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Opinion | The fallen Star

Joey Kennedy

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At the beginning of last year, when former Consolidated Publishing chairman and Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers basically admitted to abusing at least two of his former female employees by spanking them decades ago, those of us who followed the story knew this was just the cliché’d tip of the iceberg.

When my wife, Veronica Pike Kennedy, told her story in B-Metro Magazine in February of last year, other women who said Ayers abused them came forward. Some worked in Ayers’ home, while others were young journalists who had at one time worked for the Star.

Clearly, the abuse extended far beyond the mid-1970s. It may have been happening earlier than that, but we know Ayers’ awful behavior continued for years (decades?) after.

Yet, the story appears to have died, frozen with the abuse of three women in the mid-1970s. Alabama Political Reporter broke the story on Jan. 1, 2018. The Anniston Star was in a position to break the story, too, but instead tried to kill it.

But what media outlet is in a better place to report the entire history of Ayers’ abuse than the Star? Presumably, the Star has employee records and could canvass former workers just so they could receive, if nothing else, an apology from the newspaper for failing to protect them when they worked there. Of course, not even Veronica, public and on the record, has been given that courtesy.

And the newspaper still has Ayers; ask him.

While Ayers at first denied he’d abused any of his employees, he finally admitted to going to the apartment of one and spanking her.

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Concerning Veronica’s abuse, Ayers finally said “let the accusation stand,” which can clearly be taken as an admission of guilt.

While the Star rushed out a story a few hours after former Star reporter Eddie Burkhalter scooped his ex-newspaper on APR, most of the management’s response was in defense of why they hadn’t reported the story, and, frankly, they were in the typical CYA mode we often see from companies caught in embarrassing moments.

Burkhalter quit his job at the Star in November 2017 because the newspaper wouldn’t aggressively pursue the story, even though he had one of the abused women, Veronica, on the record, others who knew of and/or had witnessed the abuse, and court records indicating Ayers’ frightening fetish truly existed.

Even as the newspaper was aggressively pursuing stories on Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore’s thing for teenagers when he worked in the Etowah County district attorney’s office long ago, it was moving so cautiously on the Ayers story that it got scooped by one of its own former reporters working on his own time, unpaid.

Star managing editor Ben Cunningham directly criticized me after I wrote about Burkhalter leaving his job on principle after nine years. I first named Ayers as my wife’s abuser in an APR column right before the new year, with her permission.

Then, as Burkhalter’s story of Ayers’ abuse was published on APR that New Year’s Day, I had a companion column about the Stars’ foot-dragging on the story obviously hoping it would go away, and the manner in which Burkhalter was treated by Star management as he was doggedly pursuing a difficult but important story about his newspaper’s top boss.

Cunningham wrote at the time: “What’s harder to brook, though, is a column (mine) published in the same outlet (APR), which aims accusations at this newsroom’s leaders about our work on this story. Those allegations are flatly false, and were delivered without any attempt to verify their accuracy or opportunity to respond.”

Here’s what I knew: Eddie Burkhalter was credible then, and he remains credible today; the Star, not so much. The newspaper had the story for weeks and was sitting on it. I know this because my wife was interviewed early in the process by the new reporter assigned to the story, and then everything went quiet. Other outlets were also working on the story, but apparently because of Ayers’ “reputation” and power in the publishing business, didn’t want to be first.

This is one of the many characteristics I love about Alabama Political Reporter. Get the story right, of course, but when you’ve got it, go with it. There can always be follow-ups. A reporter doesn’t have to know everything before reporting something.

I knew Burkhalter’s reporting had been thorough and accurate – he’d been actively reporting it even after leaving the Star — and I know the women (and men) he talked with for the story.

As important, Burkhalter truly had empathy for my wife and the other victims. He cares about them and doesn’t understand exactly what went wrong at a newspaper that once had a superb reputation.

Cunningham’s feelings were hurt because I didn’t attempt to contact him back then. I didn’t need to. I had the story, and Cunningham and crew were in CYA mode anyway because the Star clearly fell down on reporting about its abusive leader, in the #MeToo era no less.

All of this resurfaced last week when the Star announced respected Washington Post executive editor Martin “Marty” Baron was to deliver the annual Ayers Lecture. Baron, however, fell ill and had to cancel the appearance.

Still, some people, including Burkhalter and me, wondered why Baron would grace the stage for the Ayers Lecture, knowing that Brandy’s victims would perhaps question why he was giving credibility to a media outlet that failed to report on their boss’ strange sexual spanking fetish. To his credit, Baron answered candidly.

Still, why did the story about Ayers’ long years of abusing women die? Because the Star didn’t continue reporting it. The Star let it go. The newspaper in the best position to dig out the ultimate truth – with names, phone numbers and Ayers right there to ask – let it drop.

Now, Ayers’ wife, Josie Ayers, is the newspaper’s publisher and chair of Consolidated Publishing. Former publisher and editor Bob Davis left last May to become executive director of High Plains Public Radio.

Star management didn’t care enough about the women victims left in Brandy’s wake of assaults to continue reporting the story. To issue apologies. Please, just make it go away, they appear to be saying.

Or, if the Star is continuing to work on the story, we don’t know it, and we certainly don’t see any product.

I did reach out to Cunningham to ask where the Star was on reporting this story.
As of this writing, Cunningham had not responded. My breath is not being held.

The rest of this story is out there, though. Out there, waiting to be reported. For those women intentionally hurt by Ayers, doesn’t the Star even care?

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

 

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | Somebody, please, take the lead

Joey Kennedy

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Gov. Kay Ivey held a press conference to update the COVID-19 situation in Alabama Friday May 8, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Just like Donald Trump on the national level, Gov. Kay Ivey has bungled containing the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Alabama is showing record cases and hospitalization levels.

But while Ivey extended the Safer-at-Home order though July 31, she didn’t add any new restrictions. The governor says requiring masks is simply too difficult to manage and enforce.

Nobody said fighting the virus would be easy. The problem is neither Ivey nor many other governors, along with the White House, didn’t really make containment much of a priority.

Testing is still inadequate, nearly a half-year after the pandemic started. Alabama’s first diagnosed case was March 13. Since then – as of Wednesday – Alabama has racked up more than 30,000 cases with more than 900 deaths. Nationally, there have been more than 2.6 million cases and nearly 130,000 deaths.

When the pandemic was young, Ivey responded well, ordering everybody to stay home except for essential workers. She did much better than the governors in the state’s surrounding Alabama. But just as with most states across the Southeast, after a few weeks Ivey’s resolve cracked. Like the governors of states like Georgia and Florida, which are also seeing a spike in infections and are setting records.

Ivey should tighten up the restrictions, including closing the state’s beaches over the July 4th weekend. Bars, gyms, and other places where large crowds gather, usually not social distancing and many without masks, should be restricted.

Yes, such measure will continue to cause economic pain, but such restrictions would slow the spread of the virus. We’ve already seen that not just in the United States, but across many parts of the world.

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Ivey and health officials also need to increase testing and contact tracing.

Yes, all of that is difficult, but what are the consequences? More deaths. Just how many deaths are acceptable? Is it 1,000 (we’re almost there), or 2,000, or 5,000? Is any number unacceptable. It doesn’t suffice for elected officials to claim even one death is too many when, through their own actions, thousands and thousands have died in Alabama and across the nation.

And those numbers don’t include infected and once hospitalized patients who are left with permanent organ and lung damage.

Cities like Birmingham and Montgomery have mandatory mask laws, and they need to be enforced because a lot of people are going out without their masks. Still, there are many laws on the books that are difficult to enforce; that doesn’t mean those laws don’t have value. A statewide mandatory mask order if, nothing else, would lead more people to wear masks, plus it would give support to businesses who refuse to allow people inside without masks.

UAB is planning to bring students back on campus when the fall semester begins in late August, but there will be strict safety measures to follow, including wearing masks, social distancing, handwashing, and regular health checks.

Ivey says if the rate of cases and hospitalizations doesn’t slow, she’ll enact more stringent measures. But when she finally gets around to making those decisions, it could very well be too late.

Indeed, it may be too late already.

We’ve seen what indecisive leadership does during a pandemic. What we need to see – in Alabama and nationally – is a more determined response that helps put the virus in check. That includes mask wearing, increased testing, and contact tracing.

Every day that doesn’t happen, more people will get sick and die when they didn’t have to.


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

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Opinion | GOP Senate runoff in less than two weeks

Steve Flowers

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Folks, we are less than two weeks away from our election contest for our U.S. Senate seat.  The runoff between former Senator Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach, Tommy Tuberville may be close and will be interesting.

The two conservatives were in a virtual dead heat in the March 3rd GOP primary.  Congressman Bradley Byrne, the Republican U.S. Representative from the 1st District, primarily Mobile and Baldwin counties, finished a strong third.

The runoff was initially set for March 31.  However, the coronavirus delayed the runoff until July 14. Therefore, the big question is how did the 15week delay affect the runoff outcome.  It is difficult to say.  However, my guess is that it may have been a salvation for Sessions.  

Most pundits and polls indicated that Coach Tuberville had the momentum and was set to win the runoff.  The over threemonth hiatus may have stymied if not thwarted that momentum the same way that football coaches call a timeout when the opposing team is driving toward a winning touchdown.  It halts the Big Mo.

Amazingly, the entire campaign has been about Donald Trump and who can cozy up the most to the conservative Republican President. All three frontrunner candidates, Tuberville, Sessions and Byrne made their campaign pitches not about issues but who can be Trump’s buddy or valet.

Sessions and Byrne both had instances where they both had lapses in their obedience to the irrational and irascible Don, so Tuberville’s lack of playing time in the political arena made him the more perceptual slave for Trump.

Coach Tuberville’s entire campaign has been based on his being loyal to Trump.  It has paid dividends.  He led with 33 percent to Sessions 32 percent and Byrnes 25 percent.  Indeed, as soon as the first primary was over in early March, Trump officially endorsed Tuberville.  This endorsement propelled Tuberville into a ninepoint lead in the polls in mid-March, which is when the pandemic hit and the election was delayed until July 14.  

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In the meantime, when the national economic virus shutdown subsided somewhat in mid-May, the campaign resumed. Trump again inserted himself into the Alabama GOP Senate race by blasting Sessions again with yet another vitriolic attack. Trump espoused that Sessions had asked him four times to be Attorney General.  Finally, Sessions took up for himself and quickly retorted that he never asked Trump for the job.

Folks, I have watched Jeff Sessions’ career as our Junior U.S. Senator for 20 years and prior to that as Alabama’s Attorney General, and I am here to tell you that Jeff Sessions’ truth, veracity, and integrity trumps Trump by a country mile.  Honesty, integrity, and truthfulness is not Trump’s forte.  However, it has been Sessions his entre 30+ years in public service in Alabama.

In fact, Trump owed more to Sessions than naming him Attorney General.  When Trump began his quest for the GOP nomination, he was given very little chance.  Jeff Sessions’ endorsement as the nation’s most conservative senator gave the bombastic, egocentric New Yorker credibility and gave impetus to his race for the White House.

Actually, I said at the time that Sessions acquiescence to becoming Attorney General was a step down from being a veteran 20-year U.S. Senator and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in a safe U.S. Senate seat.  You can bet your bottom dollar he is now sorry he accepted the post.  It is apparent he is not going to get Trump’s endorsement for obvious reasons.  He would not break the law or do Trump’s bidding, so Trump hates him.

Trump has reaffirmed his endorsement of Tommy Tuberville. Historically, in Alabama politics, endorsements by one politician in another political race have not been advantageous.  In fact, they have been counterproductive.  Alabamians have inherently resented endorsements. However, in this case and in this race, my guess is that Trump is so popular among Republican voters in Alabama that his attacks on Sessions and endorsement of Tuberville will propel the coach to victory. In fact, polls show Tuberville with a double-digit lead. He has run a good campaign staying on point and simply saying, I am going to support Donald Trump.


Have a Happy 4
th of July.


Steve Flowers 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.

 

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Opinion | The heavy weight of racist words

Joey Kennedy

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Oops! He did it again.

Donald Trump just can’t pass up a chance to demonstrate how racist he is. We’ve known all along that Trump has a history of racism. This racism didn’t just show up when he decided to run for president in 2015.

Remember the Central Park 5, five young Black and Latino men who were charged with raping a woman in Central Park. Trump ran newspaper ads calling for them to get the death penalty. After the five spent some years in prison, they were exonerated when the real rapist confessed and his DNA matched that found at the crime scene.

To this day, Trump maintains that some in the group are guilty, and he refuses to apologize for the ads. Because he’s a racist.

Then there’s the birther movement, where Trump led conspiracy nuts to believe President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Obama was, of course, born in Hawaii. Still, Trump continues to denigrate Obama, and many of his followers still believe Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Because Trump is a racist.

And, of course, Trump has defended America’s racist heritage, arguing that statues of slave owners and Confederate monuments be preserved and not removed, as is happening more and more. Because Trump is a racist.

Trump isn’t reading the room very well. The majority of Americans, white and Black and brown and everything in between, want the racist monuments and statues removed. They do not want the Confederate battle flag — as much a symbol of hate as the Nazi Swastika — to be displayed.

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Trump does, though. Because he’s a racist.

That’s just a few specific examples. But there are many others, including the language he uses, even today, at his rallies and in day-to-day exchanges with the media. Terms like “thugs” and “bad hombres” are never far from his lips.

Trump has no qualms about using racist language as an appeal to his base who, no doubt, appreciate the permission to show their own inbred racism as well.

Since the novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), he’s added racist code words to his limited vocabulary to bash Asians. Attacks on Asian-Americans have increased says the Anti-Defamation League. U.S. Rep Judy Chu, D-California, said racism and xenophobia “against Asian Americans has surged as the coronavirus sweeps the U.S., with reports of hate crimes averaging approximately 100 per day,” according to Changing America.

This is not a little problem, especially in Birmingham, which has a small but thriving Asian population working both in research and medicine at UAB, as entrepreneurs and businesspeople, and as students at UAB. Birmingham has two sister cities in both China and Japan.

Still, Trump proudly displays his profound white supremacist character flaws by calling COVID-19 everything from the “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” to the really awful “Kung flu.” The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus denounces this terminology as dangerous to Asian Americans, Changing America reports.

But we don’t have to rely on caucuses and anti-hate organizations to see what’s up. I teach a large percentage of Asian students at UAB. They’ve seen the changes themselves.

“A lot of Asians felt the indirect consequences that were due to Trump’s word choices, especially when he called the coronavirus, ‘Chinese Virus,’” one student told me. “This label caused many non-Asians to see Asians – not just Chinese people – in a negative light, which led to Asians getting harassed, cursed at, and beat up in public places.”

Words have consequences, even the few words that Trump knows.

“Trump deliberately made the problem worse by blatantly attributing the coronavirus to China AND its people — ‘Chinese,’” the UAB student said. “Also, this became a greater issue for me because when Trump uses the word ‘Chinese,’ it doesn’t just affect the Chinese people but also Koreans like me. When the public sees the word ‘Chinese’ being used, they tend to overgeneralize to include other Asians, such as Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipinos, and many more, because from what I have been told by many people in the past, all Asians look alike.” 

In my years of teaching at UAB, my students have included Asians from all of these countries, and more. They are fine students and good souls.

“For me, it is truly disheartening to see someone with such great influence to carelessly speak before thinking about how using the word ‘Chinese’ could potentially affect other Asians, as well,” the UAB student said. “It hindered my living conditions because now I am more fearful of other people’s judgments when I am in public. Now, a carefree trip to the supermarket has turned into one where I have to willingly look out for my own safety and withstand potentially opposing perceptions of me, which Trump had a role in causing.”

My student should not have these worries when he goes out into the community. Neither should my African-American students. Nor my Latinx students. Nor any student. Nor any person. But they do.

Any national leader should work to bring us together, not split us into different factions or tribes, creating tensions between each of them.

Trump is definitely not that leader. Instead, he sanctions racism, tries to normalize it, but it’s not working, except within his racist base.

The trend now, since the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd and continued police violence against AfricanAmerican men and people of color and, yes, even white protesters, is we may have reached a critical mass.

A milquetoast police reform bill like that proposed by overwhelmingly old, white Republicans in the U.S. Senate isn’t going to cut it anymore. The trite phrase “thoughts and prayers” isn’t even a beginning.

People want genuine reform: End the use of choke holds and such police violence, revise completely police department use-of-force policies, do away with no-knock warrants, redirect resources to agencies better equipped to deal with mental health issues that police have to respond to all the time. Demilitarize the police, and hold police officers accountable for their actions.

E.J. Bradford and his family certainly didn’t get justice when the police officer who shot him three times in the back at the Galleria on Thanksgiving night 2018 was never held accountable.

Systemic racism is real, and it permeates many institutions and police departments. When Trump demonizes Asian, Black and Latino people on a regular basis, it’s not going to get better. Those in our population who believe their whiteness alone makes them smarter and better than others are fooling themselves, and, frankly, they’re Donald Trump’s fools, too.

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

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Opinion | How has coronavirus affected Alabama politics?

Steve Flowers

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As we end the first half of 2020, there is no doubt that the coronavirus is the story of the year.  The coronavirus saga of 2020 and its devastation of the nation’s and state’s economic well-being may be the story of the decade.

How has the coronavirus affected Alabama politics?  The answer is negligibly, if at all. The Republican Primary runoff to hold the Junior U.S. Senate seat was postponed by the virus epidemic.  It is set for July 14, which is right around the corner.  The race between Tommy Tuberville and Jeff Sessions should be close and interesting.

The virus delay did affect this race in one regard, if the vote had been held on March 31 as planned, Coach Tuberville had the advantage and the momentum.  The almost four-month delay may have stymied that train. To what degree we will not know,until the votes are counted in three weeks.  Tuberville’s campaign has been totally based on his being loyal to Donald Trump.  

Both Sessions and Tuberville were given a golden opportunity to use the four-month hiatus to do some good old fashion one-on-one campaigning, if only by phone.  If one of them did it, it could make the difference.  We will soon see.  People still like to be asked personally for their vote.

The next elections will not be until 2022.  It will be a big year.  It is a gubernatorial year and there may very well be an open U.S. Senate Seat.  Senator Richard Shelby will be 88.  It would be a blessing beyond measure if he ran again.  However, at that age he may choose to retire. Governor Kay Ivey will be 78 in 2022.  She will more than likely not run for a second term.

The one development that has occurred during the virus saga is that Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth, has made it clear that he will be running for governor in 2022.  If it were not apparent before, it is obvious now. He inserted himself into the coronavirus episode.  In many instances he appeared to usurp the center stage from Governor Ivey.

The young Lt. Governor first urged aggressive public health response, differing from Governor Ivey’s.  She made a comment about his out of nowhere position.  She then forgave him and gave him a position on one of her many meaningless task force bodies.

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Ainsworth then changed courses and tweeted that the state’s businesses should reopen prior to the Governor’s recommended date.  She seemed undeterred nor miffed by his second assertion of his policy position. Having been around Alabama politics a lot longer than Ainsworth, she may be savvy enough to know that she is giving him just enough rope to hang himself.

Kay cut her political teeth campaigning for Lurleen Wallace for Governor in 1966.  That was 15 years before Ainsworth was born in 1981.  I doubt he knows of a similar scenario that played out 50 years ago where a Lt. Governor got too big for his britches and overly and overtly tried to play Governor.

George Wallace had won his second term as Governor in 1970.  If you count Lurleens 1966 victory, it would be his third straight gubernatorial victory.  He was running for President in 1972 and was gunned down by a crazed assassin in a Maryland Parking lot.  He was near death from the multiple wounds and had to be hospitalized in Maryland for three to four months.  It was a miracle he survived.

Another young Lt. Governor Jere Beasley had been elected to the post in 1970, primarily because the Wallace people had supported him. Beasley seemed to insert himself overtly as governor during Wallace’s bedridden absence.  The Governor’s people actually had to fly him back home from his recovery for a day so that he could remain governor.  

Folks never seemed to forgive Beasley for this ambitious assertion of power.  In his next race for reelection as lieutenant governor, Beasley trailed Charles Woods in the first primary and barely won the runoff. Four years later, in the monumental 1978 Governor’s race which Fob James ultimately wonLt. Governor Jere Beasley finished in fifth place, even though he spent lots of money.

Speaking of money, losing the 1978 Governor’s race was the best thing that ever happened to Jere Beasley.  He began practicing law in Montgomery and became one of the most prominent Plaintiff lawyers in America.  He and his wife, Sarah, have had a much happier and prosperous life out of politics.

See you next week.


Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at
www.steveflowers.us.

 

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