A strange thing happened Tuesday: Gov. Kay Ivey appointed a new director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and no one complained.
Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, independents. No one had a bad word to say about Cam Ward.
The state senator from Alabaster is generally considered one of the most level-headed, respected members of Alabama’s Legislature, which is sort of famous for being anything but level-headed and respected. Unfortunately — or, I suspect, fortunately, in his opinion — he’ll be forced to give up that Senate seat to take on this new role.
There’s little chance that someone as thoughtful and well-meaning as Ward will get his seat.
And that’s a problem that I’ve never understood. A problem that is growing by the hour, it seems in today’s hyper-partisan, confrontational, social media-driven, image-only landscape of 2020 politics.
Truth, decency, common sense and working for the greater good have taken a backseat to raw ambition and personal favorability polls.
Why be a decent servant of the people and work to make meaningful changes that positively affect thousands of your fellow citizens when you can instead send out press releases and letters saying off-the-wall insane things that drive up your name ID?
We’re to the point now that good politicians are actively hiding the good deeds they’re doing or their true thoughts about important, helpful legislation because they fear they’ll be demonized by more partisan primary challengers and punished by a voting bloc that increasingly sees elections as a means of confirming their commitment to their favorite R or D team.
Ward is a perfect example of this.
Several years ago, not long into his mission to overhaul Alabama’s criminal justice system through complicated legislation that was lost on the average voter and that essentially tricked other lawmakers into voting for good bills, I sat on a couch in the capitol building with Ward and talked about the reform he was pursuing. He asked me, point blank, to tone down anything I would write about it. I assume that was because he was fearful that a story explaining his criminal justice work, combined with my byline, would be attacked by the more conservative lobbyist groups and special interests.
He was right. And I toned it way down.
In fact, over the years, much of what Ward has accomplished in reforms has remained unreported. Partly because it’s complicated and boring and involves endless details of legislative committee hearings and backroom negotiations, but also because so many people were fearful of just what it would mean if certain people and groups learned that Alabama had over the last several years participated in one of the largest mass releases of incarcerated individuals in the entire world.
That’s not hyperbole.
Thousands upon thousands of young men have been legally processed out of Alabama prisons through the criminal justice reforms pursued by Ward and others.
It was accomplished by eliminating petty mandatory sentence mandates and streamlining probation protocols and dozens of other necessary and worthy changes. Changing things that were supposed to keep Alabamians safe but were actually just useless, punitive add-ons that sounded good on campaign websites while unfairly punishing people for petty crimes.
Despite all of those releases, Alabama’s violent crime rate is at its lowest point in decades, and pretty much all crime is at all-time lows. And the state’s recidivism rate is below the national average.
One day in the future — hopefully, when Alabama’s prison issues have been addressed — the full story of what Ward and others accomplished can be told.
But in 2020, that is impossible.
Hell, it’s almost impossible that a guy like Ward exists, especially in the Alabama Republican Party.
And that’s not a partisan shot. It’s reality.
When you have a one-party state, as Alabama so firmly is, you squeeze out the middle. The only way to get elected in that party is to keep pushing further and further to the extremes and vilifying anyone who dares to compromise or play nice with “the enemy” on the other side of the aisle.
Even while representing one of the reddest districts in this state, Ward has resisted such a push. And on more than one occasion, he’s pushed himself and his party back towards the middle on important issues. He’s even gone to war with his party and powerful conservative special interest groups over causes that were important to him and his constituents.
All of that is exceedingly rare these days.
Politically, Ward and I agree on probably a handful of things and disagree on a truckload more. But his beliefs are grounded in principles that he can identify and verbalize, and they come from a place of honesty.
You can reason and compromise with a person like that.
But most importantly, for the job he’s about to take, Ward actually seems to care about his fellow man. You simply can’t take on the tasks and criticisms that he has over the last several years — all with so little political upside for him in this state — without there being high levels of compassion and empathy in him somewhere.
And it’s nice to see such a guy finally get this job.
Opinion | Ivey sends the wrong message at the wrong time on in-person learning
“Ivey came with a message to get back in there and try harder — as if more trying is what our schools and teachers are lacking.”
Over the course of the last several days, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts expressing sadness, anger and dismay over the passing of two beloved Montgomery Public Schools assistant principals and three more school system employees.
According to posts by their family members and friends and interviews with several, all passed away from the COVID-19 virus.
Another MPS administrator was in an ICU unit in Montgomery, according to a coworker. Several others are struggling with the virus.
None of this is uncommon in the state right now, where COVID infections are spreading like wildfire in a strong breeze. On Tuesday, there was yet another record-setting day of positive cases and hospitalizations. And hospital officials said there are currently zero ICU beds in Mobile.
So, it was a bit surprising, with all of that distressing news rolling in, to also receive an email from Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday afternoon, passing along a press release in which she encouraged all schools to open for in-person instruction in 2021.
This came on the heels of her declaration a couple of weeks ago that she would not be ordering future business closings due to coronavirus cases increasing. Just a blanket statement that no matter how bad things get, and no matter how effective Ivey’s previous shutdown order was, there would be no more shutdowns.
It’s as if there was only so much rational thought and science/math-based decision making that could be condoned within the Alabama governor’s office and Ivey used up her allotment by the end of October.
Nothing else makes sense — not if you understand how numbers work.
We’re in far worse shape now than we were when the original shutdown order was issued by Ivey last spring. Our doctors and health professionals and frontline workers are screaming out warnings, and hospital administrators are again warning that bed capacity is nearing critical shortages.
And public health experts think we’re only on the fringe of a coming “tidal wave,” spurred by Thanksgiving gatherings last week. Not to mention we’re coming up on the Christmas party season. And we’re still months away from the widespread distribution of a vaccine.
If something doesn’t change, a whole lot of people are going to die. A whole lot more will suffer through hospitalization and undetermined long term issues.
These are not secrets. And there’s no chance that Ivey and others around the state aren’t getting these messages from doctors and scientists.
Ivey governs a state that is dominated by right-wing voters who have bought hook, line and sinker into the Trump fantasyland extravaganza and conspiracy carnival. The majority of voters in this state, and an overwhelming majority of voters in Ivey’s party, believe Trump won in a landslide, that masks are tyranny, and shutdown orders are impeachable offenses.
Hell, Ivey’s own Legislature, dominated by her party, is seeking to strip her power to issue shutdown orders and other emergency health orders.
There is almost no political upside for Ivey in issuing another shutdown order or even mildly expanding the order that’s currently in place.
There’s also this little problem: If Ivey issues another shutdown order, it is an acknowledgment that the first order was effective — and it was, as every chart of infections and hospitalizations will show — and that we squandered the time that shutdown bought us.
If you’ll recall, we didn’t just close businesses and sit home for a few weeks because it was going to eradicate the virus. We did it so hospitals could catch up and we could implement national and state-level strategies for combating the virus on many fronts.
The hospitals caught up. Nothing else happened.
We don’t have a testing and tracing plan on any level. We don’t have a national mask ordinance. We don’t have a comprehensive spending package that provides a lifeline to families and businesses. We can’t even figure out in Alabama how to spend the damn money the feds gave us.
And our schools … sweet Lord Jesus … our schools.
It is pathetic the protective equipment and cleaning supplies our school teachers have been provided. It is nearly criminal the danger we have put some of them in, as evidenced by the deaths and illnesses we’ve seen. And it should be a national outrage the work hours and commitment we’ve demanded of them, while we sat on a billion dollars that could have made their lives exponentially better.
We had opportunities to be safer, but those opportunities (including one that Ivey, to her credit, pushed for) were lost in the usual, ignorant bickering and ego-stroking.
But with all of that going on, and with districts and schools just trying their best to get by and do what they can to serve students, here’s Ivey with a message to get back in there and try harder. As if more trying is what our schools and teachers are lacking.
But that’s actually fairly fitting for the way Republican leaders at the state and national levels have handled this virus: do the bare minimum, shame working people for their fears, worry about the money first.
Opinion | Alabama’s public corruption problem might just be hopeless
“Mike Hubbard committed crimes with the solitary intention of illegally enriching himself.”
Mike Hubbard stole more than $2 million. Let’s start right there, so we don’t get things twisted, because there’s a tendency in this state, when the criminal is wearing a suit and tie, to believe that the crime wasn’t really a crime and that it was something more complicated and sophisticated than a guy stealing money from you for himself.
This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a wrong place, wrong time deal. He didn’t forget to carry the one and, oops, $2 million landed in his account.
No. Mike Hubbard committed crimes with the solitary intention of illegally enriching himself.
Hubbard used his intelligence and charm and ruthlessness to rise to a position of power that allowed him to influence the budget process, and then he used that position and his intelligence to benefit himself at the expense of state businesses, taxpayers and the state itself.
If Hubbard had his way, one of his clients would have been granted an illegal monopoly, improperly squeezing out other deserving state businesses and possibly costing Alabama citizens their jobs and livelihoods.
In other instances, Hubbard concocted a means by which wealthy business owners in the state could “gift” their “friend” hundreds of thousands of dollars. Money that we all know would have been returned to the friends many times over in the form of friendly legislation and government contracts — which is the very reason such “gifts” were deemed illegal by a Legislature led by Hubbard.
These things were wrong. They were deplorable. And they were, quite blatantly, illegal.
And yet, for the past four-plus years, this state’s judges and lawmakers — actually, let me be accurate: this state’s Republican judges and Republican lawmakers — have bent over backward to bend, alter and change the laws that convicted Hubbard — the laws that Hubbard helped write — in order to reduce or eliminate the sentence handed down to their friend.
Finally, last week, the day before Thanksgiving — the day historically set aside for information dumps of embarrassing news you’re hoping will get lost in a four-day holiday weekend — Lee County Judge Jacob Walker, leaning on the suspect legal work of the Alabama Supreme Court — the most activist court in all of America — cut nearly half of Hubbard’s sentence.
Instead of four years, Hubbard will now serve just 28 months.
That is a travesty.
Not because 28 months instead of four years necessarily sends a message of leniency to future thieves. But because the sordid and embarrassing manner in which the sentence was reduced has been a case study in systemic public corruption and ruling class privilege.
It has made clear that there is one set of laws and rules for the working stiffs and poor and a whole other set for the wealthy and powerful.
When the ethics laws of this state were adopted several years ago, Republicans, including Hubbard, hailed them as true game-changers for Alabama politics. They talked loudly and often about how necessary these ethics laws were to remove the stench of corruption and pay-to-play favoritism from our state government. They promised that these laws would help level the playing field and restore the faith of Alabama citizens in their government.
All of that was BS.
Within months, the primary architect of those laws was secretly plotting to circumvent them in the interest of personal gain, his private emails showed us. Not only that, he and top ALGOP officials and donors were conspiring together to subvert those laws and enrich themselves.
What they were doing was not in the interest of “economic development” or business growth in the state or even innocent mistakes. It was willful, purposeful schemes meant to get around the laws and use their public offices to benefit themselves.
In one email Hubbard actually writes: “those ethics laws … what were we thinking?”
Despite this clear intent and despite a solid verdict from a thoughtful Lee County jury, for the last four years, Republican lawmakers have attempted time and again to change the ethics laws — to weaken them and insert loopholes into them. They have succeeded twice.
At the same time, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court — all elected Republicans — spent an unbelievable and unheard-of amount of time to pick apart the Hubbard verdict and cast doubt on the laws that convicted him.
In both courts, the opinions mentioned the “unintentional consequences” of the laws, implying that lawmakers in the state could unwittingly find themselves as accidental lawbreakers as they innocently conducted the business of the state.
Oddly, not one lawmaker from either party has committed such a violation or even almost committed one.
And no one believes that Hubbard committed such an unwitting violation of the laws.
Because he didn’t.
Hubbard knew full well what the law was. He knew full well that what he was doing was illegal — his closest associates testified as much in open court. He worked tirelessly to concoct ways to subvert those laws and enrich himself, and there is a mountain of evidence that proves it.
And yet, our criminal justice system and our state Legislature spent the last four years trying to get him out of it.
That’s a level of corruption that is so staggering and consuming that I honestly don’t know if there’s any hope to combat it.
Opinion | Alvin Holmes pulled no punches
“A tireless advocate for the Black community and the most purposefully underestimated man in the history of Alabama politics.”
By the time State Rep. Alvin Holmes reached someone in the office of Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., it was far too late. Or, at least, that’s what they thought in Folsom’s office.
Mercedes Benz was on the way to Tuscaloosa County. The deal had closed, the site work was underway, and to sweeten the pot from the state’s end, Folsom had sent the Alabama National Guard to Vance to help with site prep.
That was a serious misuse of the Guard, in the eyes of Holmes (and of many others). The Guardsmen aren’t pawns for business deals. So, Holmes, who already had raised hell about the behavior of state lawmakers and Mercedes officials, called Folsom’s office to tell them it wasn’t right and to put a stop to it.
They laughed at him and hung up.
“The next thing Alvin does is call up Ron Brown, who was the Secretary of Commerce at the time,” said former state Sen. Dick Brewbaker, who also served with Holmes in the House. “He tells Ron he wants to speak to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
Holmes didn’t get quite that far to the top, but he got high enough. Before the night was over, a phone call was placed from a 3-star general to the head of Guard in Alabama.
“Word came down that there shouldn’t be a single man or a single piece of equipment at that site at daybreak,” Brewbaker said, chuckling.
Holmes called the governor’s back.
“They weren’t laughing then,” Holmes told Brewbaker.
That, in a nutshell, was Alvin Holmes: a master of the rules, a pain in the backside to anyone he thought had strayed, a relentless debater, a tireless advocate for the Black community and the most purposefully underestimated man in the history of Alabama politics.
Holmes passed away Saturday, at the age of 82. But during his 44 years in the Alabama House, he provided endless stories of his epic rants on the State House floor, bemoaning the treatment of Black citizens or the working poor or even that dastardly foreign beer from Germany.
He often said outlandish things and made biting, personal attacks on his fellow members — most of it aimed at drawing attention to the larger point he wanted to make. But those moments at the mic also had another effect, serving to paint Holmes, especially in the minds of white people, as a blustering, ranting imbecile.
And that’s exactly what Holmes wanted.
“I’ve never met another politician in this state who wanted to be underestimated — who worked to make people think he wasn’t as smart as he was,” Brewbaker said. “Alvin loved it. He wanted people, especially those in the Legislature, to underestimate him. And then he’d tie them in knots.”
Holmes underplayed his intelligence better than anyone I’ve ever known, baiting his foes and luring them into the trap over and over again. To watch him work his marks on the House floor was like watching Greg Maddux pitch.
“Help me understand,” Holmes would start, as he questioned a bill’s sponsor about some specific language buried deep in a lengthy piece of legislation, and in a matter of seconds, the backtracking and stammering would begin.
When he sensed fear or uncertainty, Holmes was merciless.
“It’s not my job to be nice,” Holmes told me once. “It’s my job to make sure the people know the racism and disenfranchisement many of my white colleagues want to codify into law.”
And Holmes was very, very good at his job.
Over the course of his 44 years in office, it’s fairly safe to say that Holmes called out more racists and challenged more discriminatory laws than anyone. And the way he did it — so boldly, so unapologetically — was, especially in the 1970s, a shock to an Alabama system that had only recently emerged from Jim Crow.
In 1975, his second year in office, Holmes tricked lawmakers into approving a bill on a voice vote that required the state to hire more Black people. When the white lawmakers complained, Holmes brushed them off and said, “I think they’ll pay more attention next time. If they want to sleep, let them sleep.”
In the early 1990s, during a fight over the Confederate flag flying above the state capitol — a fight that would make Holmes one of the most hated men in the state — Holmes pulled no punches. He called then-Gov. Guy Hunt “one of the most notorious racists who ever served the state.” And then he added: “Not only a racist but a stupid racist.”
In his later years, Holmes could still bewilder his Republican counterparts and his rants — while fewer and often more humorous than biting — were still newsmakers, but Holmes had clearly grown tired.
By the time he was defeated by Kirk Hatcher in 2018, Holmes barely put up a fight and agreed it was time to move on.
Who could blame him if he was a bit tired? For more than four decades, Alvin Holmes withstood a barrage of hatred and anger that most can’t imagine. For years, he was the solitary focus of many white supremacists and the mascot that conservatives in the Alabama Legislature used to push through hateful, racist bills.
While Holmes always seemed to court such hostility — to invite it and embrace it, at times — such a life was undoubtedly lonely and exhausting.
Here’s hoping that wherever Alvin Holmes is today, the beer drinks plenty good, the injustices are solved and there’s finally time to rest.
Opinion | The emperor has no votes
The outcry of illegalities over the recent election is simply the latest example of just how far they’ll go.
Two-and-32. That’s the record of the super-fantastic “strike team” of “elite” attorneys representing the Donald Trump campaign in various lawsuits around the country that contest the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
For a refresher: Joe Biden won that free and fair election in a landslide and will be the next president of the United States. The end.
In case after case after case, despite what the president has tweeted and despite what enablers and spineless politicians have helped him push, the Trump elite attorney strike team has failed to offer even the slightest bit of proof of the grand fraud that Trump has repeatedly claimed on Twitter or that his “dye hard” personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has screeched about during insane, “Veep”-like press conferences. (Have you ever witnessed a stranger, more disturbing image than that of “America’s mayor,” wild eyed and ranting, with his cheap hair dye running down his face as if his ears were bleeding?)
In fact, in the overwhelming majority of the cases filed by strike team Trump, the team has been forced to admit to judges that they have no evidence of fraud or that they’re not able to claim fraud.
It’s pathetic that we’re still doing this — that the transition to a new administration is being held up by this band of grifters looking to squeeze one last drop of donations from the marks who have already forked over so much to this long-running American con.
That’s all this is.
The entire Trump presidency has been exactly this — a con game to enrich him and his closest business partners. To that end, it has been highly successful.
It has also been successful in turning seemingly rational people into googly-eyed yes men willing to sully themselves for a taste of the political fortune or fame that comes with being near the presidency.
It is, to be honest, shocking the ease with which so many in the highest offices of our federal and state government have been convinced to denounce reality and make fools of themselves to ensure they either benefit from being in the cult’s favor or at least not being a target of the cult.
The outcry of illegalities over the recent election is simply the latest and most horrific example of just how far they’re willing to go and how little of America they truly hold sacred.
Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill, for example, has given media interviews in which he willingly passed along wild, long debunked conspiracy theories of Biden getting thousands of votes at once, and how there’s no explanation for it. And yet, there was an explanation — one that had been given over and over and over.
Alabama congressman Mo Brooks, a man who so frequently buys into rightwing conspiracies that he almost certainly has purchased an extended warranty for all of his cars, sent a bat-guano insane letter to a constituent this week in which he laid out how “socialist Democrats” were able to “steal” the election through massive fraud and how Republicans in Congress can steal it back.
One of the means by which this election was stolen, according to Brooks, was by excluding Republican poll watchers. None were excluded. And the strike team has now dropped that line of attack altogether.
Brooks and Merrill aren’t alone, however. Up and down the line, Alabama GOP officials and the media mouthpieces they pay to amplify their idiotic ideas have gone full in on this idea of fraud, even when other Republicans — like that poor secretary of state in Georgia — were trying desperately to tell them it wasn’t real.
Honestly, it’s like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is being played out in real life, right in front of us. Only, the swindlers became the emperor.
Trump and his minions continue to walk around stark naked while insisting that he has on the most beautiful, perfect clothing in the whole world. And there’s this one group of people who are buying it. And then there’s this whole other group who know full well that this guy is buck naked but they’re too afraid of alienating the first group, even if it means undermining the cornerstone of American democracy.
In the meantime, the swindlers just keep sending out fundraiser emails. Because, again, that’s all this is.
Look at the frivolous lawsuits and how thoroughly Trump’s strike team has been embarrassed in every courtroom so far. This isn’t about winning or about massive fraud or about correcting problems in the election system. It’s about money. Pure and simple.
Finally, late Thursday, two influential Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse, said what we all know.
Sasse said the lawyers have “refused to actually allege grand fraud.” He was also critical of the strike team’s tactics.
Romney said Trump was trying to “subvert the will of the people.” And he said he couldn’t imagine “a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”
Hopefully, that will open the floodgates for a river of sanity and basic common sense. Because the longer this goes on, the more likely it is something catastrophic takes place.
It’s not too late yet for the president to put some clothes on.