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Opinion | Milton McGregor: The maddest I’ve ever been

Joey Kennedy

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The angriest I ever was as an editorial writer while at The Birmingham News was because of Milton McGregor.

I wrote opinion for The News for 25 years. Lots of anger opportunities. But my most angry happened early in my career as an editorial writer, when McGregor was trying to get the voters of Jefferson County to support his takeover of the Birmingham Race Course.

My anger was not directed at McGregor.

As my colleague Josh Moon so eloquently wrote this week, “Everybody in Alabama, it seems, has a Milton McGregor story.”

So do I.

The News editorial board opposed McGregor’s plans for the Race Course. In our editorial urging voters to oppose his plans, we spelled out what McGregor would need to do to gain The News’ support. Though I wrote the editorial, I don’t remember all the details.

What I do remember is that we laid out, point-by-point, how McGregor needed to change his plan to gain our support. We had editorial board meetings over these issues.

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Do this, The News said to McGregor, and we’re on board.

McGregor did everything we asked him to do. It was like he went point-by-point in our first editorial, changing his Race Course referendum to match up with it.

Then, The News still didn’t support McGregor’s referendum.

I was furious. Editorials are the institutional opinions of the newspaper. They are not by-lined, so nobody except those on the editorial board knows who wrote those editorials unless we told them.

I wrote the editorial promising the newspaper’s support if McGregor did what we asked. Change your approach, and we’ll back you.

And he did.

And we didn’t.

The newspaper didn’t outright oppose McGregor’s plan. We just made no recommendation at all, about the meekest approach a newspaper can take.

Moon wrote earlier this week that, to his knowledge, McGregor never lied to him in Moon’s vast reporting of McGregor and his businesses.

While I didn’t have nearly the interaction with McGregor as Moon, McGregor never lied to me either, to my knowledge. Not only that, but McGregor actually changed his business plan for the Birmingham Race Course based on an editorial I had written.

So when we, as a newspaper, didn’t support McGregor after that, I was livid. The late Ron Casey, my editor (and a treasure to Alabama) talked me off the ledge. I wanted to throw things around the office and march into the publisher’s office and yell at him that we were wrong.

Ron ran interference, calmed me down, convinced me we needed to pick our fights. This one was no-win. The News’ publisher would never support gambling, he said, and our mistake was promising to support McGregor if he changed his plan. Nobody thought McGregor actually would do it.

I refused to write the editorial that refused to support the Race Course’s future, and Ron was OK with that. I pouted, instead.

The voters supported the second referendum anyway, and McGregor was the winner in the end.

I did see McGregor not long after that and, between him and me, I apologized. McGregor was gracious, as he always was in the few times I was around him.

One of the most recent times we met was last fall and a Birmingham store where we were helping a friend get a fit for a back support chair we’d given her for her birthday. McGregor came in to scope out high-end loungers for the man-cave at his home. That was the first time I also met his wife, Pat.

We made small talk, reminisced some about the old days, and just as he was every time I was around him, McGregor was friendly and open.

Rest in peace, Milton McGregor. You will be missed.

 

Joey Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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