I’ve been doing this news business stuff for a lot of years now. Each year, I think the previous one can’t be topped, that there’s only so much crazy to go around.
And every year I’m surprised all over again.
2023 was no different. The scandals are different. The players are new. The crazy never stops. Here are my top 5 stories from 2023.
David Cole goes to jail
I want to be absolutely clear about a couple of things. First, I never in my wildest thoughts about this story believed David Cole, a Madison doctor, veteran and newly-elected state representative, would even be charged with a crime for his attempts to get elected in a district where he didn’t actually live. Second, I didn’t take a second of joy or receive any satisfaction from the fact that he did. In fact, if I’m completely honest about it, I felt bad for his family – mainly his kids – and just wanted the whole thing to be over with.
Because, really, it was so incredibly dumb. I truly thought that at some point, after I exposed the fact that Cole had clearly lied to get on the ballot in the House District 10 race, that someone – either him or a leader in the Alabama Republican Party – would put an end to this charade and Cole would bow out. Instead, he just kept doubling down. And tripling down.
I mean, the guy actually sat for a deposition in which he KNEW he was going to have to answer questions about where he lived, and didn’t live, and about how he came to “rent space” from a family friend so he could use the friend’s address to qualify for HD10. It didn’t go well. His answers were absurd. His excuses were dumb. He was quite clearly caught in an egregious lie.
Making it even worse, though, were the Republicans who tried to use their power in the legislature to rewrite laws on the fly and protect him from himself. They almost pulled it off. But luckily, there are still a few ALGOP members out there with integrity enough to not change a law simply to protect a party mate who broke it. And also, there was the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which pursued charges against Cole for election fraud. Ultimately, Cole admitted to the charges, laid out the entire sordid story and went to jail for 60 days.
The Montgomery Mess
It started with an odd text message on a Sunday evening in January. The message contained only a link to a recording. On the recording was Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, and it was quite obvious, by Reed’s candid words and frequent cussing, that he didn’t know he was being recorded. That recording, in which Reed spoke frankly about the realities of racial politics in Alabama’s capital city, touched off what would be a wild and weird few months.
Along the way, there were lawsuits and threats. Reed ended up pressing charges against a local businessman and activist who the mayor said made the recordings. He also referred to him as a con man and said the whole ordeal was part of a shakedown attempt.
Little did most people know that all of that was simply the initial shot across the bow for a city election still months away. Behind the scenes, power brokers and financial backers were maneuvering to oust Reed. The recordings were their first shot, meant to weaken Reed among Black voters and open the door for an alternative candidate.
It didn’t work, though. A second part of the plan never materialized, because the group of businessmen couldn’t find a viable Black candidate to enter the race and pull votes away from Reed. When numerous potential candidates balked at the idea of facing Reed, the group was left trying to transform a political novice into a viable challenger. It didn’t go well.
Very quickly, Barrett Gilbreath’s campaign morphed into an endless flow of thinly veiled racism, utilizing every tired, debunked stereotype spouted by old-time white Montgomerians who desperately want to return to the good ol’ days of Jim Crow. The larger problem, though, was that as Gilbreath’s campaign dwelled on the oh-my-God-the-city-is-dying narrative, the reality for the city was actually pretty good.
In his first four years, Reed had been fairly successful on a number of fronts. Most notably, he was really good at economic development and business recruitment. Additionally, Montgomery was ranked as the best city in America for Black-owned businesses. And voters there mostly realized that issues with crime and schools long predated Reed’s tenure, and were certainly no worse with him at the helm. In the end, Reed won easily and without a runoff.
Dem v. Dem
While in-fighting within the Alabama Democratic Party is not exactly news at this point – they’ve seemingly been fighting constantly for the past four years – the embarrassing and bold acts that took place in 2023 were on a different level.
The trouble began in May, at an ADP meeting, at which executive director Randy Kelley and minority vice-chair Joe Reed orchestrated a vote on new bylaws that significantly reduced the voting power of certain minority groups. It did so by eliminating some caucuses – instead transforming them into committees that held far less power. But it was the vote itself that brought the most scrutiny.
To be able to vote at the meeting, Kelley imposed a membership fee, telling State Democratic Executive Committee members that the fee was actually imposed by the former administration but was only now being enforced. He also refused to accept payment of the fee at the meeting, instead telling members that it was too late. Even with those shenanigans, it didn’t appear as if a required voting quorum was present. Didn’t matter, they voted anyway. And when the members present did vote, it certainly appeared as if the votes against the new bylaws were greater than the votes for them. Didn’t matter, it was declared that the new bylaws had been adopted.
Within days, a challenge to the new bylaws was filed. And for the next several months the various factions of Democrats fought with each other and called each other names. That’s not to say that each side carried equal blame, or anywhere close to it. Because by the fall, the DNC had stepped in, and it later determined that the new bylaws were not consistent with party bylaws. And there was an agreement reached with ADP leadership to change the new bylaws to be more inclusive. The first attempt at that, submitted in November, was disappointing, although they did restore many of the diversity caucuses. The first vote on new bylaws is scheduled for February, so the fight promises to drag into another year.
The problem with medical marijuana
I’ve been covering Alabama’s dysfunctional government for nearly two decades at this point, and while I’ve seen more than my fair share of screwy decisions, poor review processes and obvious corruption, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission and it’s embarrassing attempt to dole out licenses. Honestly, if the goal was to screw up this process and delay the availability of the cannabis, you couldn’t do a better job.
It started in January, when applicants first realized that they were about to get hosed by a file size limitation on application attachments. Following the first attempt to award licenses last June, the first lawsuits hit. It wasn’t long before we learned all sorts of crazy details, like all of the coincidental relationships between the AMCC and certain companies or the way the AMCC simply disregarded portions of the licensing law it didn’t want to comply with, or the way the AMCC violated state laws without seemingly a care.
The process has now gone through three attempts to award the licenses for integrated facilities, and the most recent attempt is almost as big of a mess as the first disallowed attempt. In the third shot at this, the AMCC used a balloting process that likely violates state law and never held a single discussion on the merits of any applicant or on the commissioners’ decisions to vote for or against certain applicants. Even when the AMCC commissioners voted 5-4 against the highest rated minority applicant and instead selected an applicant that scored two places lower, no one on the commission felt it necessary to explain those votes.
The new year is likely to bring more lawsuits against the AMCC, and those lawsuits are likely to have some level of success. At the same time, the AG’s office and FBI are apparently poking around and asking questions about the weird scoring process. And it doesn’t feel as if we’re any closer to actually getting medical cannabis to patients who need it.
The not-so-subtle racism of Alabama redistricting
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned covering politics is that if you want to truly know a person’s heart, pay little attention to the things they say and instead watch what they do. Never has that lesson been more true than in Alabama Republicans’ efforts to limit Black voter representation.
At every turn, while they proclaimed loudly that they weren’t racist and had no racist intentions, these same Republicans pulled out every stop to limit roughly 25 percent of Alabama’s population to just 17 percent representation. And then tried to pretend that it was the Black voters at fault for daring to ask for equality.
The most egregious act, of course, came after even the very conservative U.S. Supreme Court deemed Alabama’s congressional maps too racist and ordered them redrawn with either a majority Black voter population in a second congressional district or something very close to it. Alabama Republicans said nah. Instead, they submitted a map that was worse than the one the court disallowed, and elected to instead hope that a specific justice would flip his vote and rule in favor of racism. It didn’t happen – at least, not yet.
In a story we ran in September, APR highlighted the obvious and troubling connections between the Alabama AG’s office and a dark money billionaire with outsized influence over the court and with Justice Brett Kavanaugh. That story drew national attention and has left a number of people believing that the court will ultimately undermine Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and make it impossible to challenge voting maps based on racial discrimination.
Until then, however, Alabama’s gambit was a dud. It allowed a very favorable voting district for Black voters, which will likely mean a second Democrat will be representing Alabama in Congress. It’s also very possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up another voting rights case that will challenge Section 2, leaving Alabama with its new 2nd district until the maps are redrawn after the 2030 census.