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Inside the Statehouse

May 6, 2015:

There is an ominous cloud hanging over this legislative session. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court surprisingly agreed to hear a Hail Mary complaint filed by the black legislative caucus over the 2014 redistricting plan. In an even more surprising opinion, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the complainants and remanded the case back to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals instructing the lower court to tell the legislature to try again.

The super majority Republican legislature fully complied with the Voting Rights Act and the Justice Department guidelines when they crafted the new districts prior to the 2014 legislative elections. Specifically, they protected African American districts. The plan not only reserved the current number of minority districts, which by the way has the best reflection of African American districts of any state in America, they actually created a new additional minority House seat in Huntsville.

The GOP district plan adhered to every criteria required by the Voting Right Act and previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The only group seemingly discriminated against are white Democrats. The legislative lines drawers are not the only ones discriminating against white Democrats. The Alabama electorate has decided to make that dinosaur extinct. There are very few white Democrats left in Alabama. In the Heart of Dixie, if you are white you are a Republican and if you are African American you are a Democrat. It is that simple.

The Voting Rights Act was written and designed to protect and give preferential treatment to African Americans, not white Democrats. It appears that the Supreme Court is opening the door to expand the Voting Rights Act to protect the few white Democrats left in the South. Essentially, their opinion is that by packing the districts with a high percentage of African American folks, they do not have the ability to work with those whites who have their same interests. Indeed, if the Court is looking at that criteria, they are plowing new fertile ground. The proof is in the pudding. There is only one white Democrat left in the 35 member State Senate.

The Supreme Court zeroed in on Senate District 26, a black district in Montgomery represented by Sen. Quinton Ross. They say that his district was packed with too many black citizens. The high Court’s decision represents a legal reversal. Previously, the Court has forced southern states to create “majority-minority” districts more likely to elect black lawmakers. Now, the justices are saying it may be illegal to have too many blacks clustered in one district.

The opinion was unclear as to whether or not new elections would be called for under their order. They simply sent it back to the 11th Circuit to review. The GOP majority seem confident that the 11th Circuit will not throw their 2014 plan out and call for new elections. However, that may be false bravado. A reapportionment plan has a domino effect. If the Court says Senate District 26 is too packed, as described by the Supreme Court, you cannot tweak that district without creating a ripple effect throughout the entire state.

The legislative black caucus is reveling in the decision and have unveiled new redistricting maps that they say address concerns raised by the Supreme Court. They also argue that their plan respects and protects county lines, which is called for under Alabama’s 1901 Constitution. The current plan crisscrosses and destroys county lines, especially in urban areas. This argument holds water because under Alabama’s antiquated constitution, counties must go to the legislature to get their edicts approved. A divided county makes it difficult, especially in metropolitan areas.

The GOP majority may need to take this ruling seriously. They cannot cavalierly ignore and dismiss the Democratic minority on this issue like they systematically do on all other issues because the minority has the U.S. Supreme Court in their corner. If they take an ostrich approach to this redistricting issue, like they have to the state’s finances, they may very well have to run again next year. There is a precedent to it. It happened in 1982-1983.

Some people are suggesting that the GOP majority may privately believe that they will have to run again this year or next and that is why they do not want to vote on any taxes. Their opponents could tie their tax vote around their neck.

April 29, 2015:

Recently, at a forum I was asked the question, “Which governor made a difference in Alabama politics?” The question caught me off guard because I really had not thought about that obvious inquiry. My knee-jerk reaction and answer to the insightful questioner was George Wallace and I gave a litany of reasons for my response. Later, after contemplation, I felt that my answer was probably correct. Wallace would be the appropriate choice, simply because he was governor so long. I prefaced my reply to the inquisitor with the caveat, “You know, I’m not as old as you might think.” Therefore, I qualified my answer with, “Let’s talk about the governors since 1954.”

I actually knew Wallace and served as his representative in the legislature during my first term in the House and his last term as governor. I met Wallace earlier when I was a Page and he was a fiery first term governor in the 1960s. He would often times invite me down to the governor’s office to talk politics.

One day, while I was visiting with Gov. Wallace, he got a whimsical look on his face and asked me how old I was. I replied, “Governor, I’m 32 now. I’m not a Page anymore. I’m your representative, you know.” He looked at me and smiled and said, “Huh. Well, I guess I’ve been governor almost all of your life, haven’t I?” I quickly replied, “Yes sir and I guess you will be governor all the rest of my life. I don’t think anybody else will ever be governor.”

Indeed, George Wallace was elected governor four times and he elected his wife Lurleen one more time. That feat will never be matched again in Alabama politics. If you serve as governor that long, you were bound to leave some sort of legacy. In Wallace’s case the state had to implement a good many “Great Society” social programs. The most profound would be Medicaid. However, Wallace’s premier state originated legacy would be the State Junior College System.

“Big Jim” Folsom was governor two terms. He is known throughout the state as the father of the Farm to Market Road Program. Most of the rural roads in the state were built by Big Jim’s administration. Besides being the father of the Farm to Market Road Program, Big Jim was the father of another governor, Jim Folsom, Jr.

Although Little Jim was governor for only a couple of years, he will be known as the governor who lured Mercedes to Alabama. Jim Folsom, Jr. was born in the governor’s mansion while Big Jim was in his first term as governor and he holds the distinction of serving as lieutenant governor longer than anyone in state history.

Many political observers referred to Governor Fob James as “Fumbling Fob.” Old Fob served as governor two terms, although not in succession. Fob also left a legacy. During his first term the state got a windfall from selling some of our oil reserves in the gulf to the big oil companies. Being a businessman, Fob felt that the conservative and prudent thing to do would be to save the principal and only spend the interest of the corpus. Thus, he created the Oil and Gas Heritage Fund. That interest has helped bolster the beleaguered General Fund over the years.

In recent years, our governors really have not left any indelible mark. The probable reason is their lack of legislative power. Bob Riley was powerless, primarily because he was a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature. They treated him with disdain. Thus far, Robert Bentley has had the same fate as Riley in the legislative arena. This is perplexing given that Bentley is a Republican with a Republican legislature. He and the legislature have been on the same page with the right wing social issues that have been front and center. However, the legislature has shut him out when it comes to the state purse strings. This current session is a perfect example.

The reason for Bentley’s irrelevance is because he is too much of a nice guy. That demeanor and persona make him extremely popular with the people of Alabama. However, he does not have the killer instinct or political savvy of Wallace. In politics, and especially in the legislative arena, nice guys finish last.


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