Oh, Alabama, I cry for you. I cry for you, too, Birmingham.
We make progress, then we wipe it out. It’s the old cliché of two steps forward, one step back. Except during election years, it seems we take no steps forward and 100 years back.
What’s wrong with us? When will we stop hating?
State Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, was wrong to vaguely out Gov. Kay Ivey as gay in a tweet and on Facebook. Yeah, those rumors have circulated for awhile, but Todd’s tweet has a mean spirit to it, especially considering the state’s only openly gay legislator is leaving the State House and, presumably, the state, to take leadership of an LGBTQ organization in Florida.
This fire was ignited by Scott “I-Don’t-Stand-a-Snowball’s-Chance-in-Hell” Dawson, a Republican opponent of Ivey’s for governor. Dawson, in his self-righteous, white-Evangelical “superiority”, criticized Ivey for funding an LGBTQ anti-bullying organization. In Dawson’s world, it’d be OK to bully gay kids, or worse. In Dawson’s world, philanderer Donald Trump is a “Christian,” and monogamous Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. I’m glad I don’t live in Dawson’s screwed-up world, and I don’t want to go to his screwed-up heaven.
And sure, in the perfect world (not Dawson’s), we want all people, and especially our elected officials, to be who they are. Yet Ivey Wednesday directly denied the rumors, and that’s OK. She gets to decide who she is. We get to decide if that’s who we want to vote for.
But why does it matter if Ivey is gay? Think hard, Alabama. Why. Does. It. Matter? Your own homophobia? Your fear of somebody different? Your twisted Christianity where it’s OK to hate, despite the faith’s namesake demanding that we love?
It should not matter. Except that voters here (maybe everywhere?) respond to emotional, hot-button issues before thinking about whether they even matter. They don’t.
Meanwhile, here in Birmingham we have a controversy between new Mayor Randall Woodfin and a West End pastor known for using his church’s outdoor sign to deliver messages of hate.
New Era Baptist Church pastor the Rev. Michael R. Jordan is upset that the mega-Church of the Highlands may start a branch in his neighborhood. So he posted this on his church’s sign: “Black folks need to stay out of white churches.”
Woodfin responded appropriately: “There is a spirit of racism and division that is over this city. It must be brought down. We have to change the conversation to what we need it to evolve into. ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’”
So now Woodfin is taking heat from some in Birmingham and elsewhere. For wanting love, not hate, to guide our conversations.
The Rev. Jordan decries white flight, and rightly so. He calls Woodfin naïve. He says white people won’t live in his neighborhood, but they want to bring a white church next door.
I’ve written about Jordan’s hate before. In 2004, Jordan posted this on his church’s Hate Board: “AIDS is God’s curse on a homosexual life.”
Jordan’s “god” is much less perfect than mine. AIDS practically wiped out generations of hemophiliacs. It has devastated (and still is) heterosexual communities across the world, especially in Africa. If my God had it out for homosexuals, his aim would be much more precise.
Jordan rails against white Evangelicals who elected Donald Trump. But, you see, there’s not much difference between Jordan’s brand of religion and that of white Evangelicals.
There’s not much difference between Jordan and Dawson. Skin color, yes. Not much else.
Their unifying characteristic: Hate. Whether taught from the pulpit or from a church’s outdoor marquee, or from the campaign trail or in the “white” church, hate is the common denominator.
Woodfin is absolutely right. We must change the conversation.
That’ll be hard, though, because we’re mostly cowards, afraid of each other, of our immigrant neighbors, of the black man walking down the street and the white cop patrolling the streets. We’re afraid of gay people, of Muslims, of Asians, of Rednecks, of Jews, of Catholics. We’re afraid of independent women who want the right to choose, and who don’t want to be the targets of sexual harassment and rape. We live our lives in fear.
We’re even afraid of love.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]
Opinion | Push through is what we must do
In Alabama, it’s difficult to imagine that most churches are going to cancel Easter Sunday services this weekend. That, friends, should be a signal of how serious the COVID-19 pandemic is.
So if you’re a little stir crazy, you can’t go to Stir Crazy, a Homewood bar, because it’s closed for the duration. I hope not for forever, though.
If you’re feeling low, you can go to Lowe’s. The home improvement store is open. I have to go there to exchange our home water cooler bottles, but I go at 6 a.m., when it opens and hardly anybody is there.
I’m the errand–runner in our family during this crisis. I’m very careful, because I cannot bring this monster home. Veronica has health challenges that would be exacerbated if she contracts the virus. I’m a hand–sanitation fool. I wear an industrial mask and disposable gloves when I pump gas or use the ATM.
People are doing different things to maintain their sanity and try not to physically harm their spouses and children, who they most likely are seeing far too much of.
This pandemic might have happened regardless of what actions the United States took. But it’s not likely; other countries, including South Korea and Germany, had better leadership and responses. Our president is creating this disaster like he is Donald Trump. I can’t imagine how it could be handled any more poorly, but that’s a foolish bet to make with Trump in office.
I teach my classes from an undisclosed location on UAB’s campus. I need the stable Wi-Fi and, besides, it is physically impossible to work at home when the dogs are going to believe they can help you and will not take “no” for an answer.
I surveyed a few people I know to see how they’re handling the social distancing and the staying at home.
Attorney Johnny Norris, one of the partners in the Davis and Norris, LLP, law firm, has worked at home for a couple weeks now. He meets with his other partner and associates through Zoom meetings.
Norris said lots of law firms are laying off lawyers and staff during this time when the courts are closed. Not his firm. He said that he doesn’t have to take that drastic step for now.
“We’re a consumer rights law firm specializing in class actions and arbitrations,” Norris said. His firm’s 10 lawyers and half-a-dozen staff members are getting their full pay as they all work from home.
Norris and his wife, Missy, live in Hoover. They have a nice pool in the back yard to keep them occupies. Norris’ wife has two bee colonies to manage. And Norris said just for kicks, he and Missy are going to have a Coronavirus Thanksgiving today. He’s going to smoke a turkey, make dressing, and a green bean casserole. Missy may add a squash casserole and deviled eggs.
Leanne Blackmon of Gadsden has been working at home for years. Her online business, Classy Yet Trendy, is a fashion influencer. She said sales of her popular e-books are down, but her site is getting about the same number of clicks as before the pandemic.
“I’m still getting the same number of visitors to my site, because people don’t have anything to do but surf the Internet,” Blackmon said. She’s also adapting to the reality; Blackmon is considering offering a loungewear capsule wardrobe.
While Blackmon works at home anyway, she still is missing out because department stores are closed. She continuously scouts the big stores for current styles with decent prices. She’ll come to Birmingham or go to Atlanta, but right now she’s staying home, like her husband, Danny, a competitive billiards player.
Yes, all sports, including pool, are down. To occupy his time, Danny Blackmon made a billiards ball cleaner and polisher in his home shop.
Leanne Blackmon says from now on, if she and her husband must go out, she’s going to pull out some of her more fashionable bandannas to use as nose and mouth masks.
But for the most part, she said, “We’re just homebodies. We actually get along pretty well, and we always have. That’s a blessing.”
Server and jewelry store owner Rachel Bayerle is counting her blessings, too. A longtime wait staff member at the popular Southside Italian restaurant Giuseppe’s, Bayerle celebrated her 14th year with the restaurant on April 1.
While Bayerle had to close her downtown jewelry store, Charm on Second, for the time being, she’s still serving at Giuseppe’s, which has a pretty strong curbside clientele.
“We’ve had some really gracious people,” Bayerle said. “All of my regulars have shown up, and they’ve left their normal tips, or even bigger.
One generous patron gave Bayerle a $100 tip on a $15 ticket.
Bayerle spends her down time at her Crestwood home with her boyfriend. Both like to put together jigsaw puzzles. “We like the 1,000–piece or more puzzles.” Bayerle also has a sketchbook she works in and her boyfriend has re-landscaped the front yard. “And we’re renters,” Bayerle said.
Bayerle does have some concerns, though. They are the same concerns that many of us have.
“My mom, who’s over 60 (years old), lives in Florida; she thankfully isn’t a smoker any more, but she was for a really long time,” Bayerle said. “I’m not around her, so I don’t know how seriously she’s taking this. Same with my grandmother (who lives in Birmingham). I’ve told her I can’t see her because I deal with the public a bunch.” But if her grandmom needs anything, Bayerle drives it over and puts it on her porch.
And then, not atypical for Alabama: “I’m also concerned about the people who are still not taking this seriously,” Bayerle said. “I know they’re out there because I talk to some of them. I’m worried they’re going to get started back too soon, because a lot of people just want this to go away.”
Most days, even the president doesn’t act like he’s willing to make the difficult decisions; instead, he’s pretty much left the heavy lifting to the individual states, and leadership varies at the state level.
Former Birmingham resident Angela Balfour has moved back to her home state of Connecticut, and she says her state, New York and New Jersey have been coordinating the response to COVID-19.
“People are in serious lockdown here,” Balfour said, adding that most people at grocery stores are in masks. “It’s being taken very, very seriously here.”
Three weeks ago, Balfour was supposed to start substitute teaching. “Talk about incredibly poor timing,” she said. When she was in Birmingham, Balfour was the Education in Newspaper coordinator at The Birmingham News.
Balfour is seriously worried about the president’s decision-making abilities.
“It is frightening to know that every decision made is made based on money and financial interests for him or his family,” Balfour said, noting that Trump is pushing the use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that Trump’s family trusts have a small interest in. Of course, if the drug becomes the panacea, that could change. Or not.
Balfour is right to worry about Trump’s decision-making, though, because in this crisis, he’s been awful.
Kathy Sexton, the associate director of the UAB Tissue Biorepository, has been working full time at home since March 17.
“It’s a little challenging because the Wi-Fi (at home) is not always as consistent as it is in the office,” Sexton said. “Also in the office, I have two screens, where at home I’m working on my laptop.”
Sexton said she has plenty to keep her busy. Her husband, lawyer Steve Sexton, is doing his legal work from his home office as well. Their 19-year-old son, Jonathan, is a first-year student at UAB, now taking online classes.
“It’s one thing to shut everything down for a couple of weeks,” Kathy Sexton said. “But now we’re talking the end of April. At some point, we’re going to have to look at what this is doing for general research and how it affects routine operations.”
Another challenge about working from home is just figuring out how to keep the house running when she’s there full time for UAB. She says she still has home responsibilities: laundry, cooking, cleaning, yardwork.
“I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones,” Sexton said. “UAB is still supporting our employees. I’m fortunate to be in a place(the family home in Glen Iris Park) where we have a big yard and can go outside.”
Jonathan, meanwhile, gets bored and frustrated, but when he does, he hops on his motorcycle and rides around or hits the PlayStation to game remotely with his cousin who lives in Auburn.
Of course, each of the 22,000-plus students at UAB and at all the other universities in Alabama and around the nation have been affected by schedule changes. UAB announced Wednesday that summer classes, too, will be conducted online. There’s no word yet about the fall.
That worries Madelyn Gilbertson, 20, who is at the end of her first year at UAB’s Nursing School.
On March 18, Gilbertson transitioned from in-person classes to online. Her clinicals have been interrupted.
“It’s difficult for me because I like to learn in person,” Gilbertson said. “I find it more effective (to be in person). There’s a lot of things, with nursing, that are hands on. You don’t get the same teaching online as you do in person.”
And classroom teachers aren’t as good online as they are in person, either. I can vouch for that.
To keep from getting bored, Gilbertson works out to “give myself endorphins, and then just to wind down and take our mind off things, my family and I enjoy watching period dramas, like Downton Abbey.
Gilbertson is keeping her chin up, though.
“I don’t have time to be depressed,” she said. “There are still things I have to take care of. The world doesn’t wait for you. You just have to push through.”
So let’s push, people. Let’s push through.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected].
Opinion | Alabama Republicans can’t manage the crisis they helped create
On Tuesday, Alabama’s governor called together the state’s media, in the midst of a global pandemic, so they could broadcast pictures of her tying a ribbon around a post to remind people to pray for healthcare workers.
Surrounding Gov. Kay Ivey at the event were various pastors from churches in and around Montgomery. And they each were given time to speak about the importance of prayer and remembering those who are risking their lives.
It was a nice gesture. And possibly the clearest indication yet that Ivey and the Republicans that are in charge of Alabama haven’t the faintest idea of how to lead this state through a crisis.
They have no real plan. They have no ideas for how to address the mounting problems. They have been completely and thoroughly overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak since the start.
And so, they have turned to what they know best: Pointless pandering.
Except, you can’t folksy your way out of this mess. You can’t blame the black folks and throw money at a few jobs and hope no one notices that you don’t know what you’re doing.
And that’s a problem in this state.
Because the ALGOP leadership of this state has built its brand on division and distraction. It has used petty nonsense, like the protection of racist monuments, and emotional ploys, mostly built around religion and false claims about abortions, to seize and maintain control of Alabama’s government, even as they totally wreck the place.
They’ve gotten away with it because up until now no singular event has simultaneously exposed how their incompetence has negatively affected the lives of so many Alabamians in almost every racial and economic demographic.
And then along came coronavirus.
It has laid bare all of it. And the devastating reality of this void of leadership continues to grow day after day as the bodies pile up.
Now, just so we’re clear and so no half-wit starts clamoring on that I’m blaming the ALGOP leadership for the coronavirus, I’m most certainly not doing that. I’m blaming ALGOP’s lack of leadership for the excessive number of deaths that will occur in this state, and for the many thousands of lives that will be forever ruined by the hospital bills that result from this.
And make no mistake, there is blood on their hands.
The refusal to expand Medicaid alone has effects that will eventually negatively impact every single person in this state. That purely political decision that makes no practical sense if politics is removed has already cost thousands of lives around Alabama over the last six years. The devastation from the current crisis is going to be staggering.
Not only are uninsured people who contract coronavirus less likely to go for testing or to seek treatment until the latter stages of the disease (meaning they’ll spread it far and wide), a good portion of people are responding more negatively to the virus because they have underlying conditions that have gone undetected and untreated for years. Because people without insurance don’t go to the doctor.
Even if the virus doesn’t kill them, many of those uninsured citizens in Alabama will face unmanageable medical bills. A study from the independent nonprofit FAIR Health found that the average cost to treat coronavirus for an uninsured person was around $75,000. If a ventilator is required, the bill jumps to more than $200,000.
And with a fresh crop of unemployed Alabamians — more than 200,000 claims filed as of Monday — that’s a whole mess of people who are suddenly missing insurance and the ability to pay their hospital bills.
Which, of course, means that more Alabama hospitals will close. There have already been 14 closures over the past eight years, and there are at least three more small hospitals teetering on the brink of bankruptcy right now. By the time this is said and done, the only cities that will have hospitals will be Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. And a few of those aren’t looking so great.
And not having a hospital within 30 miles is an issue that affects everyone — not just poor people.
The news is even worse for black Alabamians — a phrase that black Alabamians know too well. More than half the state’s deaths from coronavirus have been black people. A staggering figure when you consider that only 27 percent of Alabama’s population is black.
The reason for this, Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the UAB School of Medicine, suggested is that the African American population in Alabama — high in poverty and low in insurance coverage — is possibly more susceptible to the virus due to underlying medical conditions that have gone untreated due to a lack of routine and preventative visits to a doctor.
After all, you don’t go to the doctor very much if you don’t have insurance.
And you don’t have insurance in Alabama if you don’t receive it from a job.
And you don’t have a job with great benefits, including health insurance, if you live in a predominantly black county in Alabama.
And you don’t have a job with those benefits in those counties because the state of Alabama has done a suspiciously poor job of using incentive dollars to steer relocating companies to those counties.
So, you see, the mismanagement goes well beyond simply not expanding Medicaid. And that is true even when focusing only on this current crisis.
From the mixed messages of “folks, we’re not California or New York or even Louisiana” to the insistence on protecting businesses over people to the absurd stay-at-home-unless-you-need-to-go-out-for-something order, Ivey’s responses — when she’s popped out every 3-4 days — have been a disaster.
But to her credit, I guess, at least she’s doing something. The state legislature, where ALGOP enjoys a super-majority, literally did nothing but adjourn as this virus started to spread.
As the crisis grows, we have also realized that the ALGOP mission to underfund every government agency so they can issue a press release touting the tax “savings” isn’t really paying off so swell. Thanks to those funding cuts, pretty much every department needed in this crisis is understaffed, poorly trained and poorly equipped.
The Alabama Department of Public Health has been a national laughing stock, despite the best efforts of its employees. They’ve lacked the tools and personnel to adequately do the job for years. And it shows.
How bad is it?
Louisiana is lapping us. And we lost sight of Mississippi a long time ago.
But they’re not the only ones. The Department of Labor can’t keep up with unemployment claims, and its online operation has been down more than it’s been functional over the past several days. And the Revenue Department is again going to delay issuing tax refunds.
But perhaps the best example of just where we are came on Wednesday, in a story reported by al.com. In 2009, Alabama had a pandemic plan, and it had used federal dollars — in the midst of a national recession, mind you — to stockpile ventilators and personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses. We were ready for COVID-19.
But in 2010, ALGOP stormed the state house. And, well, here we are.
Opinion | Some observations
Allow me to share some observations from the year thus far. First of all, I have never seen anything like the coronavirus shutdown of the country. Hopefully, it is a once in a lifetime disaster.
Governor Kay Ivey remains popular. Even though some people consider the defeat of Amendment One a personal rejection, it was not. Alabamians just like to vote to elect their political and, in this case, educational leaders.
As you recall, Amendment One was asking Alabamians to give up their right to vote on the State Schoolboard and to allow the governor to appoint them instead. When I was queried on whether Amendment One would pass, I quickly told them it would lose 60 to 40. I was wrong, it took more of a shellacking than that. It lost 75 to 25. Folks, that sends a message. You may not know who serves on the State Schoolboard, but Alabamians surely want to vote for them.
Governor Ivey’s people do a good job of looking after her and protecting her time. She is all business and is very scheduled. She and her staff treat the office with a dignity I have not seen in decades. She is focused on the job at hand and an audience with her must be for a purpose, even with legislators. Her staff gets her in-and-out and protects her time and health. She has been especially isolated since the coronavirus epidemic. She will more than likely not run for a second term in 2022.
Waiting in the wings to run is Lt. Governor, Will Ainsworth. He just turned 39 and will be in the race for the brass ring in 2022. If being an outstanding family man is a prerequisite, he will be a contender. He has a genuinely sweet and pretty wife named Kendall. They have fraternal twin boys, Hunter and Hays, who are 10 and a little 8-year-old girl named Addie. I met the boys the night of the State of the State Address. Will brought them over to where I was standing and wanted us to meet. The little boys were the most polished ten-year-old’s I have ever met. They very politely, yet confidently looked me in the eye and shook my hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you Mr. Flowers.” They exuded manners.
Kay Ivey only attends the most important events and she does not lollygag around conversing afterwards. Therefore, it was apparent when she came to Birmingham earlier this year to the Grand Opening of Dr. Swaid Swaid’s, state-of-the-art medical facility, that Swaid was special.
Dr. Swaid has been a friend and supporter of almost every governor, going back to George Wallace. Governor Wallace came to UAB to see Swaid and would not only want the famed physician to treat him for his numerous afflictions and ailments, but also enjoyed visiting with the jovial Galilean doctor. Swaid has many great stories from his and the governor’s visits and friendship.
Swaid’s best friend is State Senator Jabo Waggoner. They are really like brothers rather than just best friends. Jabo is the longest serving member in the history of the state legislature. He chairs the State Senate Rules Committee.
Jabo and Swaid and their families spend almost every weekend together, either at their homes in Vestavia or Smith Lake. However, they make it to their church, Homewood Church of Christ, almost every Sunday. Jabo and his beautiful wife, Marilyn, have attended the church for 45 years. Swaid has attended for 40 years. Jabo and Swaid are leaders in this mega church.
Recently, Jabo and Marilyn and Swaid and his lovely wife, Christy, invited me to join them for their church service and lunch afterwards. It was an enjoyable visit. The most rewarding part was meeting Swaid and Christy’s two sons, Christian and Cason. They are absolutely the politest and quality young men I have met. They are being raised right by an obviously good Christian father and mother.
Swaid built his state-of-the-art surgery hospital on well-traveled, easily accessible Highway 31 in Vestavia. He chose the location because he knew from his work over the years, that people from all over the state, especially rural areas, come to Birmingham for major surgery. Most of these patients are older and not familiar with Birmingham traffic, especially with maneuvering the labyrinth around UAB. It will make it much easier to see the world-renowned doctors in Swaid’s group.
If Swaid’s boys are an example of the next generation, our state may be in better hands than we think.
See you next week.
Steve 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.
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.
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