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Perspective | The Top Ten Alabama Politics Stories of 2017

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

1. The … Democrat from Alabama?:

The reddest of the red states turned purple on Dec. 12. Democrat Doug Jones pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in recent political history, beating Republican Roy Moore and taking over Jeff Sessions’ vacated U.S. Senate seat.

Yeah, sure, Moore was a polarizing candidate, who was disliked even within the Republican Party. And yes, Moore was dogged by claims of child molestation and dating teenagers when he was in his 30s. But none of that erases the historical significance of Jones’ win — the first statewide win for a Democrat in this state in more than 20 years.

For more than a month, this race captured the attention of the nation, as Alabama was swarmed by national media outlets. Not only did it feature a national villain in Moore, the race was truly a rarity: a competitive election in which even the insiders were unsure what would happen. In the end, after trailing most of the night, Jones claimed a 22,000-vote win.

From beginning to end, it was one compelling story — the top one of 2017.

2. Bye, Bye Bentley:

Only in Alabama could the resignation of the governor, after pleading guilty to campaign finance crimes and in the midst of an impeachment investigation over an affair with his top aide, not be the state’s top political story. The sad saga of Robert Bentley, Alabama’s former governor, was a doozy. But it lacked the staying power and the national attention to put it No. 1.

Still, there was plenty of juice to draw attention. Who could forget the racy, vomit-inducing text messages between Bentley and his mistress, advisor Rebekah Mason? They were made public by the special prosecutor who was investigating Bentley for the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering impeaching the governor for misusing state funds to conceal and facilitate his affair.

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That impeachment was stopped short when Bentley pleaded guilty to two counts of violating campaign finance laws. He resigned in disgrace — although his cabinet and other Republicans gave him a standing ovation on his way out.

3. A Very Strange Appointment:

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If we do nothing else in 2018, let’s make sure that we always remember how badly Luther Strange screwed up 2017 for himself. On the heels of his office convicting House Speaker Mike Hubbard on 12 felonies, then Attorney General Strange was the most popular politician in Alabama. He was a lock for any higher office he chose.

Then he made a dreadful miscalculation. Betting on Alabamians’ short memories and some protection from a governor whose butt he just saved, Strange accepted the appointment to fill Jeff Sessions’ U.S. Senate seat from Bentley.

Small problem: Strange’s office was conducting an investigation of Bentley, an investigating that personally involved Strange and that had put a stop to the Legislature’s impeachment investigation.

The stench was too much. And when Bentley was eventually booted and new Gov. Kay Ivey rescheduled the Senate’s special election for December, Strange was toast. He lost by 10 points to the worst Republican candidate in Alabama history.

4. A Run Out Sentance:

It was a fishy hire that angered most educators from the start, and Michael Sentance’s tenure as Alabama’s public schools superintendent never got better. A year into the job, and after angering nearly everyone he came in contact with, Sentance was forced to resign in September.

His resignation was well received by state educators and lawmakers, who, in rare agreement, had soured on the Massachusetts transplant. From curious staffing decisions to a gruff demeanor to odd trust issues to ill-advised statements criticizing teachers, Sentance united a number of usually-hostile groups to agreement on at least one thing: Michael Sentance needed to go.

5. The ‘High-stepper’ Administration:

When Robert Bentley resigned in April, Alabama needed a new governor. Enter: Kay Ivey, the state’s second female governor. Ivey, 72, is a well-known figure around Montgomery, having served in state government for decades.

Ivey promised to steady the ship and help the state recover from a crazy run of political scandals. Her office has certainly avoided scandal and pretty much all controversy, with Ivey steering clear of hot-button issues whenever possible. The strategy has been mostly successful, with Ivey currently rated as one of the nation’s most popular governors.

6. The Race Before the Race:

Before Doug Jones v. Roy Moore, there was Luther Strange v. Roy Moore. There was less national attention but almost as much nuttiness. That included the GOP establishment dumping tens of millions of dollars into the race in an effort to push Strange to victory — a move that was so totally ignorant of the political climate in Alabama that it’s staggering.

There was also Moore dressed up like Yosemite Sam, waving a tiny pistol around while on stage at a campaign rally and Strange spending an entire debate telling everyone that Donald Trump knows his name and maybe likes him.

7. Your Prison Plan or Mine?:

In the 2017 Legislative Session, state lawmakers were absolutely going to do something about our overcrowded prisons that were just begging for a federal takeover. They spent weeks on the plans, hashing out ideas, shifting money around, placating this group after that group, and in the end, they did … nothing. As usual.

And so, federal Judge Myron Thompson did it for them, issuing a ruling this summer that called Alabama’s mental health care for prisoners “abysmal.” Now Thompson is overseeing a massive overhaul of the prison systems, including mental health care, health care, population and staffing.

8. Statues > Children:

Aside from prison talk, the 2017 Legislative Session was dominated by three topics: Autism therapy coverage, daycare regulation and Confederate monuments.

All you’d ever need to know about Alabama’s Legislature is summed up by the results: full protection for monuments, partial coverage for autism therapy and no protection for toddlers in church daycares.

Lawmakers passed a bill protecting monuments, requiring local municipalities to go through a state commission before they can alter or move a historical monument. That law, obviously set up to protect Confederate memorials, was immediately challenged by Birmingham, which placed a box over a large monument in its city part in the wake of the Charlottesville riots.

Autism therapy is an accepted treatment that has shown measurable results. Most states require insurance companies to include the therapy in their coverage options. Alabama did not prior to 2017. After a long debate — one that filled the State House with parents of autistic children and turned ugly repeatedly — there will be some coverage moving forward. But there will be an age cap.

Toddlers in church daycares weren’t so lucky. They didn’t even get partial protection. A bill that would have required church-operated daycares to adhere to the basic safety standards imposed on non-church daycares failed to pass — again. A few weeks later, 5-year-old Kamden Johnson died after being left in a van on a hot day by a worker at an unlicensed daycare. That worker would not have been employed at a licensed daycare due to her criminal history, but the failing of the daycare bill left church-affiliated daycares without a requirement to background check all employees.

9. The Dumbest Conspiracy:

In order to get Michael Sentance voted in as superintendent, Jefferson County superintendent — and longtime State Department of Education administrator — Craig Pouncey had to be moved out of the way.

A lawsuit filed against a state school board member, the former interim superintendent and three ALSDE attorneys says Pouncey was pushed aside after a campaign to smear his name by filing a bogus ethics complaint and then spreading around evidence of Pouncey’s investigation. The clumsily-handled plot landed the group in front of a legislative committee conducting an investigation of the scheme.

The highlight: State school board member Mary Scott Hunter denying she spread rumors about Pouncey during questioning by Sen. Gerald Dial, who responded by telling Hunter that she had told him of the rumors.

10. The Montgomery Takeover:

It was a genius plan to start with, but ended up being a cause of Sentance’s departure — the state takeover of Montgomery’s public school system, the third largest system in the state.

Originally approved by Sentance in order to curry favor with a state school board member and to please white business owners in Montgomery, the Montgomery takeover was a popular move. It became less so with each subsequent decision made by Sentance, including the hiring of more administrators and racking up debt.

Now, everyone is unhappy, the system is on the verge of cutting more than 100 teachers and not one dime of state money wasted on the takeover has gone towards additional teachers or school resources.

 

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