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Perspective | Reflecting on the top stories of Alabama politics in 2017

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

As 2017 comes to a close we reflect on the year in Alabama politics.  2017 was a remarkable year in Alabama politics.  For many of the most powerful figures in Alabama politics, it was a disastrous 2017, as the political situation was turned on its head.

No governor in Alabama has been impeached under the 1901 Constitution.  It has been over 100 years since Alabama impeached any statewide official.  That was a secretary of state and Civil War veteran accused of giving payments to a defeated primary opponent for an endorsement.  He was found not guilty by the Senate and kept his office.  Gov. Robert Bentley threatened to change that history over allegations of ethics and campaign finance allegations.  The Alabama Ethics Commission found that Bentley likely broke state laws in his relationship with his alleged mistress, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.  Two days later the House Judiciary Committee released a damning report on Bentley’s conduct alleging that he had misused state resources and then threatened and harassed witnesses of his alleged misconduct.  Three days later Bentley pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance law violations and resigned.  In 2014 Governor Bentley was re-elected in a cakewalk absolutely beloved by the voters of Alabama.  His administration crashed in utter ruin just 29 months later.  Lieutenant Gov. Kay Ivey became only the second woman governor in state history.  Joining Gov. Don Siegelman and Gov. Guy Hunt, three of the last seven Alabama governors have been convicted of crimes while in office.

Entering 2017, Attorney General Luther Strange was one of the preeminent leaders of the state GOP, preparing to prosecute Bentley for misconduct and looked to be one of the top candidates for either Governor of Alabama or U.S. Senator representing Alabama.  Bentley shocked everyone when he appointed Luther to replace Jeff Sessions, after President Donald Trump appointed Sessions to be U.S. Attorney General.  Immediately everyone leaped to the conclusion that Bentley and Strange had done some kind of corrupt deal.  There was never any evidence proving that Bentley and Strange had ever had any kind of deal, but hundreds of thousands of Alabama voters still believed that is what happened and the perception would become a rotting albatross carcass around Strange’s neck.  Strange was warmly welcomed in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and powerful Washington D.C. insiders, at McConnell’s urging, lined up a fortune backing Strange.  It was not enough.  Republican voters preferred former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore by a wide margin over Strange despite being outspent by $30 million for Strange to just $3.5 million for Moore.  Strange’s stubborn refusal to endorse and campaign for his primary rival likely ended any chance whatsoever of Luther Strange ever resurrecting his political career in the state of Alabama.

The last time any Democrat won any statewide race in Alabama was 2008 when former Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley narrowly defeated former Alabama Republican Party Chair Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh to become President of the Public Service Commission.  At the beginning of 2017, every competent political observer thought that there was no chance whatsoever that the Democrats could take Sessions seat.  The last time the people of Alabama sent a Democrat to the Senate was 1992 when they re-elected Richard Shelby to a second term.  Shelby switched to the Republican Party in 1994 and Howell Heflin announced that he would not seek another term.  Sessions defeated state Sen. Roger Bedford in the 1996 election for Heflin’s seat and Sessions and Shelby have held those two Senate seats ever since.  Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in 2016 garnering a gaudy 63 percent of the vote.  Shelby crushed Ron Crumpton by even more votes than Trump got.  Undeterred by all of the facts on the ground, former Clinton era U.S. Attorney Doug Jones ran statewide as a Democrat anyway.  An unlikely coalition of an unusually high turnout of Black voters, suburban high-income whites, young voters, and swing voters gave Jones and Democrats an improbable victory over Moore on December 12.  While Democrats came out in Presidential election numbers, hundreds of thousands of Alabama Republicans stayed home and wrapped their Christmas presents that day.  The GOP after a triumphant 2016 appears broken and bitterly divided; while Democrats are energized and excited.  It is too early to predict if the disastrous Senate election will translate into a big 2018 for Alabama Democrats or not.

2017 was a disastrous year for the Business Council of Alabama (BCA).  The group foolishly decided to stand in the way of the parents of intellectually challenged children.  The parents were seeking to require that health insurers include early childhood treatment for autism.  Studies show that is children can get treated early the long-term effects of their autism can be very minor.  If no intervention is given early on and we just ignore it until enrolling the kids in school those effects can impair the child for life.  Well, whatever the science says, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama (BCBS) did not want to pay for the treatments and BCA boss, Billy Canary, decided to back the corporation in the war with the parents.  A competent general picks his own battlefields and this was one nobody thought that BCA could win on.  Ignoring common sense, BCA and Canary jumped in front of the bus and got run over in the 2017 Legislative Session.  A BCA plan to raise everybody’s gas taxes to pay for road projects was also dead on arrival in the 2017 Legislative Session.  Canary decided to punish legislators who fought them on the autistic children issue by not inviting them to their annual summer beach bash at Point Clear.  Legislators, including Rep. Jim Patterson (R) and state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, entered 2017 as the Alabama House Majority Leader.  Hammon leaves 2017 as a felon.   U.S. Attorney for the Middle District Louis V. Franklin said, “Self-dealing by elected officials erodes society’s confidence in its governmental institutions. Self-dealing is precisely what occurred here. Those who donated to Representative Hammon’s campaign expected that the campaign would use those resources lawfully and to foster an informed public debate.  Representative Hammon placed those funds into his own personal piggy bank.” Hammon faces up to 20 years in prison in addition to fines, in the coming months.  Franklin said. “I hope that this prosecution will, in some small way, restore Alabamians’ trust in their state Legislature.”  The GOP Caucus had already removed Hammon as Majority leader after it became apparent there was a federal investigation into his conduct.

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In 2010 the Alabama Republican Party crushed Democrats across the state under the leadership of then-Alabama GOP Chairman Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.  The GOP won supermajorities in both Houses of the Alabama Legislature and Hubbard became the first Republican Speaker of the House.  Micky Hammon became Majority Leader.  Both of them are felons now.  Hubbard was convicted by a Lee County Jury in June 2016 for 12 felony ethics counts and was sentenced to four years in prison and another 16 years of supervised parole.  Mike Hubbard, however, did not go to prison in 2016 though.  2017 is almost over and Hubbard never went to prison this year either.  Even though every appeal that Mike has ever filed has been rejected by any and all courts he still has not actually gone to any prison and he is still operating his radio station in Lee County even though convicted felons are not supposed to be eligible for broadcasting licenses.  Mike is not any danger to anyone, but many are wondering if the Alabama Justice system would be so lenient on a non-millionaire defendant.  Will Hubbard go to prison at some point in 2018 for his 2016 conviction?

Republican public servants were not the only criminal politicians in Alabama in 2017.  Former state Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, also pleaded guilty in federal court.  Robinson pleaded guilty of bribery and corruption.  According to Robinson and federal prosecutors Joel Iverson Gilbert and Steven George McKinney, both partners in the Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham, conspired with David Lynn Roberson, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Drummond Company, to provide Robinson with a valuable and confidential consulting contract in exchange for his taking official action favorable to Balch & Bingham and its client, Drummond, regarding a proposed expansion of an EPA Superfund site in north Birmingham that could have cost Drummond tens of millions of dollars.  U.S. Attorney Troy Town said, “It matters not on which side of the bribe one falls in public corruption.  Those who pay and those who receive will be prosecuted to the fullest.”  Gilbert, McKinney, and Roberson have only been indicted.  An indictment, which is only charges.  A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty and the defense teams have not yet had a chance to present their defense.  Prosecutors do not believe that other parties at Drummond or Balch & Bingham were aware of the alleged illicit relationship with Rep. Robinson.

On September 13, Alabama School Superintendent Michael Sentance resigned after just 14 months on the job.  His hiring was a controversial choice. That controversy only deepened when it was later learned that a certain member of the school board may have misled the public and the rest of the board about an ethics investigation into fellow candidate, Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey. The controversy around Sentance’s hiring, the controversial takeover of Montgomery Schools, and a series of lapses in judgement and protocol finally led Sentance to tendering his resignation ahead of a school board meeting where Board members were expected to vote to fire him.  Sentance had never been a superintendent, principal, or teacher before his controversial hiring by the board. The Board now has to select a new superintendent with major party primaries just nine months away making this an even more politically contentious process.  The School Board is in the process of hiring a search firm and is not expected to be actually interviewing candidates until April.

During the 2017 Legislative Session the Legislature killed Bentley’s Great State 2020 plan to borrow over a billion dollars to build four new mega-prisons.  Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn said that the Bentley plans would raise inmate capacity from the current 13, 318 to 16,000.   The prison population has been as high as 23,000.  Efforts to lower overcrowding through early releases have been largely ineffective as the prisoners have a high recidivism rate and typically wind up back in prison after reoffending or committing a parole violation.  A federal court has ruled that it the mental health treatment of prisoners by the state is unconstitutional.  Heading into 2018 the court is expected to demand that the state decrease overcrowding, increase staffing, and offer improved mental and physical health care treatment of Alabama’s prisoners.  How Alabama comes up with the funding to improve Alabama’s long-neglected prisons given the state’s archaic two budget system and 90 percent earmarked money will be a challenge for the state Legislature when it reconvenes on January 9.

Former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore was always controversial.  Many Alabamians did not like his acknowledging God frequently.  Many felt that he embarrassed the state with his refusal to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court Building.  Many did not agree with his denunciations of sodomy and same-sex marriage.  Republicans in D.C. did not like his demands that Mitch McConnell be replaced as Majority Leader.  Many were critical of his Foundation for Moral Law.  Many despised former White House strategist and Breitbart News head Steve Bannon and were angry that Moore, the Bannon candidate, defeated Strange, the Establishment candidate in the September 26 Republican primary runoff.  Judge Moore probably overplayed his position when he went to Washington gloating over his victory.  Senate Republicans were not amused.  Four weeks prior to the special election The Washington Post released accusations from five women that Moore had acted inappropriately with them in the 1970s Gadsden dating scene, while Moore was a deputy Etowah County District Attorney.  Moore’s enemies in the Republican Party and the mainstream media pounced. The global media came to Alabama to demand that Moore answer the charges.  McConnell and national Republicans including Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, Susan Collins, R-Maine, Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and Corey Gardner, R-Colorado, were openly campaigning against Moore.  Sen. Richard Shelby refused to vote for Moore publicly.  Moore shrunk under the pressure and in the last two weeks of the campaign only held four events, did very few interviews, and inexplicably left the state during the final weekend before the vote.  National Republicans starved the Moore campaign of promised resources while Doug Jones was receiving a $million every four days from national Democrats down the stretch of the campaign.  Moore who just four weeks early had a nearly insurmountable eleven point lead narrowly lost 48.38 percent to 49.92 percent for Jones with 1.69 percent writing in someone else.  Moore still had 671,151 votes, which was 20,715 less than Jones.  The State Canvassing Board is expected to certify Jones as the winner of the special election today.  Will Moore run for state office in 2018? Governor perhaps?  Major party candidate qualifying begins on January 9.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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