representative, wants to redeem himself and maybe help the constituents he’s sold out, he’ll spend the next few weeks and months working to make sure the jail cells around him are filled with other suit-wearing, fast-talking, greased-palm hustlers who have hijacked our State political system.
Because make no mistake about it, Oliver Robinson, dirty and slimy as he is – and he’s got a coating like a nightcrawler worm on him right now – is not the dirtiest and slimiest of the bunch.
And I am happy to explain.
Robinson pleaded guilty, it was announced on Thursday by the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, to fraud, conspiracy, bribery and tax evasion charges. It was also announced that Robinson is actively working with the FBI, IRS and other agencies to build cases on other conspirators.
All of this stems from Robinson’s involvement, as a representative from Birmingham, in the North Birmingham Superfund Site (officially tabbed the 35th Avenue Superfund by the EPA).
That site, located in the area of Birmingham where steel mills operated for decades, is an environmental mess. Testing has found toxins in neighborhoods to be so high that the top layers of soil have been removed from hundreds of yards, businesses and school grounds. There’s pollution in the waterways and in the air, as well.
There have been various reports of significantly increased cases of cancer and off-the-charts-high reports of pollution-related illnesses, such as respiratory illnesses.
Care to guess the racial and economic makeup of the affected area?
Mostly black and poor? Why, you’ve lived in Alabama longer than 5 minutes, haven’t you?
You could also probably guess that even after decades of complaints and warnings from local activists and residents, it took the EPA – and released testing results from Walter Energy – to finally get something done. After more than 100 years of contamination, the EPA arrived in 2011. The site was designated a superfund in 2014.
When the EPA designates a pollution site as a superfund, it automatically goes about investigating and testing that site to determine the likely source(s) of that pollution. They did that in North Birmingham, and they returned with five likely suspects: Drummond Coal, Alagasco, Walter Coke, US Pipe and KMAC.
Those companies have fought the EPA, refusing to pay their shares of an estimated $20 million cleanup, according to reporting from al.com.
To put that $4 million-per-company payout in perspective, Drummond is listed in Forbes as one of the country’s largest private companies, with $2.2 billion in revenues for 2015.
So, multi-million dollar companies on one side. Poor, black residents in a depressed area on another side.
Guess which side the State of Alabama picked.
Both the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and then-AG Luther Strange took on the EPA, with Strange – a real man of the people – declaring that “no State money” will be spent to clean up the site. (No one asked him, but he probably would have been against spending the $30,000 in campaign contributions that Drummond has given to him the last two election cycles on the site, too.)
And yet, the EPA persisted.
What eventually happens in these cases is that the EPA compiles its evidence, reaches its conclusions, tries to work with the named parties, and then demands payment. If the parties continue to protest, lawsuits and legal actions are taken. And those things rarely work out well for the named parties.
And so, according to acting US Attorney Robert Posey, Drummond went a different way. Using an attorney from the law firm Balch & Bingham as basically a bagman, at least one Drummond exec funneled money to Robinson to undercut the EPA.
And Robinson did the job he was paid to do.
He fought the EPA at every turn, and went so far as to record meetings he had with EPA officials and with local environmental groups and give those recordings to Balch & Bingham and Drummond.
All of that makes Oliver Robinson the villain. He deserves to be the villain. In the shadows of Fred Shuttleworth’s church – a church that was firebombed three times because its trouble-making pastor was fighting to give black citizens a chance in Alabama – Robinson sold out those same people for a few thousand bucks.
But Robinson is not the only villain in this story, nor is he the main villain.
There are many others – from the CEOs who have enjoyed comfy lives while poisoning the communities where they earn their paychecks to the state officials who ignored the pleas from the affected neighborhoods and effectively turned their backs on dying children to the state officials who have joined the wrong side of yet another fight.
And then there’s the biggest villain: this persistent, and consistently failing, mindset in this State that places profits and wealth before people and their wellbeing.
Opinion | Fear not, fight on and don’t faint
The spread of COVID-19 in Alabama is worse today than it was yesterday, and in all likelihood, it will be more devastating tomorrow.
The realities of the moment challenge us to be strong, resilient and persistent.
On Sunday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the state passed 1,800, with 45 reported deaths. Those numbers represent real people, our fellow citizens, friends and loved ones.
The latest figures coming from the state may be only a hint of what’s next.
More of us will survive this disease than succumb to it, but we will all feel it, even naysayers and deniers.
The fight against this pathogen is not a sprint that will end swiftly; it is a marathon. Therefore, perseverance is critical. In sports, as in life, perseverance separates the winners from the losers.
Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
As a state and a nation, the times demand we keep going without fear.
These are not the worst of times; these are trying times that will pass. This is not a happy talk but a message from history. History teaches that humans are adaptive and, therefore, survivors.
It doesn’t mean that horrible things aren’t happening; they are.
People are sick, some are dying, but all the while along with doctors, nurses and health care providers, there is a legion of ordinary Alabamians doing simple things that in the context of this calamity are extraordinary.
Individuals who deliver groceries, stock shelves and cook take out are putting themselves at risk so others can eat. The same can be said of thousands that are keeping essential services open.
These individuals are displaying the very essence of perseverance — the will to push forward when it would be easier to quit.
In George S. Patton’s speech to the Third Army during World War II, he delivered many memorable lines that are not easily quoted in a general publication. Patton was fond of profanity. But many apply to our current situation.
“Sure, we all want to go home. We want to get this war over with. But you can’t win a war lying down,” Patton said.
We will win if we don’t give in and don’t quit.
This isn’t hell for all, but it is for some.
Now is a time for each of us to do what we can to ensure that we all survive.
My mother was fond of quoting scripture and sometimes with her own unique twist.
Galatians 6:9 was one of her go-to verses.
“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.”
She would say, “Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t get woozy, or that you won’t need to take a knee. It says don’t faint — never give up.”
Then she would round it off with, “‘Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,’ to heck with the flesh, it will follow where the mind tells it to.”
What we do now will determine who we will be as a state and nation once this pandemic subsides. Will we be better, stronger, and more humane, or will we further cocoon into tribes who are weaker, disparate and frightened?
Fear not, fight on and don’t faint.
Opinion | Groupthink voting is now literally killing us
I have many friends who can tell you the names of the offensive linemen who started last year for their favorite college football team. And most of them can also tell you who their backups are.
Very few of these people can name off their state senator, their state representative, the city councilmen or their county commissioners. I’d bet an embarrassing percentage couldn’t tell you who their U.S. senators and congressmen are.
And today, that disparity in knowledge is killing us.
As the coronavirus rips through this country, and as it rips through this mostly hospital-less state, it is exposing the absolute buffoons who have been elected to public office. Folks who few of us would allow to walk our dogs are being forced to confront an unprecedented national crisis, and they are failing miserably.
Nowhere is that more true than in the state of Alabama.
Where our governor hasn’t taken a live question from media or scared-to-death voters in going on a month now. Where our House leader and Senate president have apparently been sheltering in place in a bunker in the hills. Where the only people with plans and ideas and straight talk are the powerless lieutenant governor and the super-minority party.
And where we still — STILL! — are left without a shelter-in-place order.
From one end of this state to the other, the people on the frontlines of this crisis are screaming for help. They’ve been sounding alarms for weeks now, and they’ve caught the attention of no one in state leadership, it seems.
If not for this state’s proactive mayors, God only knows what shape we’d be in right now. Behind the scenes, those mayors — Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Walt Maddox in Tuscaloosa, Steven Reed in Montgomery, Tommy Battle in Huntsville and Sandy Stimpson in Mobile, along with others — have been communicating with each other, bouncing ideas of one another and sharing plans.
We will never know how many lives they’ve saved by taking proactive measures before their state government did — and in a couple of cases, in defiance of state leaders — but it will be many.
As for our state leaders, hopefully this catastrophic failure will be a wake-up call for Alabama voters. But I have my doubts.
And the reason I have my doubts is what I mentioned above — too many people simply don’t place a value on educated voting.
Don’t get me wrong. These are not dumb people. It’s not that they’re too stupid to understand the issues that affect their lives and select a person who would best represent their interests. They’re absolutely smart enough to do that.
But they don’t want to.
They go to work. They take care of their kids and their house. They try to get some exercise in. And then they’d like to watch a ballgame and have a decent time.
And so, voting — if they vote at all — becomes a group-think exercise in which most of these people just vote like their friends. They follow their lead and vote for the popular candidate, who is only popular for superficial reasons.
They’re swayed by cheesy pandering using religious issues or guns or racism or some phony patriotism. Simple pitches work best, because they’re not really paying attention anyway.
That’s why the guy who offers up a detailed explanation for how taking slightly more from you in tax dollars will actually put considerably more money in your pocket on the back side always loses out to the “conservative” who just says, “No new taxes; I’mma let you keep yo money.”
This dumb pitch works on even people who aren’t dumb simply because they’re not interested enough to appropriately weigh the two arguments.
The growth of social media has made things worse. Now, in a matter of 15 minutes, the average person in Alabama can scroll through 100 political memes about libtards and MAGA from their friends, and they’re not going to be on the outside of the circle looking in. They want to laugh too. They want to be part of the group.
But very few are laughing now.
Because inevitably, what that group-think voting does is remove the requirement that a candidate actually try. That a candidate present an understanding of the complicated issues and then present solutions to solve them. That a candidate demonstrate an ability to think on his/her feet. That a candidate demonstrate any aptitude for problem solving.
You’ll do things like elect a woman governor who refused to debate any challenger.
When you know you’ve got the election in the bag simply because you’re running for the right party, who needs to try?
And when you’re voting without demanding that effort — and Alabamians have been doing so for decades now — you’re assuring that incompetent, unprepared, useless politicians are going to be put into positions of power.
On a good day, those sorts of politicians are a burden on all of us. On really bad days, like we’re experiencing now, they’re basically grim reapers.
It would be nice if on the other side of this crisis we placed a higher premium on educated voting that produces better, more qualified public officials.
But given our history, I have my doubts.
Opinion | Facing each day, finding hope
People text me news tips all the time. Most of them are unfounded rumors. I’m sure my other colleagues at Alabama Political Reporter get their share.
We should never simply pass on a rumor or, as Donald Trump says, “fake” news. And the vast majority of us in journalism understand our responsibility in this.
But if we have a person in authority telling us something credible, whether it be about the COVID-19 pandemic or a completely unrelated issue, on-the-record or off, we’re careless if we don’t start looking into it. Often, these embryonic stories go nowhere. Sometimes, they give birth to real news.
All of these tips are valuable, even the clearly obvious ones that fall simply under “unfounded rumor” or “conspiracy theory.” We have an obligation to stop a story if it’s wrong, or to intervene in the telling of that story if somebody is spreading it on social media or the mainstream media.
Lately, I’ve been getting texts and videos on unfounded cures for the novel coronavirus. I’m going to leave that up to the scientists and doctors. I tell stories and write informed opinion; I don’t have much of a brain for science and math on my own.
As I’ve often said, I’m kind of a one-trick pony: I speak and write in the only language I know. And writing, really, is all I know. I can become a half-hour expert if I have to, cramming credible research into a short amount of time so I can produce a story.
I do make mistakes, though, and I try to correct them as quickly as possible when I do.
When I’m teaching one of my English or Honors classes at UAB and a student asks a question I can’t answer on the spot, I just admit it. Then I promise to look into the question so that I can get the student an answer. And then I do.
I’ve been corrected by a student in real time in class. The Internet is right there, on their smartphone or their smartpad or their laptop. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I don’t get flustered. I get smarter.
I’m also far more disciplined on social media than I once was. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we don’t learn.
I hope, as a nation, we learn from the huge mistake we made when the coronavirus pandemic first started. We had two months to prepare before it got out of control in the United States and Alabama. It’s not as if the experts and intelligence agencies didn’t send a “heads-up” to the White House months ago. Yet, we were terribly, irresponsibly unprepared for this, and people have died because of that.
We have a president ill-equipped to instill confidence and calm into most of the people of his nation. We have a governor and a controlling political party that often stand around seemingly twiddling their thumbs.
But, then, appearances can be deceiving.
APR Editor in Chief Bill Britt reported Wednesday that a lot more is going on behind the scenes in Alabama than we’re aware of.
Writes Britt: “The Governor’s office is working in partnership with the state’s universities, businesses and others in an ongoing battle to curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the state.
“In times of crisis governments always stumble getting out of the gate; that’s what happens.
“The work presently being coordinated by the Governor’s staff and volunteers is not currently seen by the general public, but the efforts of these groups will affect the state now and in the future.”
Yes, we want to know our government is working to help end what very well may be the biggest crisis in generations.
We are a social society, and we want to be with our friends, and to take part in the organizations we support, and to hold an election this year. We want to attend sporting events and concerts and the symphony and the theatre.
The reality is that we don’t know how long this “new normal”will last. Axios reported this week that the NFL and college football seasons now are in jeopardy. We’re already without any of the spring and summer sports. The Olympics has been moved to next year, so Birmingham, the 2021 host of the World Gameswill now host them in 2022.
Still, thank God we live in a city and state that has a world-class research university, strong tech businesses, and top-notch hospitals to help find cures and treat people sickened from COVID-19.
I passed by one of our hospitals in Birmingham this week, and a big sign out front said: “Heroes Work Here.”
And they do.
UPDATE: Last week, I interviewed Pamela Franco, who was at University Hospital with a pretty vicious case of COVID-19. She is recovering and was released from the hospital over last weekend. She and her fiancé, Tim Stephens, are continuing to improve in quarantine at their home on Birmingham’s Southside. We wish them all the best.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]
Opinion | 1964 Goldwater landslide was beginning of Republican dominance in the South
Our primary runoffs have been postponed until July 14, 2020. It was a wise and prudent decision by Secretary of State John Merrill and Gov. Kay Ivey. Most voters are older and you are asking them to come out and vote and at the same time stay home.
The main event will be the GOP runoff for the U.S. Senate. The two combatants, Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville, will now square off in the middle of a hot Alabama summer. The winner will be heavily favored to go to Washington. We are a very reliably Republican state especially in a presidential election year.
Many of you have asked, “When did Alabama become a dominant one–party Republican state?” Well it all began in the Presidential year of 1964. The 1964 election was the turning point when the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina voted for Barry Goldwater and never looked back. It was the race issue that won southerners over for Goldwater. The Republican Party captured the race issue that year and have never let go of it.
The South which was known as the “Solid South” for more than six decades, because we were solidly Democratic, are today known as the “Solid South” because we are solidly Republican.Presidential candidates ignore us during the campaign because it is a foregone conclusion that we will vote Republican, just as presidential candidates ignored us for the first 60 years of the 20th Century, because it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to vote Democratic.
George Wallace had ridden the race issue into the Governor’s office in 1962. It had reached a fever pitch in 1964. Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, had passed sweeping Civil Rights legislation which white southerners detested.
The only non-southern senator to oppose the Civil Rights legislation was Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. When the Republican Party met at the old Cow Palace in San Francisco, they nominated Goldwater as their 1964 presidential candidate. Johnson annihilated him, nationwide, but Goldwater won the South in a landslide.
Before that fall day in November of 1964, there was no Republican Party in Alabama. There were no Republican officeholders. There was no Republican primary. Republicans chose their candidates in backroom conventions. Except for a few Lincoln Republicans in the hill counties, it was hard getting a white Alabamian even to admit they were Republican.
That all changed in 1964. Goldwater and the Republicans became identified with segregation and the white Southern voter fled the Democratic Party en masse. As the Fall election of 1964 approached the talk in the country stores around Alabama was that a good many good ole boys were going to vote straight Republican even if their daddies did turn over in their graves. Enterprising local bottling companies got into the debate and filled up drink boxes in the country stores labeled Johnson Juice and Gold Water. The Gold Water was outselling the Johnson Juice 3-to-1.
Alabamians not only voted for Barry Goldwater but also pulled the straight Republican lever out of anger towards Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights agenda. Most of Alabama’s eight-member Congressional delegation, with more than 100 years of seniority was wiped out by straight ticket Republican voting on that November 1964 day.
Earlier that year, Lyndon B. Johnson, the toughest, crudest, most corrupt and yes most effective man to ever serve in the White House, made a profound statement. As he signed the Civil Rights Bill he had pushed through Congress, he looked over at the great Southern Lion, Richard Russell of Georgia, and as Senator Russell glared at Johnson with his steel stare, Lyndon said, “I just signed the South over to the Republican Party for the next 60 years.” Johnson’s words were prophetic.
Folks, beginning with the 1964 election, there have been 17 presidential elections counting this year. If you assume that Donald Trump carries our state in November, that is a safe assumption, Alabama has voted for the Republican nominee 16 out of 17 elections over the past 56 years. Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, is the only interloper for the Democrats in 1976.
The U.S. Senate seat up this year was first won by a Republican in 1996. That Republican was Jeff Sessions.
So folks, in 1964, Alabama became a Republican state and it happened in what was called the Southern Republican “Goldwater Landslide.”
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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