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Huntsville police advisory council feeling the pressure as testimonies pour in

Micah Danney

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Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray speaks during a press conference in June.

Hundreds of Huntsville residents have sent written comments to the group tasked with reviewing police actions against protesters in June, with a week left to submit through the online community input portal.

The 10-member Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council has received almost 650 form submissions and more than 200 emails since the portal opened on July 9. It will close on Aug. 7.

Some residents have been frustrated that the form does not allow for uploads of photos, videos or other media. Many have footage, photos of injuries, Powerpoints and other documentation they want to share. 

David Little, who is a member of the HPCAC, said it is considering how to accommodate digital media. There will be listening sessions for public comment but dates and locations have not been set. The group has discussed doing virtual meetings, but technology, logistics and cost may present obstacles, Little said.

All HPCAC members are volunteers and some have day jobs, said Little, a financial advisor. Some are retired and some work part-time. With hundreds of hours of body camera and drone footage to review, written testimonies to be read, public meetings to be held and research to be done, there is no projected timeline for the process and no deadline for the report.

It might take weeks or months, Little said, but he wants people to know the group takes its role seriously.

“We feel the pressure, believe me,” he said.

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An intermediary between police and community

Little was appointed to the group when the City Council established it in 2010. Its first chair, John Reitzell, also remains a member. Both were appointed to their current two-year terms by Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray. The chief appoints three members, the mayor appoints two and the five city council members each appoint one.

The HPCAC was formed to improve communication and strengthen bonds between the police department and its community.

“The thing I usually tell people is that we bring a citizen’s perspective to policies and procedures of law enforcement,” Little said.

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According to the city’s code, the group “shall be comprised of citizens who are concerned about police and community relations, and who are sensitive to community needs and perceptions” and who “represent the community at large.”

Former Councilman Richard Showers initially proposed it as a citizen review board that would review police actions and present findings, AL.com reported at the time. Showers was responding to community concerns that police were treating Black residents differently and that there was a lack of diversity on the force. Councilman Bill Kling proposed a different version that would give the department feedback on its policies and community relations but didn’t have a mandate to sit in judgment of individual officers, and a citizens advisory council was adopted.

Little was initially appointed by former Council President Mark Russell. The two were acquainted through Little’s involvement in the leadership training program Leadership Greater Huntsville.

Once the HPCAC was formed, its members spent several months visiting precincts and learning about every aspect of the Huntsville Police Department. They went on ride-alongs, met at the Huntsville Police Academy every couple of weeks and heard from members of each element within the department.

“We were just kind of drinking from the fire hose, learning as much as we could about the police department, about their policies, about how they operate,” Little said.

Since then, members have learned about police policies and procedures at the Huntsville Citizens Police Academy, at least until the pandemic began. Two new members were appointed in June and have not yet undergone that training.

The HPCAC used to hold four meetings each year. Barely any residents attended, Little said, so the meetings were cut to two per year.

“So that’s always been a real challenge, and I think maybe now all of a sudden everybody’s wanting to know who’s this advisory council, and maybe the community will be a little more engaged with us,” Little said. “That’s really what we want. It’d be great to have a full house wherever we meet.”

Concerns about independence

Chad Chavez did as police instructed on June 3 and went home after the NAACP rally permit expired. As such, he was not among the people who police fired at or hit with projectiles that night. He watched the chaos from the safety of his home, as the police chief has since stated was all anyone had to do to avoid what happened.

Yet Chavez, 36, a data analyst for a private healthcare provider, says that the actions police took in early June made him feel unsafe enough to take action. After watching things escalate on June 1, Chavez bought shatter-resistant goggles in anticipation of the protest two days later.

McMurray later cited protesters bringing protective equipment as evidence that they wanted a fight with police, but Chavez said he had no such desire. He was worried about losing an eye. At past demonstrations, he was used to seeing police chumming it up with marchers. This time was different. He saw officers “staring down” people who chanted or called for police to kneel. He told his goggleless fiance to get behind him if police started shooting at them. 

“I think that’s a pretty good example of what the chief has done to make free-speech events pretty scary,” he said.

Chavez sent an email to the City Council on July 9 saying that he was concerned about how HPCAC seats are filled, with half appointed by a mayor and police chief who have both been dismissive of public outrage over protesters’ injuries and right to assemble. He also alleged a lack of transparency in the HPCAC’s review process.

“They seem to exist solely to reshare HPD’s social media posts,” he wrote. “Even a direct email generates a generic response of ‘your message has been received’ with no additional follow-up.”

He received an email the next day from HPCAC member John Reitzell, who thanked him for submitting a community input form and suggested that he may be given additional time at a future public meeting to present video footage. Reitzell then urged him to learn more about the HPCAC.

“Also you need to do some real research on us and what we have ACTUALLY done, and accomplished,” Reitzell wrote. “We are certainly not do nothings, we hold some non public meetings but most of our Executive sessions are not chronicled for obvious reasons. We have had multiple public meetings per year in each city council district for the 10 in which we have existed.”

Reitzell continued that the HPCAC has made a significant impact on the racial diversification of the department, on reforming “policies that made no sense to us” and advocating for procedures it deemed necessary to hammer into recruits at the academy. 

The group has been consulted on issues large and small that the public wasn’t privy to, according to Little. Those include the implementation of body cameras and Tasers down to determining a fairer system for choosing what towing companies to call.

Chavez noted that when Little responds to comments on the HPCAC Facebook page, his profile picture is a blue line running horizontally across a black background, a common sign of support for police.

“In my mind the Blue Lives Matter thing has really come up in opposition to the Black Lives Matter thing, enough that someone who is claiming to be a representative of the entire citizenry is really sending a hostile message by making that their outward facing profile,” Chavez said.

Little maintains that a good relationship with the department is central to the HPCAC’s mission.

“A few people have said, ‘Oh, y’all are just a bunch of good ol’ boys, y’all are friends with the police.’ Well, you know, we wouldn’t be able to probably get a lot of stuff done and work with the department if we didn’t have a good relationship with them,” he said.

Expectations versus reality

Jonathan Rossow, one of the group’s newest members, said he understands residents’ fears about a too-cozy relationship.

“It’s a valid concern because by nature, the CAC has to have a working relationship with police if they’re going to be making recommendations,” he said.

Councilwoman Frances Akridge offered Rossow a vacant seat after he came to her with concerns about the police actions, including the posture they took toward protesters, he said. 

Like Reitzell, a retired Army colonel, Rossow settled in Huntsville after a military career. He moved to the city about two years ago from Virginia after retiring as a colonel in the Air Force after 25 years and four combat tours. 

Rossow said he retired from the Air Force but not from service to the country. He took an oath to defend the Constitution, a document he still reads, he said. He was dismayed by the destruction and looting that took place during many protests nationwide after George Floyd was killed, but said he is “very supportive” of the Black Lives Matter movement and thinks it necessary to move American society forward.

“I still believe that there are things and freedoms that are in the Constitution that members of our society, communities of our society — the African-American community — have yet to fully realize,” he said.

His role on the HPCAC, however, requires the impartiality and objectivity he exercised throughout his career, he said. That often required him to present uncomfortable things to people he had relationships with. If the relationship is good enough, it should weather those things, he said. 

He’ll put his career experience to use throughout the review process, he said.

“I come at it from a military perspective, but more so as a military leader that’s been in combat and has been in the position of taking in information and making decisions,” Rossow said.

Little and Rossow both said they expect the review to result in recommendations for changes. Before the city council passed the resolution “to kind of give us teeth, so to speak,” HPCAC members met with the chief and asked pointed questions which McMurray answered, Little said.

Police want to do better and lessons will be learned from what happened in June, he said, but he wants the public to understand his council’s role. It doesn’t include employment changes, calling for the chief to be fired or the mayor to resign, he said — its task is to look at what police did, what if anything they can do differently and make recommendations about policy and procedure.

For comparison, the HPCAC has so far played a strictly advisory role in the case of HPD Officer William Darby, who is currently standing trial for murder for killing a suicidal man in April 2018. 

AL.com reported that Darby testified that he pushed past two officers already on the scene, one of whom was talking to the man to de-escalate the situation, and shot the man in the face because the officer speaking to him was “failing to control the situation” and not “protecting herself.”

The man, Jeffrey Parker, 49, was sitting on a couch holding a pistol to his head, which turned out to be a flare gun that was modified to look real and fire buckshot. Darby claimed the man didn’t drop the gun after three commands to do so, and said he saw it move when Parker shrugged. The other officer, Genisha Pegues, testified against Darby, saying that Parker assured her he didn’t want to hurt her and she never felt threatened by him.

Darby was indicted four months after the shooting. That was three months after McMurray and members of the department’s command staff conducted an internal review and determined that Darby had acted within department policy, clearing him entirely. A few members of the HPCAC were invited to observe that review but were not able to vote on its outcome. 

“In that step, we’re not there to be asking questions or casting blame or rendering a verdict,” Little said.

After such cases, the HPCAC will get briefed on any policy adjustments police decide to make and members may ask questions, Little said, adding that he couldn’t comment further on the Darby case because it is ongoing.

McMurray and Mayor Tommy Battle characterized the violence against Parker as unfortunate but warranted, as they have with the force used against protesters. Officers in both incidents did what they were trained to do.

According to city code, the HPCAC’s role is to advise on issues that include “Actions, philosophies, behaviors and practices that contribute to community tensions, grievances, and complaints,” but it is unclear how deep the group is prepared or equipped to go in its present mandate.

In general, Little said he thinks the department is ahead of the curve on many of the reform measures he hears politicians calling for in other parts of the country. Its academy requires 19 weeks of training compared to 13 weeks at the state academy. It trains officers in de-escalation, mental health and implicit bias.

Little said that the report could result in recommendations like better loudspeakers if protesters couldn’t hear commands to disperse or changes to policies regarding use of force during a multi-agency response.

“So maybe that’s something we work on, is: Ok, well, if something happens, how do we coordinate use of force decisions, because it’s the sheriff’s department that has rubber bullets, not the Huntsville Police Department,” he said.

Asked if the HPCAC can get information from the other agencies involved on June 3, Little said that the council has no oversight or official connection to them. He knows Sheriff Mark Turner from a leadership class they once took together, though, and could ask questions if the council has any.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t answer them,” Little said. “But again, I don’t know if that would fall into our purview of the process when we’re a City-of-Huntsville-appointed board.”

Micah Danney is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Health

Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases continue rise

Average daily hospitalizations continue an ongoing increase as cases nationwide surge.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Alabama hit 863 on Wednesday, the highest daily count since Sept 4, as average daily hospitalizations continue a steady increase and cases nationwide surge.

UAB Hospital in Birmingham on Wednesday was caring for 72 COVID-19 inpatients — the highest number the hospital has cared for since Aug. 21. 

In the last two weeks, Alabama has reported an increase of 15,089 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and APR‘s calculations.

That number is the largest increase over a 14-day period since the two weeks ending Sept. 9. On average, the state has reported 1,078 new cases per day over the last two weeks, the highest 14-day average since Sept. 9.

The state reported 1,390 new confirmed and probable cases Thursday. Over the last week, the state has reported 7,902 cases, the most in a seven-day period since the week ending Sept. 5. That’s an average of 1,129 cases per day over the last seven days.

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Alabama’s positivity rate, based on 14-day case and test increases, was nearly 16 percent Thursday, the highest that rate has been since mid-September.

Public health experts say the positivity rate, which measures the number of positive cases as a percentage of total tests, needs to be at or below 5 percent. Any higher, and experts say there’s not enough testing and cases are likely to be going undetected. 

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“I really won’t feel comfortable until we’re down to about 3 percent,” said Dr. Karen Landers, the state’s assistant health officer, speaking to APR last week

While new daily cases are beginning an upward trajectory, the number of tests administered statewide is not, contributing to the increasing positivity rate. The 14-day average of tests per day on Thursday was 6,856 — a nearly 10 percent decrease from two weeks prior. 

Over the last two weeks, ADPH reported 206 new COVID-19 deaths statewide, amounting to an average of 15 deaths per day over the last 14 days.

So far during the month of October, ADPH has reported 303 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. In September, the total was 373. Since March, at least 2,843 people have died from the coronavirus.

The number of new cases nationwide appear to be headed toward a new high, according to data gathered by the COVID Tracking Project. The United States is now reporting nearly 60,000 cases per day based on a seven-day average. At least 213,672 Americans have died, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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Courts

U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama can ban curbside voting

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, allowed Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to ban curbside voting, staying a district court injunction that had allowed some counties to offer curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s majority in its order declined to write an opinion, but Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor’s five-page dissent is included.

The lawsuit — filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — was brought on behalf of several older Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, closed using the words of one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

“Plaintiff Howard Porter Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s disease, told the District Court, ‘[So] many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – We’re past that time,’” Sotomayor wrote. 

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. 

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“I am proud to report the U.S. Supreme Court has now blocked a lower court’s order allowing the fraudulent practice of curbside voting in the State of Alabama,” Merrill said in a statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods – including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature.”

“The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient, and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters,” Merrill continued. “Tonight’s ruling in favor of election integrity and security is once again a win for the people of Alabama.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed frustration after the ruling in a tweet.

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“Another devastating loss for voters and a blow for our team fighting to ensure safe voting for Black and disabled voters in Alabama. With no explanation, the SCOTUS allows Alabama to continue making it as hard as possible for COVID-vulnerable voters,” Ifill wrote.

Curbside voting is not explicitly banned by state law in Alabama, but Merrill has argued that because the practice is not addressed in the law, he believes it to be illegal. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 order ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

Caren Short, SPLC’s senior staff attorney, in a statement said the Supreme Court’s decision has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable Alabamians.

“Once again, the Supreme Court’s ‘shadow docket’ – where orders are issued without written explanation – has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable citizens amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis. After a two-week trial, a federal judge allowed counties in Alabama to implement curbside voting so that high-risk voters could avoid crowded polling locations,” Short said. “Tonight’s order prevents Alabama counties from even making that decision for themselves. Already common in states across the South and the country before 2020, curbside voting is a practice now encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It should be a no-brainer to implement everywhere during a pandemic; the Alabama Secretary of State unfortunately disagrees, as does the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Education

SPLC files complaints in Pike County over suspension of two Black students

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed two complaints with an Alabama juvenile court alleging the Pike County Board of Education arbitrarily suspended two students in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project, in a statement. 

“This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly,” Tafelski continued. 

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

The complaints state that on Nov. 22, 2019, both students were approached by the school’s principal “in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had ‘smoked’ that same day in the parking lot at school.” The principal alleged he had video security footage of them doing so, but wouldn’t show the students the footage, according to the complaints. 

Both boys told the principal that they had not used marijuana, but had both accompanied another student to their car in the parking lot, and both left when the other student showed them what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.

“The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence,” the SPLC said in a press release. 

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The complaints state that the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about their charges, evidence of wrongdoing, a meaningful opportunity to be heard or to present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings. 

“Only you know what did or didn’t happen in that vehicle … you dodged a bullet here because we didn’t have the proof that we need,” said one school board member to one of the students during his hearing, according to the complaint. 

“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother, in a statement. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.” 

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After a brief hearing, both seniors were suspended for the rest of the school year, missing out on a chance to finish their high school athletics and potentially missing out on college football scholarships as a result, the complaints state. 

Prior to their suspensions, both students had no disciplinary referrals and were making good grades, according to the complaints. 

“On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal,” the SPLC said in the release. 

“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, in a statement. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.” 

“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”  

“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”

Pike County Schools during the 2019-2020 school year referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing, according to the SPLC. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, and although Black students made up less than 50 percent of the student population, Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals.  On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district, according to the SPLC.

Both complaints can be read here and here.

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News

Biden urges Democrats to support Doug Jones

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

Brandon Moseley

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Former Vice President Joe Biden appears at a campaign rally in Birmingham with then-candidate Doug Jones in 2017. (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Wednesday asked Democratic donors to support the re-election of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

“I wanted to reach out to you about an old friend of mine: Doug Jones,” Biden said. “You might not believe this, but I met Doug more than 40 years ago, when I was a newly-minted junior senator, and he was in his early 20s, just beginning what would become one of the most impressive and dedicated careers of public service I’ve had the privilege of watching.”

“Doug has devoted his entire career to fighting for justice,” Biden said. “He’s the man who would not rest until the Klansmen who killed four young Black girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing were finally brought to justice. Doug has shown us, even in our darkest moments, that hope for the American promise is never lost — and what we can do when we stand united.”

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

“I need Doug’s help in the Senate,” Biden said. “He’s running neck-and-neck in his race in Alabama right now, and he needs our help to win.”

Biden said this election is “a battle for the soul of our country” and “few places are those stakes as clear as in Alabama.”

“I remember in 2017 when everyone counted Doug out,” Biden said. “When they thought that a message of unity would lose in a state where a long history of division still runs deep. But when I visited Alabama to help Doug, I saw what he saw – Alabama was ready to come together.”

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Biden was an early endorser of Jones in the 2017 special election, when Jones defeated former Chief Justice Roy Moore in that election. Jones returned the favor in the 2020 Democratic primary, endorsing Biden when the former vice president was having difficulty raising money and was polling well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

Jones campaigned hard with Biden in Selma and other campaign stops across Alabama prior to Super Tuesday on March 3.

“His win gave me hope,” Biden said. “I was both honored and proud to have escorted him onto the floor of the Senate and stood behind him when he was sworn in as a United States Senator. And his record has been extraordinary – passing 22 bipartisan bills helping farmers, military families, and those devastated by natural disasters. And in perhaps the most crucial fight of all – our health care – Doug has been there again and again standing up for all of us, especially those with pre-existing conditions. Every time we needed him to stand up for us, Doug Jones was there. I’m going to need Doug’s voice in the Senate. Alabama and America will need Doug’s voice in the Senate.”

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“Doug and I share a vision for a united country – one that puts faith over fear, fairness over privilege, and love over hate. And Doug, his campaign, and his career remind us that it’s a vision we can only realize if we come together,” Biden said.

In an Auburn University Montgomery poll, Biden trails Trump in Alabama by 17 points. Jones trailed former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville by 12 points. The Jones campaign claims that there has been a tightening of the race since then and it is a statistical tie. The Tuberville campaign disputes that claim.

Republican insider Perry Hooper Jr. said, “Whether it is the AUM poll, the Al.com poll, or internal polls by the (Tuberville) campaign, the margin is between 12 and 18 points in favor of Tuberville.”

The Jones campaign has been inundating the state airwaves with TV and radio ads due to the vast advantage that Jones has had fundraising. More than 82 percent of Jones’ money raised in the third quarter reporting cycle came from outside the state of Alabama.

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