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Knight v. Burkette: A near riot, unpaid bills and a campaign manager calls it quits in the District 26 race

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

By almost all measures, the evening of Dec. 12 should have been a happy one for the David Burkette Campaign.

While the Montgomery City Councilman didn’t win his bid for the Senate District 26 seat, he had pulled off a surprising second-place finish and forced an even more surprising runoff with longtime state Rep. John Knight. Burkette had even managed to beat fellow councilman Fred Bell, who had the backing of the state’s Democratic Conference and was better funded.

But instead of jubilation, back at Burkette’s campaign headquarters, there was anger.

“It was basically a riot at campaign headquarters,” said Bishop Roosevelt Crawford, who was managing Burkette’s campaign at the time.

According to Crawford and two other sources, poll workers hired by Burkette’s campaign had arrived at the headquarters to receive their pay for the day’s work. Only, there was no money. And no Burkette.

After receiving the call, Crawford said he went to the headquarters, where he found “an angry mob” outside and Burkette holed up in an RV, watching election results and ignoring the commotion out front. When he asked Burkette about paying the workers, Crawford said Burkette told him he wasn’t paying because, “I didn’t hire any of those people.”

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“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Crawford said. “I said to him, ‘David, the campaign hired them. It’s your campaign. That means you hired them.’

“Those people were hot! And rightfully so. They were promised money, worked all day and then weren’t being paid. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t be mad about it.”

To settle the matter, Crawford said he and Jimmie “Deacon” McFarland, who was helping manage the campaign’s finances, went into their own pockets and used their personal money to pay the workers half of what they were owed.

And that, Crawford said, was a microcosm of his time working on the Burkette campaign — a job that left him frustrated, embarrassed and now dealing with creditors left unpaid by the cash-strapped campaign. It’s also a fascinating peek inside the less-than-glamorous world of legislative races, where money is tight, the rules are often loosely interpreted and the bills are sometimes left unpaid.

Attempts to reach Burkette on Wednesday were unsuccessful. A message left on his cell phone was not returned.

“It was just chaotic,” Crawford said.

The final straw came three weeks ago, after weeks of attempting to get Burkette to meet with him and the rest of the campaign’s executive committee — meetings that Crawford said Burkette blew off three separate times — Crawford said Burkette stormed into a meeting, angry over a disagreement about finances, and began cursing and calling people names.

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That disagreement stemmed from a request from Burkette to add another person, a woman who was serving as the campaign’s recording secretary, to the campaign’s checking account. Crawford said he McFarland were against the idea, and when the bank manager called to ask them to OK it, they declined.

“I can take criticism and all, but you aren’t going to come into a room cursing and calling me stupid,” Crawford said. “I won’t have that.”

Crawford said he felt like the insults stemmed from Burkette’s overall frustration with the campaign’s finances and his inability to raise and manage money.  

With less than a month to go before his runoff election against Knight, campaign finance records show Burkette’s account has less than $2,000 and most of that total is from in-kind contributions, not actual cash. The campaign finished $638 in the hole in December.

Crawford said the debt was actually higher, because the campaign had racked up debt that Burkette was refusing to pay.

“David asked me to find someone to design a website, so I did — a person I know who designed a website for us on a discount, because we didn’t have much money,” Crawford said. “Now it’s time to pay and David’s saying he didn’t hire these people so it’s not his responsibility. I just received the second invoice for the website design — nearly $4,000. I’m not paying these invoices.”

Crawford said Burkette was told by the head of the Alabama Democratic Conference, Joe Reed, that ADC would take care of the campaign’s debt when it officially endorsed Burkette — an endorsement that left many wondering why the ADC would pick an obvious underdog with massive fundraising issues over a multi-term state representative, in Knight, who is well financed and respected within the party.

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The endorsement is less about what’s best for the party or voters and much more about Reed’s personal animosity towards Knight.

For what it’s worth, the ADC doesn’t appear to be investing much in the race.

“I don’t know Joe Reed personally, I just know what David told me — that he was promised by (Reed) that the campaign debt would be settled,” Crawford said. “That’s what he said after we picked up the ADC endorsement. But there was always a reason why it wasn’t. There was no money given to the campaign (by ADC) before I left.

“The only money I was aware of was one day David told me that he had met with Reed and that Reed had given him $500 for his personal use. That’s how David described it.”

The only donation from ADC noted in Burkette’s campaign finance reports was a $1,108 donation of in-kind services on Jan. 23.  

Despite all of the problems, Crawford said he still believes Burkette is a good person with good intentions, just not the best political candidate.

“David can’t manage money, to say the least,” Crawford said. “This was my first time as a campaign manager, so I wanted to do everything by the book, very ethical. That’s not the way David wanted to handle things. It just wasn’t a good fit.”

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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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