Wednesday, July 28, 2010

L’affaire Dreyfus, L’affaire Sherrod, et L’affaire Siegelman.

OK, I know, at the end of my previous post, I said “I got nothing else to add,” referring to the Shirley Sherrod affair. Strictly speaking, I don’t, but thinking about it - and Keith Olbermann's brilliant commentary on it (linked in that post) - led me to connect the dots to another matter, even closer to home than Georgia. It’s just the sort of thing to make one want to channel one’s inner Émile Zola, and cry “J’accuse!”

But to appreciate the context of where I am heading, a brief review of the Sherrod case is necessary. At 11:18 a.m. Monday, July 19, right wing mud artist Andrew Breitbart posted the edited version of the Sherrod video. As we now know, that excerpt was taken out of context, and made Sherrod look like she had short-changed a white farmer based on his race. (For those who want detail about how the slander unfolded, has put together this excellent timeline, complete with screen caps and links.) By later that day, as Sherrod was en route from her home in South Georgia, near Albany, to a work conference at Athens, she was called (for the second time while en route) by Cheryl Cook, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture, and was instructed to pull off the road and email her resignation from her BlackBerry right then. According to Sherrod, Cook told her, “Well, Shirley, they want you to pull over to the side of the road and do it because you’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.” Apparently, when the sensibilities of Fox News viewers are at risk of being offended, due process, fairness and accuracy are, at best, tertiary concerns for this Administration. Of course, we now know that (a) Sherrod’s remarks in the Breitbart/Fox video were edited, so as to not reveal that she saw it would be wrong not to help the white farmer; (b) she in fact helped the white farmer save his farm; and (c) the farmer, his wife, and Sherrod are now fast friends.

Not that the Administration’s actions in the Sherrod case are unprecedented. In its earliest days, this aloofly cerebral Administration took lightning-swift action to vindicate a claimed wrong against a Republican, former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens, you will recall, was convicted of accepting roughly $100,000.00 of work on his Alaska home - shown here - in exchange for favors to an Alaska oil contractor. (Do you ever notice, there always seem to be oil people somewhere in a story on corruption?) Was there ever any doubt that the work was done? No. Was there ever any claim by Stevens that he paid for all of it? No. (Stevens did, at one point claim he paid “all the invoices [he] was given” - an obvious dodge.) Was there any denial that Stevens did not report the gift, as he was required by law to do? No. And the contractor testified that the arrangement was part of a quid pro quo for favors from Stevens, and his son, the president of the Alaska Senate. During the runup to the Stevens trial, due largely to an understaffed prosecutorial team, there were delays in getting some documents to Stevens’s lawyers, that were in the possession of the government. Stevens’s lawyers were entitled to these documents under the rules of “discovery” of the Government's case.

I looked up the law on prosecutors delaying the production of “discovery” materials, and found a couple of quotes from court opinions on the issue:

As for the alleged discovery abuses, Carlos has not claimed any prejudice resulting from any delay in receiving the documents and information at issue. Nor has he made any showing that the government deliberately withheld any discovery items from him. Consequently, the instances of alleged discovery abuse did not amount to a denial of due process. U.S. v. Carlos, (C.A. 9 (Wash.) 1999).

We can find no evidence of prejudice in the record before us. Defense counsel apparently was satisfied with the additional time granted by the trial judge to examine the documents. After the recess ended, defendant's lawyer did not ask for any more time nor did he assert that any more was required. Even though over one thousand documents were allegedly involved, no renewed mistrial motion was made during the trial after Roberts was re-examined on July 11. U.S. v. Kaplan, (C.A. N.J. 1977).

The net effect of these seems to be that, unless Stevens could (a) claim he was prejudiced by the delay, and (b) wasn’t afforded a chance for him or his lawyers to look over any documents produced at trial (they apparently could have asked for a continuance, which they didn’t), he should not have been entitled to have his conviction thrown out. Yet not only was Stevens’s conviction thrown out, it was thrown out with the consent of the Obama Administration, and Attorney General Holder announced that the Government would not attempt to retry Stevens on charges of which he was, by any objective standard, guilty.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The rights of criminal defendants are important. If there is abuse by a prosecutor, the defendant should at least get a new trial, and if the abuse is intentional, rather than negligent, a court should look seriously at throwing out the charges. Even if the defendant is guilty. Nothing punishes a “bad” cop or prosecutor like having cases thrown out.

But - and this gets to the point you have been anticipating since reading the title - a little consistency would be nice. If the apparently minor-to-so-so issues in the Stevens case called for the Attorney General to grovel before television cameras to apologize for wrongs done to a Republican Senator who was almost certainly guilty, how long should the hair shirts be worn for the undisputed wrongs visited by the Government on former Governor Don Siegelman? I am not going into length into that case, because it isn't necessary to touch on more than a handful of points to show, to any fair observer, that the problems with the Government’s conduct in the Siegelman case make those in the Stevens case look like Friday morning’s Dunkin’ Donuts.

Late-produced “discovery” documents? How about concealed exculpatory evidence? The only testimony of a quid pro quo in the entire Siegelman trial (which the Government was required to prove) came from former aide Nick Bailey, who had cut a deal with prosecutors. What Siegelman’s attorneys were not told - as the law required they be told - was that Bailey had given so many contradictory statements to the FBI and prosecutors that he had been forced to sit down, get his story straight on paper, and was then led through 24 “coaching” sessions to make sure he “knew” the “facts” he would later relate to the jury. Those of us whose memories of The Verdict can get beyond a 35-year-old Charlotte Rampling can almost hear James Mason waving contradictory statements in front of an exasperated Bailey, and asking, “which one is the lie?”

And now, for juror (and more Government) misconduct. Meet Katie “Flipper” Langer of Montgomery. Ms. Langer, at the time of the Siegelman trial, was a gymnastics teacher in Montgomery. She wound up on the Siegelman jury. During the trial, Republican Judge Mark Fuller instructed the jurors not to discuss the case among themselves until all the evidence was in, and they began deliberations. Ms. Langer almost immediately began emailing another of the prosecution-leaning white jurors. Among the emails of this “impartial” juror was one that said, in part:

[jury foreman] Sam [Hendrix]: gov & pastor [Richard Scrushy] up shit creek. good thing no one likes them anyway. all public officials r scum; especially this 1.

Even if one can excuse Siegelman’s prosecutors for not knowing about this improper contact among jurors at the time, they know about it now. And if Eric Holder doesn’t know this sort of detail about an ultra-high profile prosecution of a former Governor, still pending in the courts, he isn’t doing his job. And still, there has been no dismissal of the Siegelman charges. Yet, the Flipper saga does not stop there. During the course of the trial, an FBI agent sitting at the table with the prosecutors caught Langer’s eye. Langer, passing notes by way of a U.S. Marshal serving as court security, asked if the FBI agent were single. It doesn’t take Perry Mason to figure out that if Langer wanted her dream FBI date, that jury better not bring back an acquittal. Because this was known to the prosecution team, it should have been disclosed to Siegelman’s lawyers, and a mistrial declared. Instead, it was suppressed by prosecutors, and Siegelman’s lawyers only learned of it, acccording to Time, well after the trial. The moniker, “Flipper”? It was the nickname given Langer by her fellow jurors, as she would entertain them during delays in the jury room by performing acrobatic stunts. In a troubling footnote to the Flipper saga, despite the fact that this egregious conduct on her part is public record, and quickly accessed via Google, Langer - after her graduation from a night law school - is now a member in good standing of the Alabama Bar.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the law about improper communications with or among jurors is:

In a criminal case, any private communication, contact, or tampering directly or indirectly, with a juror during a trial about the matter pending before the jury is, for obvious reasons, deemed presumptively prejudicial, if not made in pursuance of known rules of the court with full knowledge of the parties. Remmer v. U.S., (U.S. 1956).
Sounds like bad news for the prosecution in Siegelman’s case.

Olbermann was right. Shirley Sherrod was seriously wronged. She lost her job, and will spend the rest of her days being used as an example of “racist blacks” by the bobble-headed bigots who watch Fox News. But as badly as Sherrod was treated, it was something of a rhetorical conceit to compare it, as Olbermann did, to the ordeal of the unfortunate Captain Dreyfus. Unemployment hardly compares to being shipped in chains to Devil’s Island. Sadly, Don Siegelman was hit with both. Not only was he sentenced to prison, his 2006 trial effectively torpedoed his political comeback effort, and likely any future in elective office.

The common thread that does connect the Stevens, Sherrod, and Siegelman cases is what Olbermann refers to as “this self-defeatingly above-it-all president.” As Olbermann put it at one point in his Comment:

As you stay silent and neutral and everybody’s president, they are gradually convincing racists that they are the civil rights leaders and you are Police Chief Bull Connor. And then some idiot at Fox News barks, and your people throw an honorable public servant under the nearest bus, just for the sake of “decisive action” and the correct way to respond “in this atmosphere.” Mr. President, please stop trying to act every minute like some noble neutral figure, chairing a government of equal and dispassionate minds, and contemplative scholars. It is a freaking war out here. And the imagined consensus you seek is years in the future, if ever it is to be re-discovered in this country.
Would that there were some way to make Barack Obama read those words every two hours until his bilateral orchiectomy spontaneously reverses. For all the encomia heaped on this President, the truth is becoming a little obvious. Neither his elite academic training, his time in Illinois politics, nor his relatively brief pre-2008-campaign tenure as a Senator (he announced for President 2 years, 1 month, and 8 days after being sworn into the Senate), brought home to him that American democracy presumes the vigorous exposition of both sides of every issue. It is inherently adversarial. When one side isn’t resisting the other’s pressure, the system rewards the non-resisted side with disproportionate benefits. At a more practical level, when an American politician is perceived as a non-fighter, his (or her) political base becomes discouraged and inactive, swing voters are persuaded by the one side of the argument they hear, and his opponents don’t reciprocate the accommodation (and laugh in their cups at his milquetoast persona). Beltway punditry, while still recognizing Obama’s strengths (and there are some), is beginning to comment with regularity on the lack of nuts-and-bolts political skill in this President and his Administration.

In Alabama, nowhere is this political ineptitude more apparent than in the Siegelman case. Apparently, Obama is afraid of upsetting Republicans by doing the legally right thing in the case. Not only has Siegelman, despite far more clear prosecutorial misconduct, not been the beneficiary of a Stevens-like “get out of jail free” card, the Obama-Holder DoJ filed a brief vigorously resisting Siegelman’s attempt (eventually successful) to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. What is even worse, Leura Canary, the Bush-appointed wife of Bob Riley’s campaign manager, remains in charge of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Montgomery, over a third of the way through Obama’s term. And she continues to shamelessly use her position to favor Riley/Republican positions, as when she visibly and publicly subpoenaed legislators to testify before a grand jury as the Legislature was considering bingo legislation, effectively poisoning the political atmosphere for the bill. No one has been indicted, which should surprise no one. Bill Clinton did not even wait for an Attorney General to be confirmed. Immediately on taking office, he dismissed all of George H.W. Bush’s U.S. Attorneys. He wanted this important task accomplished so quickly, he acted through Stuart Gerson, the holdover Assistant Attorney General from the Bush I Administration, who was acting Attorney General at the beginning of Clinton’s term. It was political malpractice for Obama not to do the same, especially given the known history of Bush-era political prosecutions, of which Canary’s were only one example. If I cannot find words, stronger than “malpractice,” to describe what Canary’s continued occupancy of her office 556 days after Obama’s inauguration constitutes, I can find words for what to do about it in the 2012 Alabama Democratic Presidential Primary.

Speaking of Presidential Primaries, my 2008 vote is looking smarter every day. It, too, would have resulted in an historic first if I had been in the majority.

I try to move every post here beyond mere rant, and into the realm of action. Shirley Sherrod is getting a lot of, if not enough, support from around the country. Don Siegelman has to look largely in his home state for help. If you are as tired as I am of the continuation of Bush-era prosecutorial abuse in Montgomery, you can leave a message at the White house on this web page, or you can call to leave a comment at 202-456-1111. I suppose the USPS still delivers to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500, for those who feel better with pen in hand. Attorney General Holder can be emailed at, phoned on his comments line at 202-353-1555, or snail mailed at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20530-0001. I would only suggest that any contact urge both the dropping of the Siegelman charges, as was done for Stevens, and the removal of Leura Canary.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hot dogs, Rock n Roll, Sherrod, and L’affaire Dreyfus

I heartily urge everyone in the area to be at Gadsden Convention Hall on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. The Ron Sparks campaign is having its Gadsden fall kickoff, with entertainment being provided by rock legend Billy Joe Royal. Hot dogs and beverages suitable to all ages are being served.

In the meantime, I am still trying to get my whole head around Keith Olbermann's take on the Shirley Sherrod imbroglio.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

J'accuse. I got nothing else to add.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Pickup Opportunity - Secretary of State

Anyone who doubts the importance of the office of Secretary of State need only remember Florida, in November 2000, when Republican Katherine Harris played a pivotal role in stealing Florida's electoral votes for George W. Bush. In Alabama's stolen gubernatorial election of 2002, Alcibiadean Secretary of State Jim Bennett had a key role in blocking the recount of the "After-Midnight" 6,000 vote swing in Baldwin County that handed the election to Riley. Even in the absence of a cliffhanger, the office has a lot of influence over the entire electoral process. In a state where there are always Republican schemes afoot to disfranchise minority voters, either illegally or by changing the law, it's a big advantage to the party controlling this office to be able to collect the media coverage that follows a Secretary of State's pronouncements on any voting issue.

In short, this is an important office.

And, despite the fact that Republican incumbent Beth Chapman avoided a primary challenge (which speaks volumes to the lack of depth in the Republican bench), this office presents a key pickup opportunity among the so-called "constitutional" offices. The Democratic nominee is Scott Gilliland, a Birmingham lawyer. Despite the usual advantages of incumbent name recognition, this office represents a real pickup opportunity for Democrats in 2010. In order to understand why, we need a brief look at how the race for this office fared in the last two cycles.

In the 1998 Democratic near-sweep of statewide offices, one of the few losers was former AEA president, and retired high school Latin teacher, Nancy Worley. She was running against incumbent Jim Bennett, who had switched to the Republican Party after being one of the few Democrats to win statewide in 1994. Other than betraying his party, Bennett had managed not to become entangled in any scandals or controversies, and his name recognition proved too much to overcome. Worley, however, made an effort in 2002 to succeed the term-limited Bennett. This time, she was blessed by circumstances. First, despite premature media political obituaries, Governor Don Siegelman won re-election, though not by a sufficient margin to prevent the "After Midnight" recount theft. Worley was also the beneficiary of an internal bloodbath in the GOP primary between State Representative Dave Thomas of Springville and Roy Moore acolyte Dean Young. In one of the more famous moments in recent Alabama politics, their joint appearance on Alabama Public Television's For the Record degenerated into a shouting match which included repeated offers to step outside to settle matters "mano a mano." When your fall opponent is threatening a fistfight on television with his primary opponent, that is almost always a good sign in politics. As shown on the map, Worley carried most of the more heavily populated counties en route to a 50.1%-49.9% win.

2006 would prove more difficult for Worley. She had made numerous changes in her term that did not sit well with holdover staff from the Bennett secretariat. She was challenged in the Democratic primary by her own elections division director, Ed Packard. Worley handily won the primary, 75.8%-25.2%, but Packard made repeated accusations of improprieties on Worley's part. These accusations were of course amplified and repeated by some of the more Republican-leaning media in Alabama. GOP attorney general Troy King, then still in favor with the Republican High Command, initiated a criminal investigation of Worley. This resulted in felony charges against Worley, which were later dismissed by the circuit court, but reinstated by the GOP-dominated Court of Criminal Appeals. Many legal observers doubt that the charges - which are still pending - will stand, as they are based on the innocuous - and probably Constitutionally protected - delivery of a short letter to State office staff, asking for their votes. (King had not charged GOP Treasurer Kay Ivey for a fundraising letter sent to her office staff.) The relentless repetition of "investigation" and "possible charges" in the media, combined with a strong showing by Bob Riley at the top of the GOP ticket, proved more than Worley could handle. The significant shift in votes to the Republicans is shown in the map to the left, and Chapman beat Worley 57.6%-42.4%. Not only did Worley lose some swing counties she had carried in 2002, Chapman carried several counties considered part of the Democratic base, such as Lauderdale, Marion and Etowah.

If Chapman - pictured to the left - wait, wrong Beth Chapman, pictured to the right (not sure there's any improvement) - was so formidable a candidate in 2006, why is she vulnerable in 2010? Well, what goes around, comes around. This time, it is Chapman who can't seem to put one foot in front of another without crossing an actual ethical boundary. For starters, it emerged that, in her 2006 campaign, she put her teenage sons on the payroll at far above manual-labor rates to "distribute signs" and other material, allowing her to divert campaign funds to Chez Chapman. But it doesn't stop there. In 2008, an Associated Press story revealed that Chapman - who frequently refers to herself as a "full time" Secretary of State - is paid $50,000.00 a year by her "consulting firm." To most Alabamians, that sounds like a full-time salary. What's worse, her "consulting firm" counts among its (apparently few) clients a charity, Shelby County CASA, which gets funding from the State. State funding doled out by the administration of Bob Riley, of whom Chapman is a political ally. Although Chapman was not formally charged in these affairs, the stink lingers.

How has this played out among the chattering classes? Not very well. Consider the following editorial thunder about the lapses:
Chapman is cozying right up to the ethics wall, and she likely cracked a few bricks. But she dodged "official" sanction when the Alabama Ethics Commission voted 4-1 last week to close the complaint against her, finding there was insufficient evidence to take it further.

But Chapman should have known she was in the red-flag zone to begin with. It's not like she's unfamiliar with state policies or the ethics law, considering she served as state auditor before running for secretary of state. And if Chapman didn't know she was tip-toeing awfully close to the line, well, that tells us something, too.

* * *

This shows again that a public official doesn't have to do something illegal to do something wrong. Paying yourself and your family to work in your campaign months after the campaign is over is wrong.
Who came down on Chapman like a ton of bricks? One of the handful of Democratic-leaning newspapers, like The Decatur Daily or The Anniston Star? No, this condemnation came straight off the editorial page of the usually-Republican Birmingham News. Now, if the News stomps on Republican toes this hard, it tells us several things. First, the toes are connected to a true slimeball. Secondly, that even the News is going to be hard-pressed not to prominently feature issues about which it editorialized so strongly, when it runs stories on the race this year (not to mention the implications for its own endorsement). Thirdly, that the News's position can be used to leverage both editorial endorsements and favorable coverage from other media outlets.

It is management of free media coverage, probably more than anything, that is going to be the key to Gilliland's success vel non in this campaign. Chapman, more than any Republican on their statewide ticket, has set herself up for the same sort of death-by-a-thousand-cuts that she was able to inflict on Worley in 2006. If my name were Scott Gilliland, I would identify the beat reporter assigned to this race at every major newspaper in the state, (if not every daily), and at the AP in Montgomery, and have their numbers in my BlackBerry for at least weekly chats, feeding them a weekly diet of something newsworthy. I wouldn't be bashful about educating them (if they don't know) about Chapman's ethical lapses, and giving them juicy, quotable quotes. ("I will be an ethical Secretary of State," won't get quoted. "Beth Chapman is the Rod Blagojevich of Alabama politics," just might.) In a related vein, he should set up some organized group of 5-10 friends, relatives, supporters, or clients who owe him money, and get each of them to each email a letter to the editor a week to every paper in the state. These letters should not hesitate to rehash the dirt on Chapman. Even though only a percentage of such letters are printed, some will be, and the cumulative readership of the editorial pages of all Alabama newspapers is in the tens, if not scores, of thousands. And such readers are high-frequency voters. These letters will have the added impact of influencing editorial endorsements and the quantity and tenor of news coverage.

What both these ideas have in common - and I by no means think they are the only such ideas - is that they are almost cost-free to the Gilliland campaign. Most newspapers accept emailed letters, and copy+paste makes sending a letter to every paper a job of a few minutes a week. Leveraging resources in this way is another absolutely necessary step for Gilliland. As he is probably learning, this is not a race that gets well-bankrolled, even for an incumbent. Few interest groups, other than financial firms that mass-file UCC filings, have a vested interest in relationships with the Secretary of State. Gilliland will be hard pressed to match Chapman financially, as she is the darling of Tea Party types who will give her $100 a clip, so this leveraging is vital. Another resource (more political than financial) for which he can reach in this race are the Democratic probate judges, most of whom long for a Democratic Secretary of State. Probate judges have juice in their respective counties, and no one was ever hurt by having the local probate judge quoted in the local paper as being a supporter. Not to mention, it is rare that a probate judge can't give at least one valuable pointer about something in his or her county. Finally, Gilliland can probably benefit from linking Chapman to Bob Riley in Houston County, where his ongoing crusade against employment (see, "Country Crossing") has him extremely unpopular in that must-win county for a statewide Republican. To the extent Gilliland does expend financial resources - on signage, paid media, or whatever - he will have to focus on those counties that switched from blue to red between the two maps above - and take back the Democratic base.

To overcome Chapman's structural advantages, Gilliland is going to have to approach this race on an around-the-clock basis from this point forward. He's going to have to be willing to draw clear lines between himself and his ethically challenged opponent, and not hesitate to land as hard a punch as he can throw when her guard is down. If this is a contest between an all-positive Gilliland message and Chapman talking about her version of "God and Country," Gilliland won't win. If he can take the attack to Chapman, not only is a nice job in Montgomery waiting in January, there are likely to be term-limited constitutional officers in 2014 in both parties. Finally, he has one natural advantage: everyone roots for the underdog. This race is absolutely winnable.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Buck Stops Here

The other night, I decided it was well past time to re-read Merle Miller's classic Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. Trusty neat Dalwhinnie by my side (though Truman always preferred bourbon; he reportedly downed a shot every morning after his famous walks), I settled into the comfy chair and began turning pages, being reminded again what it means to be an American and a Democrat. The hour was late, and the day had been long. After a good hour of reading, my attention began to wander, and my vision didn't seem as sharp as it had been earlier - then I realized that there was someone standing in front of me.

I looked at my unexpected visitor. He didn't look quite ... right. When the lamp was behind him, the light shone, ever so slightly, through him. Still, he looked familiar. The jaunty bow tie, the gray flannel suit, the horn-rimmed glasses, straw boater in hand. No, I thought, it couldn't be ...

"Hello, son," said former President Harry S. Truman - or whatever remains of him.

I gave the glass of Dalwhinnie a glance. No, not even half gone.

I stuttered, "President ... Truman?"

HST: "Well, I am I guess I'm what you'd call his spirit. They have us all in some kind of holding place until Judgment Day. And let me tell you, not even a damn newspaper. They won't tell us a thing about what's going on back here on earth. So, I started ragging on St. Peter and every Archangel I saw, until they finally relented and told me I could come back and talk to one person about politics since I departed. And since I insisted on a Democrat, Peter gave me your address."

Publius: "Well, that's flattering. What do you want to know? You died in ..."

HST: "1972."

P: "Oh, wow. You have some catching up to do. I'll start with broad strokes, and you can ask me to fill in details. Nixon resigned before the Senate could complete impeachment proceedings."

HST: "Damn if I couldn't have seen that coming. So Agnew took over?"

P: "No, Gerald Ford. Agnew had to resign before Nixon did."

HST: "Figures. People want to talk about Democrats being corrupt, but you want to find a real crooked sonofabitch, you have to look for a Republican!"

P: "Anyhow, the next President, in '76, was Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a Democrat."

HST: "I figured it wouldn't take too much longer for a Southern president. But I don't know this Carter. I always figured someone like Dick Russell."

P: "After Carter, Ronald Reagan served two terms."

HST: "God. I thought he lost in '68 badly enough that he'd be stuck in California forever. Country would have been better off with his monkey co-star."

P: "And after him - sir, you remember Prescott Bush?"

HST: "Do I ever! We should have put that Nazi-dealing sonofabitch traitor on Alcatraz!"

P: "Indeed you should have. His son George was elected in '88."

HST: "Why didn't the newspapers raise hell about his family's Nazi dealings?"

P: "You got me there. The New York Times isn't the paper it was in your son-in-law's day. Anyhow, George Bush only served one term, and then we had two terms of a Democrat ..."

HST: "About damned time!"

P: "Bill Clinton of Arkansas. His VP was Al Gore, Jr."

HST: "Al Gore's boy? Damn, I remember when his pappy brought him by the White House - still in kiddie knickers, he was! Arkansas, eh? Good state, could almost be Lower Missouri, with the Ozarks and all. So how did this Clinton fellow do?"

P: "Well, the economy boomed, we had the first balanced budget in decades, and except for a few minor peacekeeping missions, no real war."

HST: "Stop. By my figures, this brings us to 2000, so I want to guess. Al Gore's boy was elected in a landsl ... what's that look on your face?"

P: "No, after a court fight over the election, the Supreme Court handed the White House to George W. Bush, Prescott's grandson, who served two terms."

HST: "What in hell were the American people thinking? Wait til I get back and tell Roosevelt what letting Prescott Bush off the hook got us! Well, I will predict this. How bad did this grandspawn screw things up?"

P: "Pretty badly. After a small bubble boom, the economy tanked, an Arab terrorist who killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington in one day remains uncaptured, and Bush got us into an elective war in Iraq, that we are still stuck in today."

HST: "What do you mean elective war? Hell, this guy killed 3,000 Americans. We didn't lose that many at Pearl Harbor, and by God, I showed them!"

P: "Indeed you did, sir. The trouble is, the attack didn't come from Iraq. It came out of Afghanistan. The government in Iraq was actually hostile to the attackers."

HST: "Horseshit! Even Eisenhower was smart enough not to invade the wrong country! People who've fought in a war - and I did, in my day - know you don't do that stupid stuff. Where the hell were the Democrats in all this?"

P: "Well, a lot of them ran for cover, afraid of looking unpatriotic. There wasn't a lot of opposition to it until near the end of Bush's term."

HST: "More horseshit! If a man doesn't hold his ground in the face of something that stupid, he doesn't need to be in the Congress! Or in politics! Damn sure not in the Democratic Party!"

P: "You aren't the only one who feels that way ..."

HST: "So. Up to 2008. If you tell me they put another damn fool Republican in, I am going straight to God himself when I get back, and tell him to pull the plug on the whole show!"

P: "Not to worry, sir. The winner in '08 was Barack Obama, from Illinois."

HST: "A rock what?"

P: "Barack Obama. The son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother. He was Senator from Illinois when he was elected."

HST: "He ... Kenya? You mean we elected a colored President? Hot damn! I told Lyndon Johnson if he'd keep pushing civil rights, good things would happen! So, how is this guy doing so far - I think it's 2010 by now?"

P: "Well, he inherited a serious recession, but managed to hold it steady with a compromise stimulus package he negotiated with the Republicans ..."

HST: "If Bush was all that bad, how do the Republicans control Congress again?"

P: "They don't. There are 59 Democrats in the Senate, and 253 in the House."

HST: "Then why in the HELL is this Obama negotiating with the Republicans?"

P: "It's just his style. He likes to try to do everything by consensus, including with the Republicans."

HST: "Ut-oh. I don't like the sound of this. That bastard Strom Thurmond is gonna tell me 'I told you so.'"

P: "Kinda my thought. Anyhow, Obama did manage to pass a health care reform bill."

HST: "Hot damn! Finally! [If you've never seen a spirit dance, it's quite a sight.] I tried that too, you know. So the good ole U-S-A has a national health care system like Britain's! I can't wait to see Churchill ..."

P: "Not exactly. Republicans had to be accommodated again, even though none of them voted for it in the end. It all has to go through for-profit insurance companies."

HST: "WHAT? He was making deals, and didn't even get votes in exchange?? This guy must be from Illinois. Hell, he sounds more like that chicken-liver Adlai Stevenson every minute! Someone better tell him the only way to win re-election is to fight, or he'll be a one-termer! Anyhow, enough about Washington. I always like to talk local politics when I travel, you find out more that way. I saw on the way in, we're in Alabama. What's going on here this year? I saw that fool Wallace come in a few years back, but he mostly hangs around with Strom, swapping lies."

P: "Well, I would tell you to read my blog ..."

HST: "Excuse me, your what?"

P: "Never mind. We have a Democrat named Sparks, the Agriculture Commissioner, and a state representative named Bentley, the Republican, running for governor.

HST: "Well, that should be a done deal. It's Alabama, and you got a Democrat who's won statewide. Son, you got that funny look again ..."

P: "It's just that a lot of the newspapers say Sparks doesn't have a chance. His issues are supposed to be unpopular, and the Republican is supposed to be a nice guy."

HST: "Damn what the newspapers say. I think you remember a certain picture of me having the laugh of my life at the expense of those bastards at The Chicago Daily Tribune, don't you?

P: "Yes, sir."

HST: "So tell me about this Sparks fellow. A Democrat, kind of in the Big Jim Folsom mold?"

P: "In a lot of ways. He's real folksy, not from a wealthy family or anything. Speaks his mind, plain and simple."

HST: "Hell, I like him already. Any Democrat who puts the little fella first is going to do OK in November. Any one that tries to pussy-foot around with Wall Street is going to get screwed over. Like I said, 'Give the voters a choice between a real Republican and a fake one running as a Democrat, and they'll take the real one every time.' Folsom knew that, that's why I remember he paved all those farm roads, and built new schools out in the country. And when your Alabama Republicans start hollering about "big government" and "socialism," you tell them to either unplug themselves from TVA electricity or shut the hell up. So, with what kind of issues are the damn Republicans trying to distract the voters from their real Wall Street agenda?"

P: "Well, Sparks supports a lottery and bingo to support college scholarships and education, and they're trying to make a big religious issue out of it."

HST: "Figures. Only the Republicans would be opposed to a work force and voters who are educated. Religious? Who are they getting against something that sensible?"

P: "Well, a lot of the Baptist leadership are against him because of it."

HST: "Baptist?? Hell, I'm a Baptist! And there wasn't a thing wrong with those friendly penny-ante poker games I had in the White House! There's not a thing in the Bible that bans a little recreational gambling! Those lying bastards! You wait til I get back up there, I am going to have a meeting with the Man Himself about this ...

At this point, the Presidential spectre flung his straw boater wildly across the room. While it missed me, the tabletop holding my Dalwhinnie wasn't so fortunate. I began to reach over to try to catch it as the hat struck, and became aware that I was in danger of tipping over ... I started to try to right myself, and as I flinched at the possible fall, I blinked ...

And blinked again, as my head jerked upright. Bright sunshine filled the room, and the sound of traffic on the street announced the start of another day. A few ominous signs of stiffness warned of the consequences of sleeping in a chair. What. A. Dream. I looked down and to my right, and saw, with sadness, what looked like about a half-finger's worth of fine Scotch still soaked into the carpet. And just the other side of it, a straw boater.

I confess to being unapologetically Southern WASP in manner and dress. I own a seersucker suit. I own the white buck shoes to go with it. But I have never owned a straw boater.

Until now.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Autopsy Report - The Career of Bradley Byrne

Truthfully? This one was over when Baldwin County reported its results, and favorite son Bradley Byrne had only 51.9% of the vote there. (Only a nominal improvement over his 46.9% there in the primary.) When neighboring Mobile only gave him 51.3%, the champagne corks started popping at the Bentley victory party at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The final chapter in one of the most implausible nomination stories in recent decades may take awhile to sort out, but the unofficial returns offer enough information to make some early conclusions. Let's go to the map to look at how the GOP gubernatorial runoff played out geographically, with the map of the June 1 primary below it for comparison purposes. The first thing that sticks out is that Bentley's strongest vote in the runoff came from those counties where he led the ticket in the first primary, including a whopping 86.1% in Tuscaloosa. Byrne's support, likewise, was strongest in those areas where he led the ticket in the first round. As I noted in analyzing those results before, the fingerprints of the GOP establishment are visible even on this simple a graphic rendition. Byrne's largest area of support, geographically, came from the establishment's base along I-85, including the home turf of Boss Mike Hubbard in Auburn. Byrne's support in the more historically Republican I-65 corridor faded a bit in the runoff, as he made only slight gains in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, and saw Bentley pass him in the critical GOP bastions of Autauga and Shelby Counties. Byrne's weak increases in his share of the total were also reflected in those counties carried by James and Moore in the first primary, most of which went to Bentley in the runoff.

There are two principal models for how Bentley won out there in the chattering classes and on the coffee circuit. The first posits that Bentley has greater appeal to moderates and independents, and that their greater role in the runoff electorate was decisive. The second posits that Bentley primarily won by getting James and Moore voters to switch to him in the runoff. The comparison of the two maps makes this look plausible, but there are more precise ways to test from currently available data.

First, let's compare turnout (expressed as a percentage of all registered voters casting votes) in the GOP runoff, with the percentage of the county vote obtained by Bentley:

This is almost a perfect shotgun-spread pattern, reflecting virtually no correlation. This is reflected by the computer-generated trendline, which is not quite parallel to the X axis, but close. The received wisdom in this race was that GOP insiders and regulars favored Byrne, and that larger turnout, which made them a smaller share of the voting pool, would benefit Bentley. To test this a little further, let's look at the correlation of the increase/decrease in turnout, with the increase in Bentley's share of the vote. (As expected, Bentley did not lose vote share in any county.)

As the descending trendline indicates, there was actually a tendency for Bentley's increase in vote share to be less in those counties where the turnout increased. What this all seems to indicate is that increasing the universe of voters in the runoff, at the county level, clearly gave Bentley no advantage, and arguably hurt him. This seems to weigh heavily against the idea that Bentley's showing came from reaching out to independents (or Democrats) whose presence would have pushed turnout upward in a given county.

One near-corollary of the "larger voter universe" theory was that Democrats, particularly those inspired by AEA, would skew the race in Bentley's favor, and any number of pundits and blog commentors, on both sides of the AEA fence, have stated this as a self-evident decisive fact. Do the numbers bear this out? Not really. Let's take a look at Bentley's take in a few select counties.

CountyBentleyBentley %ByrneByrne %

Some of these counties have heavily black populations. All share, in common, a strong Democratic voting history. If a Democratic/AEA "sneak attack" were going to show up anywhere, it would be in those counties where organized GOTV mechanisms of the ADC and New South Coalition are in place, especially in light of the interlocking leadership of AEA and the ADC. But we simply don't see that in the above table. Neither, though this would be less probative due to other variables, do we see it in the more racially balanced counties in the table. Note also the extremely low overall vote in Macon County, which would not be that low if the invasion had materialized.

This is not to say that AEA did not have a tremendous, even decisive, impact. It did. But the data don't support a conclusion that it was effected by flooding the GOP polling places with members. Rather, the AEA impact came in its massive spending - at least $1,500,000.00, and probably much more when all the reports are in - on ads blasting Byrne.

Most negative paid media is primarily intended to persuade voters who are expected to vote. (Though there is some data showing it has a beneficial effect to the employer, in depressing the target's turnout, or in increasing the user's turnout.) The ads rolled out by AEA-backed PACs were certainly of the persuasive variety. Typical, and best-known of the bunch, was the famous "windvane" ad that accused Byrne of believing in evolution, and being uncertain about whether every word of the Bible is literally true:

What kind of effect did this have? Let's go back to the numbers. Specifically, let's look at Bentley's share of the vote in the runoff, as correlated with two data sets: the percentage of James's vote in the June 1 primary, and Moore's vote on the same day:

Hopefully, the computer-generated trendlines help make this data a little more clear. What we see here is a reasonably strong correlation between Moore's share of the primary vote and Bentley's share of the runoff pie. Perhaps a little surprisingly, we see a negative correlation between the James vote and the Bentley runoff tallies. In the immediate aftermath of the primary, most observers reckoned that James voters, angry about the slugfest they'd endured with Byrne in the primary, would trend toward Bentley. However, as the recount process initiated by James moved forward, reports began to emerge of friction between James and Bentley supporters as they tussled over the second runoff spot. Perhaps this bad blood spilled over into the runoff results. Another relevant factor is the diversity of the counties in which James led in the primary. A look at the June 1 map above will recall that his counties were well spread across the state. Many were in or near the Black Belt, are sparsely populated, and have GOP primaries that are even more sparsely attended. Some were more substantial, such as Lauderdale County, where Bentley did well with 56.1%. While the correlation is pretty solid, this diversity of location and size may overstate the significance of the negative correlation if one is not careful.

Yet it is with the Moore primary voters that the AEA media buy probably had its greatest effect. At the risk of oversimplifying, a Moore voter will go out of her way to tell you that evolution is rubbish, and the Bible is literally true. A James voter would say the same thing, but would probably need to be asked. The James voter would be much more likely to take a sip of his post-lawnmowing cold beer while answering your question; the Moore voter has an existential crisis on realizing there was a splash of rum in the Christmas fruitcake. The ads' focus on Byrne's Episcopalian lapses from Alabama orthodoxy would have resonated much more with Moore than with James voters. (Though there were doubtless a few of that sort in the James camp.) No one doubts the savvy of AEA's political shop, and this exact effect was probably no accident. Indeed, it was very likely the result of one of Dr. Johnson's carefully crafted message-testing polls.

This is a Democratic blog, and I have so far spent this entire post in the dismal universe of Republican swampland. Emerging, like Dante on Easter morning, to the brighter light of things Democratic, let's take a minute to think about what this all means about the prospects of our next Governor, Ron Sparks. It is not by accident that I refer to him as "next Governor" after all of these statistical meanderings. Because if I see anything from all this deconstruction of the Republican runoff tallies, it is that we do have a clear path to victory this November. The official GOP Party Line, as was emerging on the pages of The Birmingham News before Bradley Byrne's political body was cold, is that Bentley is a moderate, folksy character who can reach across party lines, dooming the Democrats to another gubernatorial defeat. What I hope you have seen, gentle reader, is that Bentley's runoff win came from a rearrangement of the same old furniture within the Republican house. It's a rearrangement that leaves many disenchanted James (and a few Byrne) supporters, especially of the less religious-fanatic variety, open to a Democratic message of regulated, taxed gaming as an alternative to higher taxes. More important, for all the GOP spin about buzz and excitement in their runoff, turnout in that non-event fell from the 19.0% of the primary, to a paltry 15.9% in the runoff. Even in Bentley's native Tuscaloosa County, with all the excitement generated by his showing in the primary, and the political viability conferred by it, turnout only rose from 16.2% in the primary to 19.0% in the runoff, and his gross vote increased by a mere 6,632 - not a lot for one's "hometown urban base" at the height of one's buzz. Thus, the Republican hard core who voted Tuesday are far outnumbered by the Democratic base and independents who didn't join that runoff. And therein lies the way to Democratic victory.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How Many Members of Congress Does Hoover Need?

It is amazing what facts get lost in the hustle and bustle leading up to an election.

Geography, for instance.

Come with me, if you will, to the quiet, suburban streets of Hoover, Alabama. There, we find street after street of cookie-cutter homes, and manicured lawns. We find none of the problems one has to encounter if one lives in the 7th Congressional District, in places like Ensley, Bessemer, Greensboro, or Eutaw. No poverty. No unsightly substandard homes. No unemployed men and women hanging around on the corner, because there are no jobs to look for. We find nice homes, here, like this one:

This nice home, located at 6053 Waterside Drive in Hoover, is just the sort of home respectable people live in. They live there to have respectable neighbors, not the riffraff you'd be living next to in other parts of the county. In fact, Waterside Drive is in an exclusive gated community, so that all that riffraff can't just wander in off the street and do all the things we know they want to do in nice neighborhoods. For the most part, the nice neighbors here are respectable Republican neighbors. After all, this nice house at 6053 Waterside Drive is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Republican Spence Bachus, since it's in his 6th District. It's represented in the Alabama House of Representatives by Republican Paul DeMarco. In the Alabama Senate, it is currently represented by GOP Senator Hank Erwin, but fellow Republican Cam Ward will take over that seat in January. And of course, since it's in Hoover, the mayor is former Republican legislator Tony Petelos. Let's look at these fine, Republican gentlemen:

Yes, they all look like nice, safe neighbors. Not like "those people" you'd have to live next to in, say, the 7th Congressional District. Well, maybe Spence looks like he needs a Rolaids, and that Petelos guy looks a little too Greek, but, hey, he's Republican, so he must be OK. So who owns this nice, safe, gated house in Hoover? Well, the nice lady who does is trying not to be seen there these days. She has an apartment over on Third Avenue North in Birmingham, in the 7th Congressional District. Why on earth, you ask, does she need an apartment in such a dangerous part of town (close to them!), when she owns this nice, safe suburban home behind a gate? Well, it seems she's running for Congress from that 7th Congressional District. Yes, boys and girls, 6053 Waterside Drive in Hoover is the home of Congressional candidate Terri Sewell.

Now, I know what you are going to say. It is clearly set out in U.S. Const., Art. I § 2, that:

No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen.
I know. Nothing in there about residing in the district. And I know Sewell claims to be a resident of the 7th District, in her downtown apartment. But let's see, who does the whole I-live-in-an-apartment-downtown shtick remind us of? Oh, yeah. Him. Funny, when Larry Langford was running for mayor, The Birmingham News ran any number of stories on whether Langford's apartment was his bona fide residence. We read about his multi-room NFL cable package in his Fairfield home, and about the lack of basic amenities in his Birmingham apartment. But, a search conducted for any articles at containing the words "Sewell," "apartment," and "residence," turns up no articles on Sewell's home in Hoover. Of course, the News has endorsed Sewell, and it opposed Langford at almost every step of his political career. While it appears that history will be none too kind to Langford, what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.

Neither is Ms. Sewell apparently ready to burn her gated community bridges behind her. She continues to own her home in Hoover, and while several homes on her street are listed in the Birmingham MLS as for sale, hers is not among them. Of course, in 2008, when Ms. Sewell wanted to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, she claimed 6053 Waterside Drive in Hoover, in the GOP 6th Congressional District, as her residence. I can understand that; there weren't nearly as many people in Republican Country who wanted to be Democratic Convention delegates, so the running was easier. Is Ms. Sewell legally a resident of the 6th or the 7th Congressional District? I don't know. Only a court can make that determination. And, as I noted above, district residency is not a requirement for election to Congress; the only way a court could become involved would be if she were prosecuted for illegally voting in the wrong precinct (including, presumably, for herself). Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but if it does, let's hope a high powered former Wall Street lawyer like her knew not to keep a toothbrush in Hoover.

Where that residence can, and does, make a difference is in Sewell's image of herself, and that has a lot to tell us about her ability to empathize with, and relate to, the residents of the 7th Congressional District. Ms. Sewell did not grow up in poverty. Her parents were both public schoolteachers (as were mine). While not wealthy, schoolteachers in Alabama were no longer skipping meals by the time Ms. Sewell came along. (Thank you, AEA.) She spent several years as a partner in a Wall Street law firm where per-partner profits were well over a million dollars a year. She is now a partner in one of the most elite law firms in Alabama - perhaps the most elite. Her choice of home was certainly not constrained by her income. No longer married to anyone with an interesting history, she need not worry about the size of the home or yard.

Now, I realize that Birmingham has not reached the critical mass of a black upper class, so as to have historic black upper-class neighborhoods, like Atlanta's Collier Heights, or newer such areas in other parts of that city. But it does have decent neighborhoods in predominantly black areas, and it certainly has excellent housing available in more urban settings. My issues with Artur Davis, the departing Congressman from this district, are well known. His choice of residence - currently on Fifth Avenue South in the heart of Birmingham's Southside, his only residence in Alabama - is not one of them. Barack Obama, though his wife's income could have made a mortgage payment anywhere in Chicago, moved onto the South Side.

Sewell's first instinct was to move into a home where her next door neighbor could be - and likely listens to - Glenn Beck. That simply doesn't communicate to me care or concern for the sort of folks she will be called on to represent if she is lucky enough to win election. Should a person of color be precluded from living anywhere he or she can meet the mortgage payment? Of course not. They should even have the right to remove themselves behind gated fences. But representative democracy has at its root a presumption of a community of interest between constituent and representative. Spencer Bachus has a lot in common with the residents of Waterside Drive in Hoover, and his voting record shows that he reflects those interests well. If and when Sewell has to cast votes on financial reform and job creation, will her instincts be those of Tuxedo Junction, or those of the brokers and bankers on Waterside Drive? Hoover has one of its own in Congress. It doesn't need another.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Random Thoughts Before the Runoff

There's less than a week to go before the July 13 runoff, and a few recent developments in the news have caught my eye. Normally, I prefer providing perspective to reporting developments, but these new facts do have places in analyses I have previously made. The fact that they all bear on runoff races mean they won't be timely after next Tuesday, so here goes.

The GOP Gubernatorial Runoff. As I predicted - and ironically suggested - Byrne has pulled out the stops, hitting Bentley with attack ads based on Bentley's alleged links to AEA. There are two such ads up, and both seem to be getting a pretty decent GRP buy:

It is amusing the way the Byrne ads gratuitously toss in Dr. Reed's photo to make sure Bubba knows that Bentley is in cahoots with "them." This is straight out of the Guy Hunt 1990 playbook, where GOP ads also liberally showed Dr. Reed. I wonder how Republican admakers will telegraph race when Dr. Reed retires at AEA? In any event, Bentley is now feeling the sting of negative for the first time, and that will have to have some impact. AEA doesn't get a strong reaction from mainstream voters, but it is loathed by party activists, who will constitute a larger portion of the runoff electorate. The Riley quote, in case you hadn't yet heard it, underscores how heavily the GOP establishment is rallying behind Byrne. Bentley also suffered a minor self-inflicted wound from his own ad, which arguably exaggerated his Vietnam-era war record.

[SEE CORRECTION AT END OF POST] On the other hand, there has been an interesting development out of Tuscaloosa County, as reported this week by The Tuscaloosa News. It seems that, since the June 1 primary, the voter rolls in Tuscaloosa County have been fattened by over 10,000 new names, an increase of roughly 10% in just a few weeks. This is an astronomical registration surge in such a short time. The most logical explanation is that Bentley's strong primary showing created a sensation of viability, that has awakened favorite-son interest in his candidacy. If there is that kind of excitement on the ground in the Druid City, Bentley can only benefit, as the GOP primary turnout in Tuscaloosa was an anemic 16.2%. While there is some conflicting data and analysis in the literature, it seems to be the better view that recent registrants turn out at higher levels than typical voters, particularly when their registration is keyed to a particular event or current election. This, of course, would be the case with any new voters drawn to Bentley as Tuscaloosa's favorite son. One key question, not addressed in the News article, is whether this is the result of a spontaneous groundswell of Bentley support, or of a concerted GOTV field operation. If the former, it's a truly remarkable phenomenon. If the latter, less so, but still significant. It's not that difficult to register voters; all you need is some basic information on a postcard. Even if this is the result of a field operation, it's still a good sign for Bentley. The low turnout in Tuscaloosa in the primary indicates that Bentley did not have a good GOTV op there in the first round. Just the outreach necessary to get 10,000 postcards filled out is going to create a buzz, and that can boost turnout Tuesday. Maybe the Doc got something more for his money (paid to Huckabee's son in law) than just the endorsement.

Just how important is a bloc of votes that size? Well, considering that Byrne's margin over Bentley in the primary was only 13,772 votes, and overall turnout is usually lower in runoffs, it's potentially significant. From another perspective, extrapolating the most recent GOP gubernatorial runoff turnout (15.4% from 1998) to current active registration figures, produces a potential turnout of about 388,000. Since you would only need half of that to win, or about 194,000, that could be a big block. In any event, the polarity of the break, and the turnout, of the former James and Moore vote, will probably have a more decisive impact than the Tuscaloosa surge. But if the race becomes close, everyone will be waiting on the AP report from Greensboro Avenue.

Considering the potential impact of the Moore and James votes, the two runoff candidates seem to be focusing most of their face time in the closing weeks in counties in which they led in the primary, apparently placing a premium on turnout over persuasion.

One poll released late this week, and being touted by the Bentley camp, shows him with a 20% lead over Byrne. I have frequently cautioned about the reliability of primary polls, and this one has more problems than most. It doesn't specify the contact method (robocall vs. live caller), and they are using data from recent primaries in 2008 and 2006 to adjust for turnout. This is not a sound practice, as neither of those primaries was a runoff, and neither featured a contested gubernatorial race. Finally, the poll admits that it outsources its sample list. This is the polling equivalent of buying a car from a maker that admits it buys its engines from an outside supplier. I still think it comes down to turnout. If turnout is low, party insiders deliver it to Byrne. If enough non-insiders show up, it breaks to Bentley. For what it is worth in that department, Tuesday's forecast for Birmingham, which seems to be typical for the state:

July 13

Scattered T-Storms
Scattered T-Storms

High 90°
Low 74°

Precipitation 40%

7th Congressional District Runoff. One of the rules of being a candidate is, that when an organization has endorsed you, and set up a debate between you and your opponent, it's not a good idea to stand up the event, and let it be turned into a rally for your opponent, in front of your endorsers. As Terri Sewell did last week at a Birmingham New South debate. For a campaign that dropped a money bomb on the district for a first place finish in the primary, the Sewell team is doing some strange things this close to the runoff. For one thing, the candidate was working the canapé circuit in Mountain Brook as recently as Tuesday night of this week. Normally, a slower finance event like this, this close to D-Day, would indicate a campaign with an empty piggy bank. If not that, one with a strange sense of candidate time utilization. With so little time left to connect to voters, a candidate's time is normally better spent working a Piggly Wiggly parking lot or a Little League crowd. Sewell strikes me as the sort of candidate who would much prefer canapés in Mountain Brook to pressing the flesh (think John Kerry), and it may be that her staff simply didn't get its druthers. Look for some second guessing if Smoot's frenzied crowd-working pays off and she edges Sewell.

Attorney General Democratic Runoff. This has been a relatively quiet campaign, with both candidates making interesting and progressive statements about the death penalty. Perkins's more forceful call for a moratorium hasn't gotten a lot of play in the mainstream media, but there are rumblings that it's been noted - and appreciated - in the black community. Anderson, for his part, has not gone full throttle for the runoff, apparently wanting to save cash on hand and untapped donors for a fall contest with "Big Oil" Luther Strange. Given that the Business Council will finance Strange handsomely, this is not an irrational strategy. Perkins will doubtless close the substantial gap between himself and Anderson, but Anderson should emerge the winner, with his campaign treasury undepleted by runoff expenses.

The deadlines for registration and non-emergency absentee voting are past, so all that remains to remember is 7A to 7 P, and show up and vote.

CORRECTION: Just a few minutes ago, I got an email response to an inquiry I made about the extent of the Brantley ground effort in Tuscaloosa County. It seems The Tuscaloosa News printed a correction this morning, acknowledging that the report of 10,000 new voters there since the primary was an error. I can't find the correction on their website, but I did snag a visual from their front page at

Now, I don't want to make accusations while the facts are out, but that's a pretty big "error." More importantly, the original story, linked above, quoted this Viselli person responding to why there was such a huge increase. Now, even if the reporter made an honest mistake (as the correction claims), surely Ms. Viselli knew the 10,000 figure was wrong. I think I'd notice the difference in processing one application every other day, and about 330 every working day. This report generated a lot of political buzz across Alabama, favorable to Bentley, and the retraction isn't even online. Either Ms. Viselli, the News, or both, need to come forth with a better explanation. As for Bentley's chances, my earlier analysis premised on a better Tuscaloosa turnout is obviously invalid. And if only 24 new voters appeared in Tuscaloosa since Bentley's campaign gained the appearance of viability in the primary, there's no reason to think turnout will be any better in Tuscaloosa than it was in the first round. I don't know if Paul the World Cup Octopus is making a prediction in the GOP runoff, but I think he just swam a few inches further from the Bentley flag.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Conventional Stupidity: The 4th Congressional District

The other day, I vented for a few minutes about the “Conventional Wisdom” as it pertains to the Fifth Congressional District. Actually, I vented for a lot longer than that; I just quit typing before I wrote something about the exponents of “Conventional Wisdom” that might get me in legal trouble. Today, I am going to tempt the fates again, and talk about how “Conventional Wisdom” has inflicted long-standing Republican control on a fundamentally Democratic Congressional district. Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt by the DCCC, that can avoid a similar episode of incompetence in the Fifth this year.

As the title gives away, I am talking about the Alabama Fourth District. This district has been held since the 1996 election by Republican Robert Aderholt of Haleyville. Aderholt is noted for being one of the most reliable votes in the GOP Caucus, so much so that he has failed, time and again, to bargain for goodies for his constituents. Indeed, he has frequently voted them out of a job, as with his deciding vote favor of CAFTA in 2005 that spelled the end of literally thousands of hosiery mill jobs in Fort Payne, that were lost to Central American competition. Whatever caused the change in hairlines in the two photos here (the one on the left, from his first campaign; the other current), it wasn’t from excessive activity underneath.

Because Aderholt was allowed to become entrenched in this district, it is widely viewed, especially among the Beltway-genius crowd, as one of the most reliably Republican districts in the country. This reputation is bolstered when, as this year, no Democrat qualifies for the contest. However, the district is Republican in the first place because that same Beltway Conventional Wisdom became a self-fulfilling prophecy in 1996. Before that year, the district had been held for 30 years by Democratic legend Tom Bevill of Walker County. Bevill had reclaimed the seat for the Democrats after its one term in GOP hands after the 1964 Goldwater surge in Alabama. Prior to that one term, the seat had been Democratic since 1901, and even that one-term Republican interval was occasioned by GOP control of the Congress, which seated Republican William Aldrich (as in Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller) under questionable circumstances.

Bevill was a master of the appropriations process, and spent all but the last of his last several terms as chair of the House Public Works Appropriations Subcommittee, the best seat in Congress for bringing bacon back home to the district. Aderholt, by contrast, strikes most observers as an acquiescent bobble-head who can’t find sufficient words to reassure the Republican leadership, and a Republican president when he has one, that he is their most reliable team player. Bevill was a genius at leveraging either issue concessions, or benefits for his district, by hinting that he was getting a lot of heat from his constituents about a bill, and might have to vote against it. (All without sacrificing core Democratic values.) Not so Aderholt. A district accustomed to considerable largess under Bevill has become one of the doormats of Federal appropriations as a result. Bevill’s mastery of the process is exemplified by a speech I recall at his district retirement dinner in his hometown in 1996. One of the speakers was a Corps of Engineers representative, who said she stopped a local policeman to ask for directions to “The Bevill Center,” the venue for the dinner. The cop scratched his head and asked her, “Which one?”

One reason this district is said to be permanently Republican is its voting history since Aderholt was elected in 1996. Now, for the strength to resist calling expositors of Conventional Wisdom what they really, truly are. The district is “Republican” because Aderholt has averaged 67.7% in his seven elections to the seat. Yet, when Aderholt first sought the seat, Bevill had averaged 91.7% in his last seven elections. This graph shows the relative strengths of the two in their last seven elections:

The point of my gripe - no, my fury - is that, in 1996, Democratic nominee, former State Senator Bob Wilson of Walker County, was denied funds from the DCCC (a nominal media buy that had been promised was pulled in favor of “more competitive” districts) on the basis that the district was “too Republican” for the DCCC to “waste” scarce resources - despite the fact its then-recent voting history was more Democratic than the now-Republican history used to write it off. This was being done while the national Republican Party, through PACs, party committees, and guided contributions, was channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars that cycle to Aderholt to take the seat. It is bad enough when such nonsense is propagated by Beltway punditry, but when it originates in the campaign offices of the Democratic Party, one wonders if a treason investigation isn’t merited. After Wilson, two strong Democratic candidates contested the seat before Aderholt could plant deep roots - Don Bevill, the former Congressman’s son, in 1998, and Marsha Folsom, the wife of Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom (then the former Governor) in 2000. Both had entered the race with promises of national party support, which, in both cases, was not forthcoming. Conventional Wisdom, you see, again said the seat was “too Republican.”

And I can hear the New Jersey-American accents pointing out to me, that “tings have changed,” that voters in the Fourth will “no longer vote for a Democrat in the age of Kerry and Obama.” Obama, personally, I concede, is a problem. The racial voting polarization was extreme in this district which, with only a 5.1% black vote, is Alabama’s whitest. Obama got 23.7% in DeKalb County, 21.3% in Marshall, and only 16.7% in Cullman. Overall, McCain got 76.2% of the district’s vote. (But since Bush only got 60.2% in 2000, it may be safe to assume the size of that margin is attributable to racial, not political, factors.) Neither have other Democratic Presidential candidates fared well in the district. However, one appears to be disqualified from status as a DC pundit if one knows that, especially in the South, GOP Presidential voting patterns are not always followed downballot. This is empirically established by the following table, which aggregates the 2006 party votes for those districts in the Alabama House of Representatives which are fully nested within the Fourth District:

PartySeats HeldTotal Vote% Vote

Without taking time to likewise tally courthouse offices, anyone with enough familiarity with the district to have an opinion worthy of audience, knows that the county offices in this District are overwhelmingly Democratic. In fact, Democrats control the majority, if not all, of the courthouse offices except in historically Republican Winston County (a county whose Republicanism dates to Abe Lincoln; it attempted to secede from the state during the Civil War). Even in Marshall County, where Republican trends have been strongest in the district, Democrats still control the sheriff’s office and the probate court, two traditional local power centers. So, I don’t care if your name is “Cook,” or “Rothenberg,” or “Kowalski.” If you try to tell me that this district will not vote for any Democrat downballot because it votes Republican in Presidential elections, I am not paying the $200-$300+ a year you charge for your insider “knowledge.” I can put the cash to better use.

Wow, that felt better. And I managed to say what I wanted without using any of what Dennis the Menace called his dad’s “golf words.” Which leaves me in enough of a charitable and relaxed mood to observe that the performance of the DCCC in Southern districts has notably improved, as shown by their heavy presence in the Alabama Fifth in 2008. (I sense the gentle nudge of the boot of Howard Dean, implementing his successful 50-State Strategy over the objection of Conventional Wisdom insiders, who remain convinced we can elect a President and Congress with only New York and New Jersey.) So long as the Party maintains this 50-State Strategy, this district will be less of a challenge, even in Presidential years. When it was lost in 1996, the Clinton-Gore media buy in Alabama was exactly zero; Clinton lost the state by 6.9%. Had that margin been trimmed by a couple of points by some negative on Dole, this district would probably have still been Democratic today. Perhaps, when this district comes open, there will be some enlightened staffer who will realize the pickup opportunity this district represents.

And that day may not be far off. Rumors keep bubbling around the district - though never covered by the media - that Aderholt is looking for a parachute, preferably golden. Of course, there were more parachutes when there was a Republican in the White House, but the tales persist. (One wonders if the Obama political shop is sufficiently astute to see the possibility of something like the appointment of John McHugh, the Republican from the New York 23rd, as Secretary of the Army. Probably not. That appointment caused a special that elected that district’s first Democrat in 150 years.) It may be that Aderholt is waiting to see if the GOP can take the House back this time. A review of Aderholt’s May 12 FEC report shows that, through that date in this cycle, he has not made a single contribution to a candidate of his own party, and isn’t engaging in the sort of fundraising that intraparty support requires. That is not the behavior of a Congressman who wants to hang around, and thereby must grease the rails of his career advancement on the Hill. (And even I refuse to attribute that course entirely to his naïveté.) A smart local politician, or clever DCCC staffer, will keep one peeled eye on this district at all times.

In the meantime - and I almost dare not ask it - is this district winnable before Aderholt tires of life on the Potomac? The local voting fundamentals say yes, but realism dictates skepticism. Had the DCCC of 1998-2000 been on the ball, it was easily doable. Today, Aderholt has spoken, as the incumbent, at a lot of Rotary lunches and high school graduations. Many Congressional “statements” advocating heterosexuality, private ownership of automatic weapons, and the birth of unwanted babies, have been duly “reported” in local newspapers. A lot of voters over the age of 60 in 1996, who would remember what an effective Congressman can do, are no longer among the living. Still. It’s a little more than “a fella can hope, can’t he?” A close look at the voting trends above show that Aderholt has not performed particularly brilliantly against token, if noble, opposition. A review of returns in his, and other, races, indicates that the district has about a 25% straight-Democratic-ticket voting cohort; not bad for a 91% white Southern district. The overall trend of Aderholt’s vote share is downward (though it will rise with no opponent this cycle). A review of his expenditures this cycle reflects a lack of spending discipline, and a lot of funds expended for items of questionable political benefit. (e.g., repeated “staff lunches” at Ruth’s Chris Steak House; Ribeye, $37.00. Baked potato? $8.00 extra.) His cash on hand on May 12 was only $345,409.00, which, even by House standards, isn’t going to get him in the Richard Shelby Impervious Wall of Cash Club. Perhaps most importantly, he has issue vulnerabilities (see, 4,000 unemployed Fort Payne sock mill workers, supra), that could be exploited by an opponent.

Of course, a successful challenge presumes a successful challenger. I have some names in mind, but various more pressing political issues preclude me from dropping them. You know who you are, and when and if the opportunity presents itself, I will gleefully extol your viability to the world. In the meantime, a few thoughts about such a candidate. He or she will need some pre-existing name recognition, whether from politics, business, or elsewhere, simply to overcome Aderholt’s structural advantages as an incumbent. This race is going to require a lot of money to win. At a minimum, it requires media buys in the Huntsville and Birmingham television markets, and generally, Columbus, Mississippi. The candidate will need either the ability to self-finance, or an ironclad commitment from the DCCC, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. (A third possibility is some “Fairy Godmother” donor base, such as the Brown schoolmates who did so much to boost Josh Segall’s campaign in 2008, or Terri Sewell’s tap of her Princeton and Harvard Law buddies.) The balance could be raised once some negative goes up on Aderholt, and challenger viability is established. On issues, the candidate will need to be able to articulate the damage done to the pocketbooks of the district’s rural and small-city blue collar workers by Aderholt’s Republican non-ideas, with relentless discipline and ruthlessness. The task is not impossible, only arduous. But then, we are meant to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows. Unless, of course, we are Republicans.