You know what’s bad? It’s bad to live in a state where George Wallace was governor, and to understand that George Wallace is not the worst governor Alabama ever had. Nor is he the second-worst. Nor…
This is a little piece of pithiness I’ve been having a sort of grim fun with since roughly about 1988 (for those interested in history, that’s about two years after Wallace completed his fourth and final term as governor). Its durability is reliant on that unfortunate ellipsis and the implication it carries: That, nearly 30 years since his retirement from public life, the man best known for promising “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” is no longer even the third-worst chief executive we’ve had, or the fourth-worst, or…
Admittedly, that assertion is a matter of at least some subjectivity. Some — but not nearly all. The incidence of subservience to special interests, gross incompetence and outright political malevolence has only accelerated over the years, making the notion of strong leadership from the governor’s office — and good government in general — an ever-receding goal line, a mirage in the desert of low expectations and lower achievement in which Alabama has wandered leaderless for generations.
For those keeping score, let us make a quick review. How many governors have been, on balance, worse for Alabama than Wallace? Leaving aside for the moment — and only for the moment — our current governor, of the other men — and one woman — who served in the 50-plus years since Wallace won his first term, I count at least three.
That number rises to four if you count the Fob James of his first, disastrous term (1979-83) and the Fob James of his second, even more disastrous term (1995-99) as two different Fob Jameses. This is plausible if we recall that James was a Democrat the first time he was elected and a Republican the second — if nothing else, an equal-opportunity distributor of misery. At least he was never convicted of a felony.
Which is better than can be said of Guy Hunt (governor from 1987-93), the first Republican since Reconstruction to be elected governor, to be re-elected as governor, and to be forced to resign the governor’s office in disgrace. Or of Don Siegelman, the last great hope of the Democratic Party in Alabama, who was convicted on corruption charges nearly four years after completing his single term as governor (1999-2003), and now is serving a six-and-a-half year sentence in federal prison. Each has defenders, but it’s hard to argue that being found guilty of crimes against the public trust does anything but harm to Alabama and its people.
Beyond those hard and fast entries in our Worse than George Wallace Sweepstakes, I will leave it to the reader to ponder the relative merits — and undeniable demerits — of Jim Folsom Jr. (1993-95) and Bob Riley (2003-2011). Not that either did much to improve the life of the average Alabamian, let alone to uplift the multitudes of Alabamians who continue to reap the bitter fruits of our endemic inadequacies and inequities. But being better than George Wallace is a pretty low bar to clear.
Which brings us to the present and future resident of the Governor’s Mansion. Unless something as crazy as the once-in-a-millennium chain of events that elected the Republican Hunt a quarter-century ago happens, Bentley is going to win a second term in November. To date, he has occasionally been within shouting distance of mediocrity, though from all appearances, it’s not been often enough or near enough for mediocrity to feel obliged to acknowledge him.
Mostly, Bentley has been terrible. Especially if you’re very young or very old, disabled and/or chronically ill, non-white, or living near or below poverty level — or any combination of any or, God help you, all of the above — he is not proving to be the doctor that, according to his campaign theme in 2010, Alabama needed. Bentley has rubber-stamped ill-advised regressive legislation on such matters as immigration policy and education, while Alabama has languished at 49th in the nation in job growth.
Bentley also has refused to expand Alabama’s Medicaid system to accommodate implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. One result has been cutbacks in medical services available to poor and underserved populations, including the closure of several hospitals across the state.
The only sliver of hope that the governor’s callous, politically motivated disregard for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians with inadequate access to basic healthcare is that, having established his anti-Obama bona fides sufficiently to assure his re-election in blood-red Alabama, he will be free to fashion a way to accept the $1 billion plus in federal largesse that will fund 90 percent of the Medicaid expansion.
Actually, I’m told that Bentley seems to be leaning toward pursuing an alternative to Medicaid expansion that Arkansas is in the process of implementing, and for which both Pennsylvania and Iowa are seeking federal approval. Essentially, the alternative is for the state to accept federal funding equivalent to what would be its Medicaid expansion cost, and instead use those funds to purchase insurance for every qualified resident from private insurers.
Of course, even if it works out, the problem with this is that, assuming Bentley wins in November, it’s probably after his inauguration in January 2015 that he moves to put the alternative in place. According to someone with knowledge of the federal approval process, implementing the plan will take at least a year, and possibly as much as 18 months. That means that, at best, “universal” healthcare will come to Alabama sometime in 2016 — an interval of six years in which some number of people will have died as a direct result of the governor’s inaction.
Still, Dr. Bentley has graciously offered himself for another term, which the voters of Alabama appear inclined to grant him. And who knows? Maybe he will feel liberated, emboldened to redeem himself for the anguish he has caused so many of Alabama’s poor and downtrodden over the past four years. That doesn’t seem likely, but if more of those poor and downtrodden can afford to see a doctor when they need to before he leaves office for good, then Bentley might turn out to be better than Wallace after all. Otherwise, he will bid fair for the title of the worst governor in our history.
And the ellipsis will remain. And my long-toothed little joke will grow ever grimmer.