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Opinion | The dysfunctional Isner-Kelley-Reed political throuple

All Democratic hands should be on deck in this new, troubling phase of the voting rights fight. But they aren’t.

Randy Kelley, left, and Tabitha Isner, right, were elected as chair and vice chair of the Alabama Democratic Party.
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Let’s start by addressing the donkey in the room. (Yes, I know that the old saying is an elephant. But we’re talking about the Alabama Democratic Party in this column, so I’m going with donkey.)

Dr. Joe Reed, chair of the ADP’s minority caucus, categorically denies calling ADP Vice-Chair Tabitha Isner a “girl” at last Saturday’s State Democratic Executive Committee meeting.

“No,” Reed said to me unequivocally on the phone earlier this week. “I did tell her she needs to stop interfering with the chairman. I did tell her she needed to be quiet.”

ADP Chair Randy Kelley concurs. “I don’t think Dr. Reed said that,” Kelley said when we talked. “I think there was an exchange (between them).”

An exchange? What kind of exchange? “It was not just your normal conversation,” he said.

That’s an understatement. The Isner-Reed exchange was intense from what I can tell. But Kelley doesn’t recall Reed saying “you be quiet, girl,” which is how other news reports recorded it.

Isner’s recollection is less clear than Reed’s, but more clear than Kelley’s. “I think that’s an accurate quote,” she told me. “I heard him say ‘be quiet’ on several occasions.” 

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Here’s a good place to stipulate that a grown man telling a grown woman to “be quiet” is highly offensive, even if he doesn’t call her a “girl.” Perhaps it’s a smidgen less offensive without the word “girl.” But not by much, if at all.  

And to Isner, it’s a distinction without a difference.

“I think it’s a gendered insult,” she said. “This has been a pattern of behavior.”

Isner says that Reed and Kelley disrespect her on a regular basis. And according to the two men, she is guilty of the same.

In fact, during our interview, Kelley called Isner a “Tarzan” – a reference to a white person playing savior to an endangered group of Blacks, perhaps a savior they didn’t ask for and don’t claim to need. “That’s what she thinks her role is,” he said. “She’s not helping the party at all.” 

Reminds me of an unhappy marriage. You know the type. The husband and wife are either bickering constantly or not speaking for weeks. They no longer sleep in the same bed. Or even the same room. 

Their lives are, as much as possible, separate. They are married in name only. And would rather not be married anymore, at all.  

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Last Saturday’s meeting was just the scene of the most recent public blow-up between Isner, Kelly and Reed. Which makes their problem the problem of all Alabama Democrats. 

Kelley and Reed vs. Isner has been on since the last ADP election. But its roots go deeper. At least as deep as the 2019 fight between former U.S. Senator Doug Jones, former ADP Chair, the late Nancy Worley and Kelley, who was her vice-chair. 

Very acrimonious back then. Very acrimonious now.

Also dispiriting. And draining. If you are a Democrat who just wants to see the party win some races and solve some problems.  

How’s that supposed to happen with all this in-fighting? Doesn’t it distract from things the party should be focused on? 

Like the current redistricting debacle. Partisan Politics 101 says the ADP should have been all over it. Excoriating the Alabama GOP for a brazen attempt to suppress Black votes and defying the Supreme Court. 

For yanking Alabama out of 2023 and back to 1963. For calling out a potential set-up for the U.S. Supreme Court to gut Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which could allow some discriminatory practices and procedures to be reinstated.  

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All Democratic hands should be on deck in this new, troubling phase of the voting rights fight. But they aren’t. And haven’t been for a while. Even before the dysfunctional Isner-Kelley-Reed political throuple. 

In fairness, despite the bickering, the party now has a new executive director, Tom Miro, and director of I.T., Sheena Gamble. For the record, Miro is a white male; Gamble, a Black and Indigenous female.

Good news, but how effective will Miro and Gamble be if Kelley, Isner and Reed are still fighting? I wish them luck, because the way things look right now, the ADP’s internecine war seems to be the most dominant item on its agenda. 

David Person is a media personality and consultant who has been working in the Huntsville market since 1986 as a talk show host, columnist, and director/producer. David co-hosts the podcast Alabama Politics This Week.

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