2010 was going to be a tough year for Democrats in Alabama. With a lot of disgruntled voters nationwide and President Obama unpopular in the state, the GOP worked hard to nationalize state & local races. With enough money for ads and a record to run on, the ADP & its candidates could at least have been competitive. Unfortunately, the Alabama Democratic Party lacked money, message, and our legislative majority lacked tangible accomplishments. Yes, they blocked a lot of bad legislation over the years. The problem is that they leadership was equally as hostile to good legislation and reform efforts.
Looking back, it’s heartbreaking to consider what Alabama could be like now if the Democrats had used their legislative majority to address systemic problems in the state.
For instance, Democrats could have:
- Removed the sales tax on food
- Implemented real ethics reform
- Enacted home rule for local governments
- Dumped the 1901 state constitution
- Created a less regressive tax system.
But they didn’t. Session after session, one house would pass a reform bill – often unanimously – and then it would die in the other chamber. Rep. Jeff McLaughlin from Guntersville was a tireless advocate of ethics and campaign reform. And his House colleagues were happy to go along with his bills, secure in the knowledge that State Senate leaders would block a vote in that chamber. From a 2010 profile:
For eight consecutive years, McLaughlin has introduced legislation that would ban the practice of PAC-to-PAC transfers, which are used to hide the movement of money from donors to candidates.
For eight consecutive years, the bill has passed the House with barely a word of opposition. And, in a yearly ritual, the bill dies quietly in the Alabama Senate. But McLaughlin remains unbowed.
“I’ve made progress,” he said. “Before I went to Montgomery, this issue was ignored, but not anymore. I’ll continue to push for it as long as I’m there.”
The hostility to constitution reform & home rule can be summed up in Gerald Dial’s campaign announcement speech. Dial was previously a Democratic State Senator, but switched parties to run in 2010:
He contended that “home rule” was a dangerous principle. For example he argued that, “if we had had home rule, Lowndes County would not have any white land-owners.”
Dial won his seat back in 2010, but barely. He ran against Greg Varner, a young, whip-smart Democrat who I fervently hope will run again. Varner lost by just a few hundred votes. While Dial may be in the Senate now as a Republican, there’s no tangible difference in his behavior and priorities now than when he was a Dixiecrat… ahem… Democrat.
When the majority party leaders routinely kill reform legislation – without even a vote – they’re handing opponents a perfect campaign issue.
McLaughlin also lost in 2010 and failed to regain his seat in 2014. His opponent followed the GOP playbook: “when you got nuthin, run against Obama.”
And we offered nothing to counter that.
Our Democratic leaders in the legislature squandered the opportunity to use their power for good and instead were the guardians of the status quo. After all, it suited them just fine and kept them in power. Until it didn’t. The saddest thing is that they seemed to be the only people who failed to notice the train headed straight for them.
The result of inaction was a smashing Republican victory and a super-majority run by super-corrupt indicted Speaker Mike Hubbard. Forget opportunities lost or even the status quo. We’re now robbed governed by a crew that is committed to defunding public education, selling off state services, and draining state financial resources, all in the name of “fiscal accountability.”
To be fair, Democrats were going to lose seats no matter what, but there were enough close races that we had a chance of denying Hubbard and Marsh their super-majority.
As we noted in Part 2, the party in 2010 had no cohesive message and even if it did, there was little or no money to get it out.
Legislators had grown reliant on AEA for funding, and so had the Democratic Party. But 2010 was the year that AEA leaders decided to spend its cash on a grudge match against Bradley Byrne in the GOP primary instead of protecting legislative seats. It was a monumentally stupid move politically: in Alabama the governor has very little real power to influence legislation and his/her veto can be over-ridden by a simple legislative majority. Heck, Republicans even do it to Governor Bentley.
In terms of legislation, if one party has firm control over both houses, it doesn’t matter much who the Governor is or what he/she wants. But AEA was fixated on Byrne, so they were willing to back anyone else in the primary. AEA got a terrible return on its investment in Robert Bentley.
Instead of defending legislative seats – some races were heartbreakingly close – AEA set up a shadowy network of PACs with names like “Alabamians for Conservative Leadership” and “Alliance for Conservative Leadership” that funneled money to Republican candidates and a few Democrats.
Even worse, the organization funded an anti-Byrne ad in the primary that made national headlines. The “True Republican PAC” hit Byrne for his failure to denounce evolution. That’s right: Alabama’s largest group of education advocates played the stupid card. Byrne didn’t comport himself much better, btw. After initially taking a stand for biology, he made a quick about-face and denounced evolution while standing in the produce aisle of the New Hope Piggly Wiggly. FactCheck.org noted the “mystery, drama, and deception” in campaign spending.
2014 was also a terrible year for Democrats and the AEA. In this case, AEA’s strategy was overseen by Henry Mabry. Once again, the organization decided to play in the Republican primary, and ran ads against President Obama and Obamacare:
Indeed, one mailer sent to voters suggests a number of Republicans voted “to bring Obamacare to Alabama.” Republicans are livid, calling the mailer “misleading” and “absolutely false.”
The plot thickens when the source of the mailers is discovered: The Alabama Education Association. The mailers contain a website address to “learn more.” That website is AlabamaDeservesBetter.com, which is a site run by the Alabama Voice of Teachers for Education, the political arm of AEA.
At least they were finally paying attention again to the Legislature, but the damage had been done.
In Part 4, we’ll look at the close relationship between AEA and the ADP. At one point, the top two AEA leaders, Paul Hubbert and Joe Reed, were also vice-chairs of the Alabama Democratic Party. It’s like the phrase “conflict of interest” had been cut out of the dictionary.