Woodville, Ala., is not much to look at.
That statement is not intended to be pejorative, just frankly observational — and, at that, only as it relates to what urban planners call “the built environment.” Some small towns are quaint. Historic buildings, well-tended streetscapes, perhaps a dedicated public square. Alabama has more than its share of such picturesque places. Our state is sprinkled liberally — and yes, that word is used advisedly — with beautiful little communities that evoke a steadfast American ideal of village life, Southern Living-style.
Woodville is not quaint, and certainly not an apparent prospect for a glossy magazine spread. Its civic district — the town hall, the post office, the fire department, the FNB Bank and, perhaps foremost, Nita’s Mini-Market — is a rough cluster of low-slung structures of varying vintage. Collectively, they occupy three of the four angles formed by the intersection of Alabama Highway 35 and Jackson County Road 8. A few hundred feet north, on the other side of a residential area, is the public library, situated with its back to the neighborhood and the main highway and regarded from across the narrow street by a stolid row of a half-dozen small commercial buildings.
Between the library and the homes nearby runs a single railroad track. Snaking into Woodville from the northwest by way of southwest, the Norfolk Southern line straightens as it passes through town, and then mostly parallels 35 for the 15 miles to the county seat at Scottsboro. In a makeshift park — a concrete table and benches at one end of a long, narrow swath of undeveloped space planted with trees and shrubs — a short block north of the track, the sign posted next to an austere gazebo advises that this is the “Site of the Woodville Depot Mid 1850s.” Clearly, the train hasn’t stopped here for a while.
In that sense, Woodville looks pretty much like what it is: A tiny American town (pop. 761) struggling with the same existential questions as most other tiny towns, from sea to shining sea, in these uncertain times. If a visit of a few hours on a gray March morning is any indication, it is populated with a great many hard-working people who love their community, take care of their own and are — prudently, and with not inconsiderable justification — wary of those who would make judgments based purely on appearances or assign guilt purely by association.
Digging a hole
All of these qualities have been tested of late, as Woodville has received some unwelcome attention from around Alabama and the nation. This attention has come to Woodville through no fault of its own, though it has come as a result of certain statements made by one of its own, the duly elected state senator from Alabama’s 8th District, Shadrack McGill.
A Republican serving his first term in any elective office, the 36-year-old McGill was swept into office in 2010 on the tide of virulent anti-incumbency that was the apparent high-water mark of the Tea Party. McGill introduced several bills during his first legislative session last year, and is the sponsor of nine items on the agenda of the current session, which began in February. The flagship of his legislative flotilla is SB20, which if enacted will prohibit insurance companies in Alabama from providing coverage for elective — or, as McGill has termed them, “premeditated” — abortions. The young senator has not been reticent in making his fellow lawmakers aware of his views on abortion, as in a letter he sent them while several pro-life bills were being debated on the Senate floor.
If we fail to pass legislation that reduces the number of abortions in this state, McGill’s letter declared, then I believe the blood of those children will be on our hands.
It was not his favored issue, however, that led McGill into controversy. That started in late January, when he spoke at a prayer breakfast in Fort Payne. During a rambling response to a question about the public corruption trials then about to resume in Montgomery’s federal courthouse, McGill defended the salaries of state legislators, who make $49,500 annually — a part-time salary that is nearly $7,500 more than Alabama’s median household income and greater than one-third again the Jackson County median of $36,310 — saying that higher pay makes legislators less likely to take bribes. He then cited “Biblical principle” to argue against pay raises for teachers — the average teacher salary in Alabama is about $46,500 — saying that a higher pay scale would “attract people who aren’t called to teach.”
McGill’s comments caused a furor of sufficient magnitude to cause the devoutly Christian senator to say more than once that he felt “crucified” by the media’s coverage of it. The evening before Valentine’s Day, McGill spoke at a community forum in the Madison County town of Gurley, where a reporter in attendance offered him the opportunity to clarify his previous comments. Instead, as shown in a video taken at the meeting and posted on the political blog “Left in Alabama,” McGill dug himself a deeper hole.
As before, it was McGill’s propensity for rambling that led him astray. After 10 minutes of prevaricating on his stance on teacher pay, he began to talk about his pro-life bill. His office had received only one phone call about the bill, McGill lamented, while “thousands and thousands” of calls had come from people who were concerned more about “money than morality.” A woman in the audience asked if this might not indicate that voters were more interested in addressing economic issues and solving the state budget crisis than in outlawing abortion.
“Not necessarily,” McGill replied. “They could be less educated.” As he went on to explain, he essentially meant that they had not come to share his view that “no other issue we have dealt with nor will deal with…is as important” as abortion.
But that’s not what it sounded like. And in politics, as Shadrack McGill is learning the hard way, what it sounds like is often more important than what it is.
On the record, sort of
“It’s embarrassing,” said a woman I spoke to as she entered the Public Library with her young grandson in tow. Along with about 30 other kids and numerous mothers, grandmas and aunts, they were at the library for the weekly preschool reading day, having driven over from nearby Paint Rock. Letting the little boy walk on inside, the woman agreed to talk about her state senator, provided I wouldn’t identify her by name.
“I’m a very religious person, but his views are just not right,” she told me, adding that, “He just doesn’t have the experience for this office. I voted for him, but I won’t again.” At the library and, later, among the lunchtime clientele over at Nita’s, almost every comment is a variation on this theme, uniformly uttered with a sense of wistful resignation.
“He’s gonna be a one-term senator,” one man declared flatly. “That’s pretty much what folks around here are saying. People knew him, but they didn’t know what kind of senator they were getting. A lot of folks was just checking that Republican box.”
“He needs to get out in public, find out what our needs are,” a woman said. “He’s been in office for over a year, and we never see him. We always saw Senator Barron a good bit, but we don’t see Shad. I don’t know if it would help him now, but he needs to realize that maybe he ought to worry more about what we think and less about telling us what he wants us to think.”
In the course of a half-dozen or so conversations, two distinct themes developed. First, with only a couple of exceptions, everyone was willing to share their thoughts and opinions — as long as they remained anonymous. There was a palpable sense of embarrassment at the scrutiny their townsman has brought upon them, but it became clear that the embarrassment was as much for their senator as for themselves and their town. This was directly related to the second theme, which was that no one seems to think that Shad McGill is a bad person. Quite the contrary.
“He’s a good man,” said an older lady who claimed to know McGill and his family well. “But he has some things that I just don’t agree with. You don’t force your view on me and I won’t force mine on you. That’s what America is.”
“There’s several of us around here grew up with him,” a 40ish-looking man in a faded denim ball cap offered. “He’s a nice fellow. I hate it for him, but I’m not real sure he should be down there in the first place.”
Another contemporary of McGill’s said categorically that the views the senator expressed were “not in line” with hers or those of most of his constituents. Still, she added, she “felt bad” for McGill, not least for his apparent inability to know when to shut up.
“Shad’s a sweet guy,” this woman said. “He’s got a beautiful, loving family. I think most people really do think a lot of him. He just made a mistake. Then he just kept making it worse.
“But do I want to see him re-elected? Oh, no.”
“…an odd night”
Notwithstanding the anti-incumbent fervor of 2010, McGill’s election to the Alabama Senate rates as one of the greatest upsets in the state’s depressingly colorful political history. McGill defeated Lowell Barron, a Democrat from the DeKalb County town of Fyffe who had represented District 8 — which in addition to all of Jackson and most of DeKalb includes eastern Madison County (suburban Huntsville) — since 1982.
During seven terms in Montgomery, Barron had become an entrenched Democratic power broker and one of the most powerful politicians in Montgomery. Over the next three decades, as Republicans slowly gained and consolidated a dominant hold on Alabama politics, they made Barron one of the poster boys of Democratic profligacy. Even so, he never faced a serious threat to re-election, and didn’t seem to have a reason for undue concern over the challenge by a political neophyte from Woodville.
Then came election night. McGill defeated Barron by just over 600 votes, out of more than 40,000 cast. The result stunned everyone, from veteran political observers in the local media to the candidates themselves. Ken Bonner is the managing editor of the Daily Sentinel, which covers Jackson County from its offices in Scottsboro. He was sitting in the conference room at the paper that night as reporters called in results from the county courthouse; as the numbers from the Senate race came in, Bonner began to realize it was going to be close.
“It was an odd night,” Bonner told me while seated in that same conference room. “I think everybody that had anything to with it thought Barron would win by six to 10 points. Certainly Barron and the Democrats had no idea. They didn’t see it coming and we didn’t either.
“He didn’t carry Jackson County,” Bonner continued, “but it was closer than anyone expected. We saw that, and we started getting some of the returns out of Madison County, and I said to somebody, ‘That sucker’s gonna win!’”
Bonner related another odd thing about McGill’s win: The defeat of a Democratic icon was achieved by a candidate who, Bonner states, “basically did not campaign publicly.” Without coming right out and saying so, the newspaperman suggested that the McGill campaign was, at least in the beginning, a put-up job, run totally out of Montgomery. It certainly seems feasible that the McGill candidacy was conceived as nothing more than a nuisance to Barron and that the national political atmosphere made it possible for the young Republican, in a vote that Bonner assessed as “not so much for him as against the incumbent,” to be turned into an accidental winner.
None of which, in all likelihood would have mattered all that much if the new senator had gone to Montgomery with an agenda that included a) more listening than talking, and b) an inkling of the issues that are important to his constituents. Bonner summed up what seems to be the general feeling in a column that appeared in the February 15 edition of the Daily Sentinel. Under the headline “Is Shadrack McGill in over his head?” the editor took the senator gently but firmly to task, urging him to “push his own agenda to the back burner and put the people’s concerns first.”
Give McGill credit for one thing, Bonner wrote, he is consistent in his message. He doesn’t shy away from his position that abortion is murder, that corruption has been rampant in Montgomery for many years and that it’s time for a change in how the state does the business of government. That consistency, the passion and fervor he possesses shows he has backbone.
But for his positives, McGill may still be in over his head. Kind of like a bobber on a fishing line, you wonder when or if he’ll go under for good.
“Do his constituents believe like he does?” Bonner repeated a question I asked him not long before concluding our interview. “To a degree. If you poll them on abortion, for instance, they’re going to be mostly pro-life. But that battle has already been fought in most people’s minds. They think their representatives should be focused on things that make a difference in their lives, not something the Supreme Court decided 40 years ago.”
Will Shadrack Listen?
What are those things that would make a difference in the lives of the people of Woodville, Jackson County and all of Senate District 8? The February 29 edition of The Clarion, a weekly newspaper also published in Scottsboro, featured all of the candidates for the Jackson County Commission answering the same set of questions. The first question: What do you consider to be the number one issue in Jackson County right now…?
Of the 21 commission candidates, 18 gave responses that either included the word “jobs” or were related to employment and the economy. The other responses mentioned inadequate public services, underfunded schools, bad roads, the potential for a county budget deficit and, perhaps pointedly, “Jackson County’s image and lack of leadership and professionalism.” None mentioned abortion.
Given McGill’s willful disconnect on the issues, and the apparent inclination of his friends, neighbors and other constituents to vote him out at the next opportunity, what is left but to wait? Or, with more than two years left on his term — and assuming he even wants to run for re-election after a quadrennium in the barrel — is there anything he can do to get back in the political good graces of people who think he’s a nice guy but a terrible representative? Ken Bonner doesn’t think so, but sees the opportunity for McGill to achieve something nevertheless.
“Can he win? Yes,” Bonner mused. “What are the odds? Not good. Can he become an effective legislator if he will begin to listen? Maybe. He hasn’t asked my advice, but I think that’s what he should shoot for.”
More Questions than Answers
And what of Woodville, where the only thing really the matter is the 21st century and the multitude of questions it brings for the small towns that once were the nation’s backbone and now are struggling to survive in a changing world. How do you generate sustainable growth and promote the general welfare — that last clause is from that famous crypto-socialist manifesto, the United States Constitution — in an isolated corner of one of the piss-poorest states in the Union in the ever-evolving economy of the 21st century? More immediately, how do you secure jobs for your citizens and maintain the tax base you need to pay for education and provide other basic public services?
Or, to put it in political terms, how do you meet the needs of the people? What are the best and highest uses of public dollars, and of the time and efforts of elected representatives at all levels of government? What do we as citizens have the right to expect from those we choose to represent us?
And, given the state of Alabama politics for the entirety of our existence to date, perhaps a final, overarching question is in order: What’s the matter with us?
Matt Hooper contributed reporting to this story.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.