The barrage is coming

 

By Jeff Martin
Qualifying for the two major political parties ended last week setting up an exciting field of candidates on both the Republican and Democratic sides in several statewide and local races. Six Republicans qualified to run for Governor, including surprise last minute candidate State Senator Slade Blackwell of Birmingham, who jumped in the gubernatorial race last Friday only to exit Monday, leaving everyone scratching their heads. Blackwell’s hasty entry and departure leaves incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Mobile State Senator Bill Hightower, Birmingham evangelist Scott Dawson and Michael McAllister in the June 5 GOP primary. It also leaves Blackwell without a campaign because qualifying has ended meaning he can’t run for re-election to in his senate district.
   Six candidates are running on the Democratic ticket, including former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. Also running are former Cullman State Representative James Fields and three other unknowns.
    Another heavily contested race is that for Attorney General, with four contenders running in the GOP primary and two contending for the Democratic nod. Current Attorney General Steve Marshall will face challengers Chess Bedsole, former U.S. Attorney Alice Martin and former Attorney General Troy King. Chris Christie (not to be confused with the former Governor of New Jersey) and last minute qualifier Joseph Siegelman (son of former Governor Don Siegelman), both attorneys residing in Birmingham will face off on the Democratic side.
   U.S. Representative Martha Roby prepares for battle for a fifth term in Congress as she faces four challengers in the GOP primary including state representative Barry Moore, Roy Moore loyalist Rich Hobson and former Montgomery Mayor/Congressman Bobby Bright, who qualified last minute to run as a Republican. Bright lost to Roby in the 2010 general election after serving one-term in Congress as a Democrat and has been unheard from for most of the past seven years. Two Democrats, Audri Scott Williams and Tabitha Isner, have also qualified. Isner has proven to have some fundraising success and recently opened her campaign headquarters in Montgomery.
   Almost a quarter of the House of Representatives and nearly one-third of the Senate will be new faces come November because of retirements, resignations and running for other public office. Montgomery will have new representation for both state Senate seats with the retirement of Sen. Dick Brewbaker and the recent resignation of Sen. Quinton Ross, who became President of Alabama State University.
    Montgomery County Commissioner Ronda Walker will go head-to-head against local attorney Will Barfoot in the GOP bid to replace Sen. Brewbaker. Walker was appointed Commissioner when Rep. Dimitri Polizos was elected to succeed Jay Love in the House of Representatives and was elected to a four-year term in 2016. Barfoot formerly ran against Sen. Larry Dixon in the 2006 GOP primary. The winner will face Democrat David Sadler or Frank Snowden in the November general election. This race was originally expected to feature a who’s who of Montgomerians including former state representative Perry Hooper Jr., Montgomery City Councilman Charles Jinwright, former Supreme Court Justice Terry Butts, attorney Gibson Vance, State School Board member Stephanie Bell and others. But for a variety of reasons, no one else pulled the trigger and the stage has been set between Walker and Barfoot.
   Qualifying to run in the June 5 Democratic primary to fill the heavily democratic district left vacant by Ross are the same two men, State Representative John Knight and City Councilman David Burkette, who are vying for the democratic nomination in two weeks. Knight, who finished first with 36 percent of the vote, faces second place finisher Burkette in a special election runoff to be decided February 27.
   While the democratic nominee will be decided before the end of the month, there is token Republican opposition forcing a general election to be held May 15, twenty-one days before the 2018 primary elections and long after the legislative session ends. So, the winner of the election will serve three weeks, not even enough time to unpack, before voters go back and vote again to fill the seat for a full-term.
   So prepare for the onslaught of political ads, a constant barrage of mailers and political messages popping up every time you look at the Internet because for the next few months there will be no hiding from the politicians.

The dark side remains veiled

By Jeff Martin
Governor Kay Ivey told Alabamians during her State of the State earlier last month that “we have successfully steadied the ship of state; I declare that the ship of the state is strong and our future as bright as the sun over the Gulf,” she proclaimed. The Governor talked about pay raises for teachers and state employees, more money for pre-K and developing rural broadband.
    Also mentioned was the news that Toyota and Mazda selected North Alabama as the site for the company’s $1.6 billion auto plant that is expected to bring an estimated 4,000 new jobs to the state.
    All good news indeed, but what the Governor and Legislature paint as so rosy, is only part of the picture, there is a dark side as well that Alabama politicians continue to do little about.
   Rural hospitals are becoming scarce with six closures since 2011, another half dozen may not survive 2018, and many others doing all they can to keep the doors open, including taking loans to meet payroll. The GOP controlled legislature has refused to consider expanding Medicaid, which would be a lifeline to many of the financially strapped hospitals.
   Many of Alabama’s road and bridges are in terrible condition and while some in legislative leadership and the business community has shown concern including attempts to raise the gas tax to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure, the majority of legislators have turned a blind eye, more worried about the impact voting for a tax increase would have on their reelection chances. The last time there was an increase in the state’s gas tax was 1992, but GOP legislators have always turned a deaf ear when it comes to a possible tax increase of any kind despite the desperate need and the economic benefits that would come from an infrastructure makeover.
   And speaking of roads, if you have found yourself stranded on one lately and were expecting a State Trooper to show up, good luck. Only one Trooper is assigned in several rural counties and other counties are considered lucky if they have two Troopers assigned. According to the State Troopers Association, Alabama has roughly one-quarter the number of troopers it needs with only about 250 state troopers patrolling the state’s roads.
   The biggest elephant in the room that the legislature doesn’t want to address is Prisons. Extremely overcrowded and already facing a court order to improve conditions after a federal judge last year ruled that mental health care was “horrendously inadequate.” The legislature has failed to act.
   But, to see where our state legislature has failed us most, one only needs to look at the state’s antiquated and racist educational system. Forty-five percent of black children in Alabama attend schools populated with more than 90 percent living in poverty, compared to 4 percent of white children attending the same schools. Our school system is failing. Montgomery alone has 11 schools on the failing list, including every high school that isn’t Magnet.
   But you won’t hear about these systematic problems that the legislature refuses to address because they are in a hurry to get home to boast of their accomplishments, talk about that massive Wall they’ve encouraged Congress to fund, and give the evil eye to anyone who dares to use their constitutional right to protest peacefully. Meanwhile, Alabamians continue to drive across unsafe bridges, with not a State Trooper in sight, to get to a hospital 100 miles away.
   So, there is plenty the legislature should be addressing, but not only will they kick the can down the road, it is expected they will end the legislative session a month earlier than usual. Why, you ask? It is campaign season.
   And just when the politicians thought this would be a smooth, non-controversial legislative session, the subpoenas arrived. Some guesstimates suggest 60; maybe even more, current and former legislatures and others learned they were under investigation by the Attorney Generals office. It is believed that the investigation stems from credit card receipts not being itemized on campaign finance reports and used for personal expenses, a felony violation of the Fair Campaign Practice Act. Just ask former House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, who is currently awaiting sentencing for such a violation.

Leaders in corruption

 

 

By Jeff Martin

There has been an astonishing parade of convictions, suspensions, and resignations of Alabama politicians in all three branches of state government in the last few years.  In the summer of 2016, Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) was found guilty of 12 felony ethics violations and sentenced to serve four years in prison, though he still remains free while his case is being appealed.

This past September former House Majority Leader Micky Hammon (R-Decatur), pled guilty to mail fraud for using campaign money for personal expenses. And earlier last year, Governor Robert Bentley plead guilty for violating campaign finance laws and resigned halfway through his second term in office in disgrace.

Toss in former House members Greg Wren (R-Montgomery), who plead guilty to a misdemeanor for using his political office for personal gain and Oliver Robinson (D-Birmingham) who is awaiting sentencing and expected to serve several years in a federal prison, after pleading guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, bribery, tax evasion and wire fraud. So, it should be no surprise that Alabama is perceived to be home to one of the most corrupt governments of the 50 states.

Last year I was asked to participate in a study conducted by former fellows at Harvard Law School’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Oguzhan Dincer, Associate Professor of Economics at the Illinois State University and Michael Johnston, a Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University (Emeritus) surveyed more than 1,000 Journalists covering state politics and issues related to corruption across all 50 states. The purpose, of which, was to measure illegal and legal corruption for each government branch.

Illegal corruption was defined as the private gains in the form of cash or gifts by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups. While, legal corruption was defined as the political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding.

The researchers found legal corruption is perceived to be more common than illegal corruption in all three branches of government. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not at all common and 5 being extremely common, Alabama scored a 4 or higher in legal corruption across all branches of government.

Their survey concluded, “with respect to illegal corruption, Alabama and Kentucky are perceived to be the most corrupt states, followed by Louisiana and Oklahoma, and some other usual suspects such as Mississippi and New Jersey. Kansas and Montana are perceived to be the least corrupt states, followed by Minnesota, California, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming. With respect to legal corruption, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Wisconsin are perceived to be the most corrupt states followed by New York and Texas and a group of states, which includes Illinois, Kentucky, and Oregon. Colorado and Nebraska are the least corrupt states followed by Minnesota, Montana, and Washington.

It is all bad news for Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Oklahoma as their aggregate scores are in the highest quartiles of both illegal and legal corruption. Not so bad news for Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming, which are perceived to be least corrupt both illegally and legally.”

According to the authors’ “these findings are broadly consistent with a number of comparative assessments of state corruption over the years, suggesting that the extent of corruption in state governments is not just a matter of contemporary personalities and events, but is rather a result of deeper and more lasting characteristics and influences.”

Don’t expect much to change anytime soon in the Heart of Dixie. With confusing and lack ethics laws and unlimited campaign donations from the deep pockets of special interest groups, expect more of the dumbest and greediest politicians to get their hands caught in the cookie jar. While other state politicians and legislators will continue to enrich themselves by means of legal corruption, but careful enough not to cross the criminal line.