The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
If this doesn’t wake some people up, I don’t know what will.
Congressional Quarterly’s Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper since 1955 now published on the Web, named the Alabama Democratic Party as the most dysfunctional state party in the nation this week.
How did the mainstream newspaper bloggers in my home state react?
There was no surprise down in Montgomery on South Union Street, but not much in the way of insight either.
Since I’ve been thinking about this story for several months, perhaps I should weigh in with a few comments today. I am not finished talked to people about what’s really going on with the political situation here. But I think I can offer a few constructive thoughts.
For starters, I was just perplexed when Mark Kennedy, the unpaid volunteer Democratic party chair, walked away from the party and started the Alabama Democratic Majority a few months back. I did not comment on it right away because I wanted to wait and let a little time pass and talk to a number of the folks involved before writing about it.
I have yet to hear back from Kennedy, who has refused to get in touch with me to talk about what’s going on. I honestly do not know what he’s thinking, except for what I see on Facebook and in the pathetic back and forth blogging from the state’s so-called mainstream Newhouse and Gannet chain newspapers.
But I did have an interesting talk with acting state chair Nancy Worley last week at the Magnolia Cafe off of Cahaba Road and Highway 280 south of Birmingham at the Friday lunch put on by the Over The Mountain Democrats.
It has now become obvious that Kennedy, the paid party executive director Bradley Davidson and former state campaign chair for Obama’s campaign, Leanne Townsend, had been planning to walk away from the party to start something new for some time before the budget meeting where Kennedy and Joe Reed got into it.
According to key sources, the state party’s fund raising Website had already been disabled months before the April meeting when the visible split occurred. Members of the Over the Mountain Democrats had tried to make donations, but got nothing but error messages. When they tried to report it, they were given the cold shoulder.
When I talked to Townsend, who pretty obviously really didn’t want to talk to me or be transparent about what was going on, it was obvious from what she said that she was ready to bolt the party because the executive committee would not approve keeping her on the payroll in the new office set up by Kennedy and Davidson in Birmingham — without the approval of the committee.
News reports have focused on the new carpet and other expenses approved by Kennedy to set up the new office, while the party was a half a million dollars in debt and nearly bankrupt, barely able to pay rent and utilities in the office in Montgomery.
I had offered a way to help raise money for the Democratic Party online, and Kennedy had said on many occasions that he was interested in trying it, but he never came through. I still don’t know if that’s because the executive committee would not approve the money for a Web ad, as Townsend contends, or if the committee had no opportunity to approve it because it was kept in the dark by Kennedy and Davidson as Ms. Worley contends.
An inside source and key party official who walked away along with Kennedy told me that Joe Reed talked to Kennedy “like he was a dog” in that April meeting, but Ms. Worley says it was Kennedy who instigated the fight and refused to bow to any oversight on the part of the executive committee, which everybody who is anybody knows is stacked with Joe Reed loyalists from the Alabama Education Association, the professional association always bashed as a “special interest” union by the state’s newspapers.
Because Kennedy has refused to talk to me, I’m not even sure this new Democratic Majority is even a legal non-profit organization with paperwork filed at the IRS. Kennedy has been quoted as saying it is not a PAC. So what is it beyond a Facebook page and a way to raise money the old fashioned way and enhance the reputation and name recognition of Mark Kennedy for a possible future run for governor or other statewide office?
The stated goals are to “defeat the Republican supermajority in Montgomery,” to “fight back on photo ID” laws, to “change the electorate by registering thousands of voters,” to “build a long-term movement,” and to “work smarter.”
All worthy goals, but also just political platitudes. It remains to be seen if this will go anywhere. I wish them luck, because I would not like to see the tea party, corporate Republicans and religious nuts run all three branches of government here into the ground for another decade. But I’m afraid this plan just doesn’t have enough meat in it to prevent that.
Kennedy claims he is not running for anything. But don’t all politicians say that until they can get other interested parties to draft them into running?
The state’s newspapers have had many a field day over the past few years making fun of Democrats, even to the point of reacting with glee at seeing some of them go to jail. That includes former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford, and the last educated urban Democrat who could unite the party’s many factions. Former Governor Don Siegelman, who was hailed by Howell Raines at the New York Times and others as Alabama’s first New South governor, still sits in prison due to a prosecution back during the Bush years that just about everybody who is anybody admits was a “political prosecution,” orchestrated by Republicans willing to abuse the court system to get rid of a competitive opponent.
In the absence of a similar candidate and leader who can unite urban progressives, rural Yellow Dogs, organized labor and the environmental community, the party may not win any elections until at least 2020.
Long time readers may recall that I interviewed a sociologist back in 2008 about the prospects for a Democrat like Artur Davis to become the first African-American governor here. Jim Gundlach, a retired Auburn Sociology professor, harbors a special fascination for the “age” variable in public opinion research, mainly for the story it tells on an issue like public attitudes on race and the chances of electing African-American candidates to national and statewide office.
He ran the model on Obama’s candidacy before the 2008 election and predicted that the best he could possibly do in a national race was to win by about 7 percent, if he ran a flawless campaign and the other side stumbled (can you say Sarah Palin?). Obama hit the number right on the nail head, winning by 7 percentage points nationally in the popular vote.
But when he ran the same model in Alabama, what he found was that the state is at least 10 to 12 years away from fighting the final battle of the Civil War on the race issue. That means enough of the old racists here will have died off by 2020 for a more progressive majority to potentially emerge.
Now when I first moved back to Birmingham about eight years ago after many years of being away and working in other states, I helped set up a meeting of a number of activist groups on Birmingham’s Southside. They were stressed because of events in the world, and concerned about the war in Iraq at the time. They were also distressed at the complete takeover of the country by corporate Republicans like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who were more than willing to exploit religion in a hypocritical strategy to win elections.
My advice to them at the time? The real progressive Democrats in Alabama — and there are many, in spite of the false picture painted by the corporate media institutions here — should unite and figure out a way to take over the Democratic Party and rewrite the platform, like the conservative, religious wing of the Republican Party took it over in the 1980s.
Mark Kennedy was not at that meeting, and I don’t think he had ever even heard of me or this Website before he emerged as the party chair a few years ago. In my dealings with him, I came to like Kennedy personally. I even interviewed him for the most definitive story and video ever produced on how Karl Rove and the Business Council took over the court system in this state.
But if the goal is going to be just trying to elect more conservatives under the Democratic Party banner, like the failed campaign of Penny Bailey against Republican Spencer Bachus in 2012, then any bookmaker would rate the chances of success incredibly low.
If all the progressive groups in this state want to bring about change before 2020, they should look back at Siegelman’s career. There are lessons to be learned there.
Siegelman was an attractive, white male from the city with an Oxford education who could make a speech to any group and come off as intelligent and sympathetic. He not only got the support of state employees, teachers, Yellow Dogs, Blue Dogs, and many rank and file union members who tend to be conservative on some issues. I remember him mostly for showing up at every town hall public meeting in every environmental fight in this state from the original passage of the Forever Wild land conservation legislation to the fight over pollution in the Cahaba River that led to a new sewer system that now has Jefferson County bankrupt.
Langford is in jail today because he listened to the environmentalists complaining about raw sewage in the river and Lake Purdy, where Birmingham’s drinking water comes from, and for listening to the same bankers who nearly bankrupted Ireland and Greece. Why the Birmingham News never told that story is a mystery to me, except that apparently they sold lots of newspapers to white racists in the suburbs for years by making fun of the black mayor of Birmingham.
I even interviewed Siegelman for the New York Times down in New Orleans back in 2002 and he came out for an alternative to incineration at the Anniston Army Depot, although as it turned out, it was too late.
I watched the Democrat Ron Sparks go down in flames in the race for governor in 2010, while ignoring a powerful backdrop that could have put his campaign over the top down on the Gulf Coast.
While that campaign was faltering, the people on the Gulf Coast were going out of business and getting sick from the oil and chemicals unleashed by the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon. The whole time I was thinking to myself, why doesn’t Sparks go down to Gulf Shores, invite the newspapers and television news crews to go with him, and make a speech on the beach talking about the damage caused by unregulated corporations because of Republican rule? That might have been a winning campaign.
When I brought this up in my conversation with Ms. Worley, she indicated even Democratic candidates are too dependent on corporations in this state like Alabama Power and too afraid to run that kind of a campaign. My response was, so they get some of the same money as Republicans, like money from the power companies and trial lawyers, only to lose the race and control of all three branches of government in this state?
This makes no sense.
So let me offer a little suggestion here for anyone who might be paying attention. This goes for the dying newspapers as well as the dysfunctional Democrats.
There are a couple of major issues gaining a large public following in this state right now that are not being covered by the newspapers or talked about by Democrats or Republicans.
There are more people on the Web and on Facebook right now keeping up with an attempt to frack for natural gas in our national forests and to ship tar sands crude to the Gulf Coast by the Canadian National Railroad than are keeping up with what the Democratic Majority or the Democratic Party are doing, by far.
If you want to tap into a large army on the Web who might carry you over the top in an election, check out these two ongoing stories.
If the Democrats continue to hide from these issues of concern to the public, they have no chance to win elections in 2014. Period.
Urban democrats these days are all pretty much united in their concern for the environment in this country and in this state. They will not vote for some yeahaw rural conservative, Republican or Democrat.
In fact, professional environmentalism is probably the fastest growing occupation in this state. There are more non-profit environmental groups than you can shake a stick at all over the state. They are not radical environmentalists, as they have been portrayed by an upstart Republican blogger who has been retained by the power companies and coal companies to try to save coal mining jobs.
They are social networking savvy professionals who are concerned about the future, and most of them want to be Democrats. But without a standard bearer who understands this who can unite them in a political fight, they have no place to turn in the political system or the government.
The Republicans are far too far to the right and controlled by big corporate money and religious institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention to ever really get onboard to stop fracking or tar sands crude. They might go along with a water management plan, and they might like their birding too.
But they are never going to stand up in the biggest fight we all face now like President Obama recently did: The fight to save the planet from the ravages of climate change due to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels.
Even the national unions are getting onboard the green jobs issue, realizing that is the key to our future economy as well as our health and the environment.
The local unions may not quite be there yet, since their rank and file members tend to vote against their own economic self-interest.
But give them time and they will be — if the Republicans don’t destroy the unions and take away their pensions and retirement plans along with their livelihoods before they wake up.
If the Democrats want to make a comeback in this state, this is the only blueprint that will do it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’ll bet a case of Good People Snake Handler on that.
Let me say it again to be clear. You can’t win elections unless you talk about the environmental issues of concern to a lot more people in this state than those who keep up with Alabama politics. You can’t build a business model just focusing on politics in this state because most people just think both parties are corrupt and incompetent anyway. They long ago stopped paying attention.
If somebody were to start talking about the real concerns of people, the issues, instead of just putting forward political platitudes about trying to beat the Republicans, people might start paying attention.
But let’s face facts. Democrats also can’t win in this state by relying on the traditional media outlets, because let’s face it, they are not your friends and never will be. The media in Alabama as an institution is as responsible for our problems as any other institution in this state. We must build the economy for an alternative, independent Web Press here too like they’re doing around the country. That is as critical to our future as registering voters and talking about beating the Republicans.
© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.