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Bill Britt

Opinion | What can we do in the aftermath of blackface controversy?

Bill Britt

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In the immediate aftermath of the revelation that as a college student Gov. Kay Ivey had worn blackface over 50 years ago, she was called a racist by some and defended by others; as news outlets and social media pages offered a myriad of commentary right and left.

Lately, it seems that there is a willingness to use the word racist for any action that offends.

Racism is a powerfully destructive force that has led to wars, slavery, legal codes, public policies and the underpinning of entire nations.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution has many sections of legal code founded on racism.

To further understand the impact of the 1901 Constitution, a reading of A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama edited by H. Bailey Thomson is recommended.

Using the word racist casually is reckless, rendering studied conversation impossible.

The Anti-Defamation League defines racism, “as the hatred of one person by another — or the belief that another person is less than human — because of skin color, language, customs, place of birth or any factor that supposedly reveals the basic nature of that person.”

By ADL’s definition, Kay Ivey is not a racist. What she may be is a product of her times but to think she hasn’t grown and changed over the last five decades is foolish or disingenuous.

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Casting judgment is easy. Offering forgiveness is hard. But perhaps the most challenging thing to do is finding a way forward that enlightens our understanding and leads to positive change.

Not only did Ivey acknowledge her transgression, but she also expressed remorse for her actions, even releasing the audiotape that revealed her error.

She didn’t deny, equivocate, or offer excuses; she took full responsibility for her mistake.

“As such, I fully acknowledge – with genuine remorse – my participation in a skit like that back when I was a senior in college,” said Ivey. “While some may attempt to excuse this as acceptable behavior for a college student during the mid-1960s, that is not who I am today, and it is not what my Administration represents all these years later.”

Racists don’t offer such unvarnished apologies, but decent people do.

Ivey’s blackface incident occurred in 1967. In that year, more than 100 U.S. cities were hit by race-related violence which included Prattville, Montgomery and Birmingham.

It was also the year that Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as first black U.S. Supreme Court justice which shows that even amid dire turmoil progress is possible.

Even in 1967, wearing blackface would seem offensive outside of the rarified world of white southern privilege or among those areas of the nation still infected by systemic racism.

Surprisingly over the last several years, political figures on the right and left have recently engaged in such disrespectful behavior, as reported by The New York Times.

But to simply cry racism leaves no room for dialogue.

Democrat Reps. John Rogers and Juandalynn Givan, from Birmingham, have called for Ivey to resign, so has the NAACP.

Understandably, they like hundreds of thousands of other Alabamians are upset about Ivey’s blackface routine. I, too, am disappointed, and so should everyone in the state, but how far do we go before we go too far?

SPLC’s Interim President Karen Baynes-Dunning while condemning the state’s racist past and Ivey’s actions said, “We stand ready to work with Governor Ivey, EJI and other organizations across the state to do the hard work of reconciling our past to improve our future.”

When I have been granted an opportunity to counsel those in homeless shelters, prisons or individuals just starting in their careers, I always start with a simple phrase, “I don’t care where you’ve been; I just want to know where you want to go?” If asked, I would put the same question to Gov. Ivey.

So, where does Gov. Ivey want to go? She will tell us with her actions.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he and the governor spoke before the blackface story was widely reported and that he found Ivey’s apology sincere.

“While this is something that could be painful for those of us in the African-American community, as someone who has worked with the governor and as lieutenant governor and who has built a working relationship with her, I am not apt to hold her totally responsible for something that happened 52 years ago,” said Singleton. “Hopefully this can open up a dialogue for race relations in the state of Alabama and the governor can help lead that.”

Have Ivey and the Alabama Republican Party enacted policies that harm the state’s racial minority? Yes.

Have Ivey and the all-white Republican supermajority failed to enact legislation that would benefit the state’s racial minority? Yes.

Did Ivey in her opening bid to win the governorship embrace Alabama’s racist past by defending Confederate monuments that were erected during the civil rights era to remind blacks of their place? Yes.

These are all grievous errors, but perhaps more egregious is that fact that Ivey and the Republican Party refuse to acknowledge that their policies do actual harm not just to minorities but to children, woman and the working poor of the state.

In fairness to the governor, she is working to reform the state’s education system, promote workforce development and to enact much-needed justice reform.

Unlike her predecessors, Ivey is tackling tough issues without constantly scanning her latest poll numbers.

Gov. Ivey, like most political leaders, and people, in general, is a lot of things including a host of contradictions, but she is not a racist.

We should all hope that this incident will lead to an honest reevaluation of some of the administration’s policies and priorities.

Ivey is somewhat hamstrung by a Republican Party that spends time condemning members of congress for anti-semitism while coddling anti-semites within its ranks.

There is an opportunity to use a mistake to move the state forward. I do believe Ivey has the will.

Justice Marshall said, “A child born to a black mother in a state like Mississippi . . . has the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.”

It’s far past time for that goal to be fulfilled.

Gov. Ivey has an essential role in ensuring all Alabamians are represented in Montgomery.

There is a lot of hate in this world. Minorities are disenfranchised, their rights are trampled on daily and worse, their lives are not valued.

The shadows of George Wallace and Bull Conner still hang over our state; it is a stain that at times seem unremovable, but it can be if our leaders amend their ways.

Justice Marshall also said, “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”

We can do that, can’t we?

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Marsh hurls accusations at Gov. Ivey. Is he barking mad?

Bill Britt

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Appearing on the latest edition of Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” Sen. President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, blamed Gov. Kay Ivey for the loss of some 450,000 jobs in Alabama.

It’s an absurd accusation that any thinking Alabamian knows is a lie. But Marsh wants to hurt Ivey because she exposed him as little more than a petty, greedy-gut politico.

Still stinging from the public humiliation he suffered after Ivey revealed his “wish list” — which included taking $200 million in COVID-19 relief money to build a new State House — Marsh is leveling a cascade of recriminations against the popular governor.

However, what is astonishing is that he would spew brazen lies about Ivey during raging loss and uncertainty caused by a worldwide pandemic. This latest fiction about Ivey creating widespread economic calamity is the unseemly work of a hollow man without empathy, wisdom or decency.

This insane assertion that Ivey is somehow responsible for thousands suffering is as cravenly evil as it is politically stupid.

“The policies that have been put in place by the [Ivey] administration have 450,000 people out of work,” Marsh told show host Don Daily.

Only a fool, a nutjob or a politician would blame Ivey for losing some 450,000 jobs, but there was Marsh, on public television, showing he is perhaps all three.

In the middle of his barking-mad comments, Marsh somehow forgot to mention that he was a member of Ivey’s Executive Committee on the COVID-19 task force and helped make the very policies he now claims led to joblessness and financial ruin for many Alabamians.

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Marsh is merely making it up as he goes because his fragile ego, pompous character and rank inhumanity suddenly became fully displayed for every Alabamian to see when he doubled down on building a new State House.

And so, like a guy caught with his pants down, Marsh is pointing his finger at Ivey to distract from his naked indifference toward the struggles of his fellow Alabamians.

Marsh’s plan to spend the CARES Act funds on a State House and other pet projects ignored the sufferings of hundreds of thousands of the state’s most vulnerable citizens and businesses.

Ivey wanted the nearly $1.9 billion in CARES funds to go to help those individuals, businesses and institutions affected by COVID-19. Marsh wanted it as a Senate piggybank, so, he lashes out at her rather than reflect on how he and the State Senate could do better in the future.

Anyone who blames others for their failings is a weakling, not a leader.

Marsh came to power under a scheme hatched around 2008, by then-Gov. Bob Riley. The plan was to make Mike Hubbard the speaker of the House, Marsh as pro tem and Bradley Byrne as governor. Riley would act as the shadow puppet master pulling the strings of power from behind a thin curtain of secrecy, allowing him to make untold riches without public accountability.

Byrne losing the governor’s race to the hapless State Rep. Dr. Doctor Robert Bentley was the first glitch in the plan (yes, during the 2010 campaign for governor, Bentley changed his name to Doctor Robert Julian Bentley so the title Doctor would appear next to his name on the primary ballot).

The second problem for the venture was Hubbard’s avarice, which landed him on the wrong side of the ethics laws he, Riley, Byrne and Marsh championed. Of course, the ethics laws were never meant to apply to them. They were designed to trap Democrats.

Marsh has floundered since Hubbard’s grand departure and with Riley sinking further into the background, it is now apparent that Riley was the brains, Hubbard the muscle and Marsh the errand boy, picking up bags of cash to finance the operation.

Gofers rarely rise to power without the public noticing they’re not quite up for the job, and so it is with Marsh that his office has shown the limits of his abilities.

Marsh wanted to control the COVID-19 relief money to spend on pork projects as he’d done in the past, but Ivey didn’t allow it. To be outsmarted is one thing, but to be beaten by a woman is too much for a guy like Marsh.

Ivey burned Marsh like a girl scout roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Senator Marshmallow, anyone?

Poor Marsh, with his political career in turmoil, picked the wrong target in Ivey.

Some look at Ivey and see a kind, grandmotherly figure. Ivey is as tough as a junkyard dog, and now Marsh knows what her bite feels like.

Ivey didn’t cause massive job losses. COVID-19 did that. But Marsh got his feelings hurt, bless his heart, so he wants to take Ivey down.

Just like his scheme to commandeer the COVID-19 funds from the people didn’t work, his attack on Ivey won’t either.

People see Marsh for what he is, and it’s neither strong nor competent; it’s weak and ineffectual.

Marsh stood behind Ivey when she announced the state’s health orders wearing an American flag style mask.

He voted for her executive amendment.

And now he lies.

In times of real crisis, true leaders emerge while others of lesser abilities whine. Marsh is complaining. Ivey is leading.

And so the public watches as The Masked Marshmallow takes on Iron-jawed Ivey. It’s not tricky to see how this cage match turns out.

Marshmallow, down in three.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Ivey brings the heat

Bill Britt

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The Alabama Legislature on Monday approved Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to spend $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act relief funds responsibly and transparently, and it is a victory for the people of Alabama.

Passage of Ivey’s executive amendment was, however, a blow to the fragile egos and grand money grab orchestrated by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and his cronies.

Marsh and his allies had hoped to highjack the money designated to fight and repair the ravages of COVID-19 on the state and use it for pet projects like a robotics park, an additional forensic lab and a new State House to name a few.

Marsh and his cohorts kicked and screamed, some Senate leaders took to favorable talk radio and blogs to disparage Ivey, but it didn’t work.

Even at the eleventh hour, Marsh tried to back out of the deal, but cooler heads prevailed.

Ivey won the battle the moment she revealed the contents of Marsh’s so-called “wish list,” because Marsh wasn’t politically sophisticated enough to back down and regroup when he had a chance.

Instead, he and a few diehards doubled down on their intent to use the CARES Act funds for their self-serving projects. They even paid for a poll showing the people back them, not Ivey. But it didn’t work because their conniving was as inept as it was shameful.

Ivey is a straight shooter; Marsh is a double-dealer with a history of betraying friend and foe, not a good habit for anyone who wants a long career in politics.

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Taking a page from President Ronald Reagan’s playbook, Ivey brought righteous indignation to the underhand game being played by some in the Senate.

Reagan said, “When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”

Finally, she made a deal with Speaker Mac McCutcheon and the House budget chair, Rep. Steve Clouse, to bring about a plan to shield the CARES funds and make sure it went to help Alabamians instead of legislative cronies. McCutcheon and Clouse aren’t crooks.

Anyone who has been around the State House for a few years knows how Marsh, along with then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (now a convicted felon awaiting prison), used almost $1 billion from the BP settlement to fund Medicaid and pay off state debt.

They also remember how then-Gov. Robert Bentley used $1.8 million in BP settlement money to renovate the governor’s dilapidated beach mansion, which became known as the “Lov Govs’ Love Shack.”

The BP settlement money was meant to help those devastated by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, but Marsh and Hubbard used it as a personal piggy bank, not for its intended use.

Under Marsh and Hubbard, perhaps billions were squandered, and the BP funds are just one example.

Ivey reminded the public of Hubbard and Marsh’s hijinks, and people took notice.

But even after Ivey’s amendment passed, Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, released a statement so utterly dishonest that it’s astounding that Reed — generally a decent human — signed on to it.

The statement reads in part, “This is by no means a perfect compromise; however, we are pleased that the Governor has acknowledged that the Legislature has control of funding as per the Constitution.”

Ivey always acknowledged the Legislature’s constitutional authority. She never questioned it. So for Marsh and Reed to couch their loss as a win in such a disingenuous statement is remarkably arrogant.

“Ultimately, we gave our support to the Governor’s Executive Amendment as it is the best deal for the people of Alabama,” Marsh and Reed said in their joint statement.

They supported Ivey’s amendment because their incompetence beat them.

Supposedly, Marsh is to step down as pro tem before the 2021 session and surrender the post to Reed. No one knows if Marsh will keep the agreement he’s made or not. He’s not known for keeping his word.

As for Reed, he could be a decent pro tem, but the joint statement calls into question his political wisdom and, indeed, his humility.

Marsh and his folks played a poor game of checkers; heaven forbid they ever have to play chess with anyone with a pulse.

The purpose of Ivey’s battle was to ensure that the nearly $1.8 billion given under the CARES Act went to help the state.

Ivey and her team won, not for themselves, but the people. That’s good government.

Perhaps now the Senate should sing a few verses from the Hank Williams song, “I Saw the Light.”

Or, more appropriately, the Jerry Lee Lewis tune, “Great Balls of Fire,” because they felt the heat.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Government being weighed in the balance

Bill Britt

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President Donald Trump, on March 27, 2020, signed into law the U.S. government’s Phase 3 aid package known as the CARES Act to provide relief for states and individual local governments to combat the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A series of failed private negotiations between members of the executive and legislative branches of state government spilled out into the open over how best to spend the nearly $1.8 billion in aid relief responsibly.

This latest round of conflict shows that the real measure of a leader is revealed in times of crisis and Alabama’s legislative leadership is failing as shown by the power play instituted by certain members of the House and Senate over the spending of the CARES money.

The matter was never over the Legislature’s appropriations authority under the 1901 Constitution but how to most effectively administer the money wisely with oversight and transparency.

Neither was it the exposure of a so-called “wish list” that brought the private discussions to a boiling point. The fight occurred because of the unwillingness of some in the legislative leadership—especially Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston—to work with Gov. Kay Ivey to ensure that the funds served the broad interest of the people of Alabama affected by the COVID-19 crisis instead of the narrow ones championed by a handful of lawmakers.

Marsh, on Saturday, took ownership of the so-called “wish list” after days of denial by various members of the Legislature. However, to mitigate the disastrous revelation that he had seriously wanted to spend $200 million on a new State House while people were suffering by the hundreds of thousands, Marsh tried to claim he was just doing what Ivey had asked him to do.

While Marsh has been flexing his political muscle and trying to worm out of a media crossfire, literally thousands of Alabamians are going without food due to job losses caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

What the “wish list” does illustrate is the callow, careless and callous thinking of those who would control money meant to heal the wounds and restore the institution ravaged by the novel coronavirus.

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But Marsh and his cronies have never shown a sense of caring or shame only the arrogant entitlement that is so pellucid in times of want and need.

Marsh appearing Saturday on APT’s Capitol Journal tried to make the case that the legislative process was far more transparent than anything that would happen in the Governor’s office.

“We’re always transparent,” Marsh told APT’s Don Daily. “We pride ourselves on that. I think, unfortunately, the Governor has taken issue with the legislature becoming involved in this process. But, nothing can be more transparent than the legislative process. I can promise you — you give these dollars to a governor to spend, you have no process.”

Perhaps Marsh’s not wearing a face mask at the State House has left his mind cloudy so that he doesn’t remember how he handled the BP settlement— a fact Ivey brought up at a recent press conference.

Not too many years ago, Marsh, along with then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (now a convicted felon awaiting prison), used almost $1 billion from the BP settlement to fund Medicaid and pay off state debt, according to a 2016 report by Market Place.

Also then-Gov. Robert Bentley used $1.8 million in settlement money to renovate the dilapidated Governor’s beach mansion, which became known as the “Lov Govs’ love shack.”

The squandered BP funds are an example of how under Marsh and Hubbard’s leadership, the BP money was diverted from its intended use.

What the Ivey administration is trying to avoid is another repeat of the dubious spending spree Marsh and Hubbard oversaw with the 2010 Gulf oil spill settlement.

For now, the CARES money is parked in the Legislature and State Representative Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee has said it would take a special session to resolve how the money will be spent.

Ivey said she would not call a special session unless there was assurance on how the money would be allocated.

All the CARES fund must be spent by December 31 and will require special expertise to use it all without running afoul of federal regulations or law-enforcement.

During the failed negotiations that led to the public feud that is now engulfing state government, Ivey suggested a six-person committee comprised of the two minority leaders and the four budget chairmen to decide how the funds would be spent. Marsh rejected Ivey’s proposal. But now it is time to revisit those negotiations before the divide between the executive and legislative branches become too wide to cross.

Over the weekend, not only did Marsh amp up the rhetoric blaming Ivey, so did other lawmakers. One even said Ivey could find herself “on an island” like Bentley in his final days in office.

Any legislator who believes their threats or insults will cow Ivey is as ignorant as they are delusional.

Ivey is widely seen as a strong, competent leader, while the legislative leadership with only a few exceptions is viewed as a bunch of greed gut opportunists, willing to rob from those in need to feed themselves.

It is time to put the grandstanding public bickering aside and come together to save the state, which means spending the CARES funds to help repair the damage, prepare for the next wave and mend those lives and institutions that are broken.

If not now, then the government itself will be weighed in the balance; let it not be found wanting.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Legislature commits highway robbery with CARES funds

Bill Britt

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Money appropriated by the U.S. Congress under the CARES Act and signed into law by President Donald Trump to aid the State of Alabama due to the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was highjacked by the Alabama House and Senate this week.

Under the act, approximately $1.8 billion of the funds sent to Alabama were to be directly controlled by Gov. Kay Ivey.

However, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, refused to work with the governor on how to distribute the funds to best help the people of the state.

Instead, Marsh launched a financial coup — with the backing of the Republican Supermajority in the Legislature — to wrestle the money away from the governor and place it in the hands of a few lawmakers, setting the stage for what is becoming an ugly showdown.

Marsh has plenty of experience in these types of slick maneuvers, having worked with then-Speaker of the House (now a convicted felon) Mike Hubbard to snatch away BP Oil spill funds for projects and businesses for which the money was never intended.

The billion-plus given to Ivey’s office under the CARES Act must be spent by Dec. 31, 2020, but the legislative power-grab may see the money wasted or returned to the federal government.

When Marsh first approached Ivey, he proposed that a committee comprised of the governor and the General Fund chairmen of the House and Senate determine how the money would be spent on a majority vote, according to sources who spoke to APR on conditions of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.

Ivey’s legal counsel pointed out that such a committee arrangement would be unconstitutional.

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Secondly, Marsh proposed the same people for the committee but bargained for a unanimous vote, which was still unconstitutional because the Legislature doesn’t have the constitutional rights of the executive.

Third, Marsh offered to give the governor $100 million as an incentive to do a backroom deal.

Those with knowledge of the discussions say, Ivey, at every turn, expressed a desire to work with lawmakers on how the funds would be spent. “Y’all, I have always planned on working with y’all,” as one person remembers Ivey’s sentiment.

Ivey suggested a six-person committee of the two minority leaders and the four budget chairmen to decide how the funds would be allocated.

This was the first time during negotiations that the minority was included. But Marsh and his team weren’t having it, according to those with knowledge of how the events unfolded.

“They said we don’t want an advisory committee; this is our money,” to which Ivey replied, “Hell no, it’s not your money. It’s the people of Alabama’s money.”

On Wednesday, Marsh and his team offered $600 million to the governor with the remaining funds left to the discretion of the Legislature.

By the end of the day on Thursday, the House had left $200 million at Ivey’s disposal, taking control of the remaining $1.6 billion to be spent on a so-called “wish list” of projects wholly designed by House and Senate leadership as Marsh had intended all along.

On Thursday afternoon, Ivey issued a statement saying in part that she wanted to work with the Legislature, but the spending process should be honest and transparent.

“I made it clear to Chairman Clouse that this money belongs to the people of Alabama, not the Governor,” said Ivey. “And, in my opinion, not even the Legislature. It comes to us in an emergency appropriation from President Trump and Congress to support the ongoing crisis that has killed 349 Alabamians, as of this moment, and wreaked havoc on our state’s economy, ruining small businesses and costing more than 430,000 Alabamians a job they had just a few weeks ago.”

She continued by saying “I have never desired to control a single penny of this money and if the Legislature feels so strongly that they should have that authority, I yield to them both the money and the responsibility to make good decisions – in the light of day where the people of Alabama know what is happening.”

But the Legislature has not passed the budget in the light of day because citizens are barred from the State House, and press access is limited. The problem is compounded by the fact that the Legislature is doing the bidding of a handful of power-mongers — not the people.

Much of what has occurred during the budget debates has been under a cloak of secrecy with backroom deals and high-handed political operations executed to place money in the hands of a well-connected and powerful few, far from the purpose of the CARES Act.

The Legislature should never have gone back into session, but now that they are there, they should stay until May 18, and do the job properly rather than rush through a haphazard budget that steals money meant to restore order to the lives of hardworking Alabamians.

The taking of the CARES Act money may not even be legal, and House General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, has admitted that a special session would be needed to finalize the spending of the CARES funds.

But the clock is running and the money must be spent by the end of December.

Ivey made it clear to Clouse that she would not call a special session, which is her legal prerogative, but the Legislature, determined to have its way, has ignored her warning.

Marsh’s actions and those of his followers is the height of arrogance because they are not hurting the governor, they are hurting the people they were elected to serve.

There are bills that must be paid from the COVID-19 outbreak, and there is a good chance that the state will be hit by a second wave of sickness and death, which will require planning and money.

But somehow a handful of lawmakers elected by fewer than 35,000 citizens each believe they are the fountain from which political and fiscal wisdom flows.

What’s happened over the last few days is a shameful legacy of Marsh and his cohorts.

It’s not their money. It’s not the governor’s money. It’s the people’s.

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