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Josh Moon

A letter to Steve Marshall: You’re still wrong about why Alabama could lose a congressional seat

Josh Moon

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Dear Steve, 

It’s not the brown people. It’s the dumb people. 

The latter is Alabama’s real problem when it comes to the issue of people who reside within this state’s borders. And no matter how many times you, and a few others, attempt to place the blame for Alabama losing a congressional seat on undocumented immigrants in other states, it’s simply not true. 

This has been explained to you multiple times now. But for some reason, you continue to blow this racist dog whistle, using offensive terms to describe immigrants and ranting like the average Fox News viewer at the latest phony travesty thrust upon the God-fearing white people of Alabama. 

Your op-ed, which APR has printed in full today, is a disgrace. Both to common decency and common sense. 

And it is yet another attempt to absolve Alabama’s conservative lawmakers from their decades of awful governance by blaming a new minority group for the state’s troubles. 

While, yes, it is true that Alabama will likely lose a congressional seat, it is not true that the counting of all people within this country’s borders — including all non-citizens — is the cause for this. 

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Counting every person is how a census works. It’s how the census has always worked. Because the smart men and women we used to elect to run this country understood that ultimately the government and our society as a whole will serve every person, citizen or not, and so all of them should be counted. 

This approach has been challenged a few times. It has withstood all of them. 

In Alabama’s case, though, it never should have been brought up. Because non-citizens being counted in the U.S. census isn’t the cause of Alabama losing congressional representation. 

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Alabama’s dumb governance is. 

Every expert who has ever been asked about Alabama losing a congressional seat places the blame on the exact same thing: Alabama’s population increase hasn’t kept pace with its death rate. 

We have one of the highest death rates in the U.S.

That’s quite possibly due to the fact that we have one of the worst health care system in the industrialized world, which has led to a state filled with morbidly obese individuals and an infant mortality rate that ranks just behind Romania. 

We have a severe deficiency of doctors and hospitals, and recent studies have found nurses fleeing the state as well. We have failed repeatedly to teach proper health courses in schools, which has led to absurdly high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. And we have refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, because a black president came up with the idea and we’d literally rather die first. 

Tough to blame Hispanic people for any of that. 

Likewise, it’s also tough to blame Hispanic people, all other immigrants and regular U.S. citizens for not wanting to move to Alabama. 

We have one of the lowest migration rates as well, because no one wants to move Alabama. Again, that’s not something we can blame on any immigrant, but something we absolutely can blame on the yahoos at the State House who have, for decades now, made the name “Alabama” synonymous with racism, ignorance and bigotry. 

Start with Jim Crow, travel through integration, through Roy Moore’s homophobia and the anti-immigrant legislation and the pro-Confederate legislation and the multiple attacks on women, and, well, there are oddly few people clamoring to move to this place. 

These are the reasons, combined with near daily embarrassing national headlines, that have left Alabama on the verge of losing a congressional seat. 

But instead of considering those truths, and possibly examining how our actions have literally led to people not wanting to live here, here you are offering the same out that we seemingly always take. 

Blaming the minority.

It’s wrong, it’s offensive, and we should expect better from Alabama’s attorney general.

 

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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Opinion | Capping Alabama Power’s ash pond might be the best bad option

When you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one. 

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(STOCK PHOTO)

It would be wonderful if coal ash didn’t exist. Had humans never figured out that you could blast the top off a mountain or send desperate men deep into the earth to find coal to be burned to produce power, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be substantially better off. Just think of the environmental damage and human deaths that we could prevent. 

But that’s not real life. 

In real life, we live by the kilowatt. And as a result, we’re left with tons and tons and tons of coal ash — the leftover, toxic remnants of all that coal we’ve burned to keep all those lights on. And something has to be done with all of it. 

Exactly what we want to do with it is the dilemma facing Alabama Power and state and federal regulators. And there seems to be no answer that doesn’t tick off somebody. 

You can’t just leave it in wet ash ponds anymore, because the EPA has essentially — and very appropriately — made that illegal. 

You can’t cap it in place — a process by which the water is sucked out and cleaned and the remaining coal ash is covered with a synthetic liner and then with synthetic turf — because environmental groups say that still leaves a risk that some contaminants will leach into the groundwater. 

You can’t haul it away to a landfill — where it would be dumped into a lined pit and later covered — because nearby residents hate it and environmental groups say the dumping can lead to airborne contamination that sickens nearby residents. 

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So, what do you do? 

No, really, I’m asking. What should we do with an ash pond like the one at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry? 

Plant Barry has been a major point of contention between the power giant and environmental groups, particularly the Mobile Baykeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, for years now. But the conflict, in this particular instance, isn’t quite as simple as the usual cost-v-environment arguments that usually dominate these situations. 

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Barry’s ash pond currently holds 21 million tons of coal ash. That’s a big ash pond. 

It is located just feet from the Mobile River, separated by a 21-foot dike. For years, environmentalists have predicted that the pond is one good hurricane away from a major environmental disaster. (That has proven to be mostly hyperbole. Hurricane Sally pushed the Mobile River level up 3 feet. That’s 18 feet below the top of the existing dike, and the water has never been within 15 feet of the top.)

Alabama Power has maintained that the coal ash is as safe as a big, arsenic-laden baby and that no weather event in 55 years has disturbed the material stored at the site. But the company, after recent EPA law changes, is moving to cap in place the pond — a process it says will virtually eliminate the potential for contamination. 

Not good enough, the environmental groups have said. They want the coal ash moved to some other location. 

What location? The moon, preferably. Or some other place where humans will never come in contact with it.

However, when you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one. 

Look, I know that several heads just exploded, but hold off on the emails and angry tweets for a minute or two and let me explain. 

First, coal ash is a problem no matter where it’s stored or how it’s stored. Is placing it in a lined landfill at another location safer than capping it in place at Plant Barry? Possibly, but several people — people who are experts in the field — disagree about the overall danger and about the types of dangers related to each option. 

For example, capping the ash in place poses a higher risk that toxins could, at some point in the future, leach into the groundwater. APCO officials, and their hired engineers and third-party experts, insist that the new engineering improvements made to the site will significantly reduce that likelihood, making it almost equally as safe as a lined site. 

The plan APCO has presented has been approved by the EPA and is being monitored by ADEM.

But let’s say that APCO decided to go with the approach that some environmental groups want — trucking all 21 million tons of coal ash, after it’s been dried out, to a lined landfill site somewhere else. (And no one has a good thought on where that somewhere else is, by the way.)

That would mean, according to APCO’s estimates, more than 30 years of moving this stuff, with semi-trucks leaving out of the site every six minutes and traveling to wherever. Along county and state roads. And then dumping this stuff in another community that I can guarantee you does not want it. 

Pardon me, but sending diesel trucks up and down the roads for three decades (or two decades, if we go by most optimistic projections) doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly either. Nor does it sound like a solution that will prevent complaints. It also sounds like a blown tire or missed turn away from being an environmental disaster somewhere else. 

Capping this ash in place at Barry will move it another 750 yards away from the Mobile River. It will result in the dike being raised another three feet, eliminating the risk of a flood-caused disaster by anything other than a 1,000-year storm. The site will feature new engineering to cut off groundwater leaching and it will be monitored continuously for leaking. 

That all sounds pretty reasonable. 

Look, I’m not recommending that APCO get an environmental award or anything here, but at the same time, I think it’s OK to say that they’ve chosen the best of several bad options.

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Josh Moon

Redemption not revenge drives Tuberville supporter

Josh Moon

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Edgar McGraw speaking at a Tommy Tuberville event.

It would make for a great political story if Edgar McGraw hated Jeff Sessions. In fact, it would be the kind of legendary story of revenge that TV movies are built around.

This man, Edgar McGraw, is arrested on drug distribution charges in 1986 and prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions. Sessions takes everything from McGraw and gives gleeful media interviews bragging about the arrest and seizures of McGraw’s property.

McGraw gets out of prison, rebuilds his life and becomes a respected, successful business owner. All the while, biding his time until the day he can exact revenge upon Sessions.

One day in 2020, he sees his chance: A former college football coach in a football-crazed state is running against Sessions for U.S. Senate. McGraw throws some money to the coach, hosts a fundraiser for him.

And the coach does the unthinkable. He upsets the 30-year politician. With McGraw’s help, Jeff Sessions’ career is over.

McGraw smiles.

But real life ain’t like the movies.

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And in real life, Edgar McGraw has none of these dreams of revenge. He holds no ill will. He wasn’t gleeful the night Sessions lost, instead he was glad his friend Tommy Tuberville won. And he didn’t back Tuberville because he was running against Sessions, but because McGraw and Tuberville were friends long before Tuberville dipped a toe into politics.

That’s life, I guess. You go looking for a revenge story and end up with a redemption story.

“(The conviction) is water under the bridge to me,” McGraw said. “I made my fair share of mistakes, I paid the price, and I have moved on with my life. I believe every single person makes mistakes in life, but how you respond to those mistakes and live life afterward is what really matters. As Dr. Tony Evans says ‘everyone is going to get knocked down in life in one way or another, what’s important is how you get back up.’

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“I never look back, that is just my personality. Just like you don’t drive a car looking in the rear-view mirror, I am always looking forward.”

I first heard about McGraw’s history a week ago, when someone sent me photos of Tuberville speaking at an event, McGraw standing by his side. McGraw was labeled a “felon” in a description with the picture, and that piqued my interest.

I read through a few newspaper articles about his arrest in the 1980s on drug distribution charges, and I thought it was possibly one of the craziest things I’ve come across in quite some time.

Basically, the story is this: McGraw, who was a successful businessman in Camden even in the 1980s, conspired with a handful of people to fly about $2 million worth of marijuana from Jamaica to a private air strip in Camden. The weed was going to McGraw’s farm, according to court records, where it would have been distributed and sold.

It never made it.

Drug dealers apparently aren’t great at physics, and $2 million in 1980 bought a lot of marijuana — approximately 1,400 pounds — that needed to be equally distributed around the small plane. Instead, according to media reports, the guys in Jamaica — McGraw wasn’t one of them — failed to secure the load and it all shifted to the tail of the plane. The plane crashed into a marsh on takeoff.

Still, Sessions and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were able to build a case with several informants and by flipping witnesses. And they went hard after McGraw, who maintained that he had a limited role. The federal jury that convicted McGraw of conspiracy to distribute also acquitted him of conspiring to import the weed, so there was obviously some gray area.

Regardless, Sessions went after McGraw’s property, utilizing recent and broad changes to asset seizure laws in the late-1980s that allowed prosecutors to tie virtually any property to drug money and then seize it. The federal government, with little evidence, took McGraw’s motel, the Southern Inn in Camden. It was one of the biggest asset seizures in the country at the time.

McGraw ended up being sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served less than half of that and prison records show he was released in 1992.

When I learned of McGraw’s history, I tweeted a couple of the newspaper clippings and speculated that McGraw had thoroughly enjoyed Tuberville ending Sessions’ political career. Because, I mean, Sessions took the guy’s motel — for marijuana that didn’t even get here.

He has to hate him, right?

Then I emailed McGraw to ask if he’d be willing to talk to me about it. I expected one of two things to occur: Either he would ignore me altogether or he’d accept the interview and express his great personal satisfaction.

He did neither.

Instead, McGraw told me the same story that he’s been telling at the Christmas party for Camden work release inmates. He volunteers with a Christian ministry that works with the prisoners. And each year, McGraw, who now is best known as part owner of the McGraw-Webb Chevrolet dealership in Camden, stands up in front of those inmates and lets them know that there is a pathway to redemption. To a better life. To a happy life.

“What happened coming up on almost 35 years ago, seems like a lifetime ago,” McGraw said. “My faith grew immeasurably during those years and the Lord has blessed me immensely since. I have been happily married for 27 years and I have three wonderful children; 26, 25 and 21 years old. I would want people to know to not let the past mistakes in life mold you. Brokenness can be a breakthrough.

“I feel like I am one of the most blessed people in the world and I give God all the credit. I would hope that I would be thought of as someone who came back home, worked very hard and served his community, church, and family to the absolute best of my God given ability.”

As far as his dealings with Sessions, McGraw said he’s had very little. While he clearly disagrees with Sessions’ decisions in his case — all McGraw would say is that he’d leave that up to Sessions to answer for — he said he’s spoken to the former U.S. AG just once in the past three decades. That meeting came at an Auburn basketball game, where McGraw introduced himself and reminded Sessions of their past. McGraw said the conversation was cordial and lasted only a few minutes.

He swears he holds no ill will towards Session at this point. His support of Tuberville had nothing to do with his history, or even politics really. Records show McGraw has donated to only one campaign in his life — Tuberville’s. And that came about because the two are old friends.

“My relationship with Tommy Tuberville began sometime while he was coaching at Auburn,” McGraw said. “We became friends with the Tubervilles as our sons became close friends while attending Auburn University and our friendship has grown since. Our family made our first contribution to Tuberville in April of 2019. I want to be very clear that my support of Tommy Tuberville was only influenced by our friendship and his political views and had nothing to do with Jeff Sessions.”

And maybe that’s for the best.

2020 has more than its fair share of nasty political stories, revenge stories and just plain ol’ dirtiness. Maybe a good story of redemption is something we could all use at this point. Maybe what we need to hear is the message that McGraw gives to those 100 or so inmates each year at Christmas.

“I strive to give (them) the hope that whatever they have done in the past does not have to limit their future,” McGraw said. “I learned to take nothing for granted and that every single day is a gift from above.”

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Josh Moon

The world will miss Bus Boycott minister Robert Graetz

Josh Moon

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Rev. Robert Graetz died on Sunday at the age of 92. (VIA HISTORY CHANNEL)

The bomb was meant to kill Rev. Robert Graetz and his family of five. The carload of KKK boys from Selma who tossed it into the Graetz’s front yard that night in 1958, and then sped away, had every intention of killing all inside.

So intent were they that when that first bomb didn’t explode — because the fuse had been knocked loose when it was hurled from the car — they came back and tossed a second bomb in hopes of detonating the first. 

The second, smaller bomb went off. The first never did. And Rev. Graetz and his family suffered only a horrific scare and several shattered windows. 

That was the penalty in Montgomery at the time for a white man and his wife lending aid to Black folks and their Bus Boycott. 

It didn’t deter Rev. Graetz or shake his faith. 

Some 50 years later, he would seek out one of the KKK members in the car that night (they were caught by local police with a list of bombing targets in the car, but were acquitted by an all-white jury). Graetz wanted to meet the man, to talk about their past and to tell him that he forgave him. 

Because that’s the kind of man Bob Graetz was. The absolute best. 

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Rev. Robert Graetz passed away on Sunday. He was 92. 

I met Rev. Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, about 10 years ago. They were running the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Studies at Alabama State University. They might appear to be an odd choice for such a role — an older white couple in charge of a Civil Rights and African American studies center. 

But the Graetzes were never your typical white people. 

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From the moment they stepped foot in Montgomery in 1955, they decided that they would be on the right side of history. Rev. Graetz was assigned — his first assignment out of seminary school — to the predominantly-black Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church in Montgomery. One of the first people they met: Rosa Parks, who was Trinity’s NAACP youth director. 

A few weeks after arriving, they were committed to the cause and were helping shuttle boycotters around the city, to and from work every day. Rev. Graetz was eventually named secretary in the then-controversial Montgomery Improvement Association, the group headed by Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., E.D. Nixon and attorney Fred Gray that planned and executed the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

As a white man participating in the Boycott, Graetz drew more hatred from the white supremacists, and his family seemed to be in constant danger. Their home was bombed twice. They received constant death threats, including threats directed at their young children. Their car was tampered with on numerous occasions. 

The Graetzes never wavered. In fact, following the second bombing of their home, a bishop came to visit and “strongly suggested” that they accept an assignment being offered. 

During an interview for a 2015 profile for the Montgomery Advertiser, Rev. Graetz told me that, “We were fully aware of the risks and dangers. Just a short time before we came here in 1955, Emmett Till had been murdered. So, we knew what the climate was. There was an awareness that (the Boycott) was a very important activity that we were engaged in. As early as that very first mass meeting, there was a real sense that what was happening here was something that could change the world.”

When they finally did leave, the Graetzes never stopped helping others and attacking injustices with kindness and decency. 

They worked with the impoverished in Appalachia. They have advocated for gay and transgender rights. Rev. Graetz even entered a true den of thieves and served more than a decade as a lobbyist in D.C. 

Throughout his life, though, no matter where he ministered, Rev. Graetz’s mission was always the same: To instill an environment of acceptance and love. 

The Graetzes knew the importance of both, having bounced around the country, living in some of the poorest, most dangerous areas, often receiving wages that weren’t much higher than the impoverished in the congregation. Raising seven kids in those circumstances required help from the village, and that sort of help only comes with love and acceptance. 

In Montgomery, and especially around the ASU campus, where the Graetzes have an apartment, Rev. Bob was beloved. Confined to a wheelchair for the last several years, you would often see Jeannie pushing Bob, both around their neighborhood and at events. Every trip went in stops and starts, as people, young and old, stopped them to chat and share a smile. 

Because that’s who Robert Graetz was throughout his life — a man who brought a smile. When you spoke with him, you knew you were in the presence of one of those rare people who seem to radiate with kindness and decency. The sort of person who made you want to be nicer, to look for the goodness in others, to forgive, to help. He was the kind of man who would call up the racist who bombed his house to make amends. 

That’s who Rev. Robert Graetz was. 

And the world will miss him. 

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Josh Moon

Mike Hubbard finally going to prison should mean something. It doesn’t.

Josh Moon

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Mike Hubbard reported to the Lee County Jail on Friday. (VIA LEE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)

Mike Hubbard reported to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office on Friday to begin serving his four-year prison sentence. 

Hubbard’s new mugshot was plastered all over news sites on Friday evening, and those stories and screenshots made their way around social media all weekend. Those pics and stories, and the thoughts of the state’s former most powerful lawmaker beginning a prison stint that will put him behind bars for more than 1,400 days, should send chills up the spines of current lawmakers. 

Those images of Hubbard should be the turning point in one of the nation’s most politically corrupt states. The former House speaker and leader of the Republican Party being just another inmate should be a clear deterrent to the future lawbreakers among Alabama’s lawmakers. 

But it won’t be. 

I hate to be a downer, because this should be an occasion that we celebrate. No, not Hubbard going to prison — that’s nothing to celebrate. We should celebrate the hard justice of what we did in this state — took a powerful, rich, white man who was misusing his public office for personal gain and we prosecuted that guy just like we would prosecute any other lawbreaker. 

The judge didn’t give him any breaks. The prosecutors from the AG’s office, which was led by another Republican, went after him hard. The jury held him accountable with a well-reasoned verdict.

That’s meaningful. 

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That sends a message. 

That cleans things up and makes your government honest. 

Unfortunately, everything that has happened since that jury verdict in Lee County over four years ago has undone everything that led to that verdict. 

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And this is not just me saying this, it was someone from the team who helped prosecute Hubbard — one of the guys who took unending BS from ALGOP leadership, various moles all around the AG’s office and shameless hacks within the Legislature. In fact, it’s so bad that the person didn’t want to be quoted directly, because it would only lead to more problems now. 

That’s where we are. 

The prosecution of Mike Hubbard wasn’t a lesson not to steal. It was a lesson in what the thieves needed to fix so they wouldn’t get caught like Hubbard did.

“I wish it weren’t true,” the person said. “The people who would violate the laws, they know if someone is really watching. And now, who’s watching?”

The answer, of course, is that no one is watching. 

The first act of the ALGOP in the post-Hubbard conviction world was to destroy the two things that led to his arrest: the Alabama Ethics Laws and the Special Prosecutions Division of the AG’s office. 

They have been successful in both. 

The ethics laws have been gutted to the point that it is now legal to do half of what Hubbard did exactly the way he did it, and it’s legal to do the other half if you can claim it was done in the interest of economic development. 

These changes were made for two reasons. The first was that lawmakers claimed innocent businessmen and lawmakers could be trapped by unclear ethics laws that could criminalize personal friendships. This is ludicrous and was easily avoided, as evidenced by the 95 percent of Alabama lawmakers who didn’t violate the laws. 

The second was that economic development could be hampered by these special laws. Except other states also have these laws and not one economic development deal in the history of this state was hampered by the laws in any way. 

But Alabama voters were going to vote Republican regardless of what the crooks pushed through, so here we are with gutted ethics laws. 

The other step was to gut the SPD, which investigated and prosecuted Hubbard and his pals. 

Within a few weeks of current AG Steve Marshall being elected, the former head of that department, Matt Hart, was shown the door. Responsibilities have been shifted and new directives handed down. 

There will be no more major ethics investigations. And especially not of Republicans. 

Hell, a litany of charges against former Democratic state Sen. David Burkette was handed over to the AG’s office. The Ethics Commission passed along at least three felony counts. 

Burkette resigned after being charged with a single misdemeanor. 

So, no, sorry, the end of Hubbard’s long, slow walk to prison is nothing to celebrate. It won’t be remembered for what it changed or the crime it stopped. 

Instead, it’ll be another sad marker of yet another point at which we could have made a change, could have chosen the more righteous path, could have altered the way this state handles its business. 

But we just kept doing what we’ve always done.

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